Live-blogging the IRE 2012 Conference in Boston: Resources that will help you be a better investigative journalist

IRE 2012 Conference in BostonThe classic stereotype about journalists is that we’re all backstabbing vultures who would sell our mothers for a good story.

Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, we only sell our mothers for really, really good stories. But more importantly, we’re actually an amazingly friendly, collaborative bunch.

I’m in Boston where more than 1,000 people are trading tips, offering advice and learning from the best journalists around at this year’s Investigative Reporters and Editors conference.

This is the place to be if you’ve ever wondered, say, how Washington Post reporters figured out the complexities of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. You get to listen to the actual reporters who worked on the story. They’re essentially saying, “Here’s how we did it, and here are some tips we learned to help you work on the same kind of story.” It’s a goldmine for anyone who cares about journalism and wants to do it better.

These conferences generate a treasure trove of tipsheets that help journalists investigate just about any topic. I’ll be updating this post over the next few days with some of the more interesting links and resources I come across at the conference. Feel free to chat me up or contact me if there’s something you want to include.

Jun 29, 2012: 2:13 pm

Missed a panel at the IRE 2012 Conference in Boston? Tipsheets for members are available at IRE’s website. Yet another reason to join IRE.

Next year’s conference is in San Antonio, and we’re already talking about upcoming panels, speakers and events. Contact me if you have any ideas.

Thanks for a great time in Boston and hope to see you next year.

Jun 22, 2012: 10:39 am

Jun 21, 2012: 7:53 am

Dan Russell, Google

Dan Russell, Google

How to solve impossible problems: Daniel Russell’s awesome Google search techniques.

Jun 17, 2012: 9:09 pm

Tips on Twitter (via Katie Foody’s awesome Storify collection of tips from the IRE conference):

Jun 17, 2012: 5:08 am

Jun 16, 2012: 9:25 pm

Jun 16, 2012: 4:23 pm

TipsheetsOne “downside” about IRE conferences is you wind up amassing more great ideas and tipsheets than you know what to do with. How do you keep track of everything, and not forget an insight that might be useful months from now?

You might want to create your own tip sheet, or handbook, that you can use throughout your journalism career.

  • Use Google Docs, Word, a spreadsheet, or whatever format that’s easiest for you.
  • Organize it by topic, such as “People Finders” or “Campaign Finance.”
  • Under each topic, link to useful websites, and plug in your notes of the insights you learned at the conference.
  • My handbook is old and needs to be pruned. But you can see how it works. If I want to do a thorough job backgrounding someone, I go to the “Backgrounding” section of my handbook and start going down the list of things to check — licensing files, marriage licenses, etc.

    Any time you come across a resource you think might come in handy, add it to your handbook. You might need it tomorrow — or a year from now.

    Jun 16, 2012: 3:38 pm

    Jun 16, 2012: 1:28 pm

    Panel videos: IRE is posting videos of some panels at its latakoo page. Panels include tips for investigating businesses and a conversation about the state of the media after the News Corp. phone hacking scandal.

    Jun 16, 2012: 9:16 am

    Alison Young, USA Today, and James Neff, Seattle Times

    Alison Young, USA Today, and James Neff, Seattle Times

    Archives and historical documents can be powerful tools for journalists, even on deadline.

    “It’s been my secret weapon,” said James Neff, investigations editor at the Seattle Times.

    Some cool resources:

  • Sanborn fire insurance maps: These old maps offer rich historical details about buildings and neighborhoods. “They were like Google Streetview back in the day,” said Alison Young of USA Today, who relied on the maps for her project, “Ghost Factories.”

    Regional collections of the maps are often available at local libraries, historical societies and universities.

  • Online Public Archives: A sweeping search of presidential archives and other holdings of the U.S. National Archives. “This is what I would consider one of the top tools,” Neff said.
  • Finding guides: Used to find pertinent material, finding guides are sometimes posted online, or archives will send them to you. Check out WorldCat, a library catalogue that includes 50,000 finding guides. “It’s the largest online library catalogue in the world,” Neff said.
  • Jun 16, 2012: 7:20 am

    Check out the story behind the story of Craig Harris’ investigation of Arizona pension funds. Great stuff.

    Jun 15, 2012: 4:46 pm

    Duff Wilson, Reuters

    Duff Wilson, Reuters

    Resources used by Duff Wilson of Reuters for his investigation of the food industry and its lobbying against stricter health standards for children.

  • Influence Explorer: An overview of campaign finance, lobbying, earmark, contractor misconduct and federal spending data.
  • Open Secrets: Campaign-finance data broken down by industry.
  • National Institute on Money in State Politics.
  • Federal Election Commission: For contributions at the federal level.
  • Secretary of the Senate: For lobbying reports.
  • Jun 15, 2012: 11:44 am

    Tips from Sara Ganim, reporter for the Patriot-News, who broke the Jerry Sandusky scandal:

  • When looking for a job ask: “What kind of journalists are you going to be working for?” Is this a newsroom that will allow you to spend a lot of time on investigative stories? When the Patriot-News hired her, Ganim’s bosses recognized they had a big story on their hands, cut her loose from her beat duties, and encouraged her to do what she had to do.
    “You wouldn’t find that in every newsroom,” Ganim said.
  • Social media was NO help at first for the Sandusky story. Ganim had to rely on the old-school methods of knocking on doors. But when Sandusky was arrested, the newspaper “did a 180″ and started using Twitter all the time.

    “Twitter is a really great way to stay in touch with your readers,” Ganim said. At Joe Paterno’s public memorial service, people on Twitter were asking her questions, guiding her to things to look for. “I found it incredibly helpful,” she said. “It’s a good gauge of what your readers want to know.”

  • Try to give readers what no one else is giving them. When the news about the sexual assault charges broke, “AP was kicking our butt. They were getting all this great information, what Penn State was doing. My boss was freaking out.”

    Ganim didn’t want to rehash what the Associated Press was reporting — she argued with her boss that they needed to go back to their sources, the parents of the victims, to get their reaction. No one else could do that.

    “That’s really how we were able to stay ahead,” Ganim said.

  • Jun 15, 2012: 11:09 am

    Investigating Power: A vast video archive of interviews with investigative journalists — several of whom are speaking right now at the IRE Conference.

    Jun 15, 2012: 10:18 am

    Tips on Twitter:

    Jun 15, 2012: 8:33 am

    Greg LeRoy, Good Jobs First

    Greg LeRoy, Good Jobs First

    Local communities are spending billions of dollars in tax subsidies to lure companies in the hope of getting more jobs and economic development. But the subsidies are often based on dubious claims and consultants’ studies that reporters should be checking.

    The irony is that corporate subsidies erode the tax base for public schools — one of the things that actually does bolster economic development.

    A few tips offered by panelists Daniel Connolly, Jim Heaney, Greg LeRoy and David Cay Johnston:

  • Don’t rely solely on claims made by the company, the government agency, or their economic studies, which are often paid for by the people who want the subsidy. Figure out the true cost of the subsidy.

    “Develop data,” said Heaney. “This is absolutely essential. You’ve got to go to the agency and ferret out all the costs. And most projects get multiple subsidies.”

  • Subsidy Tracker: Search a database of companies that receive government subsidies.
  • Is the subsidy for a retail store? It’s probably not necessary. The jobs are usually low-paying; there’s a glut of retail space in the United States; and these companies are often simply moving from on location to another in the same region.
  • Read the enabling legislation and the fine print. Connolly found a one-sided deal in which the government agency agreed not to enforce a clawback provision to get the subsidy back if the company failed to provide all the promised jobs.
  • Delve into the job numbers. Are these full-time or part-time jobs? Low-income jobs?
  • Figure out the benchmarks. What is the cost of the subsidy per job? Some deals, such as a data center for Verizon, came out to a couple million dollars per job. People relate to that kind of comparison.
  • Jun 15, 2012: 6:31 am

    Keli Rabon, KMGH-Denver

    Keli Rabon, KMGH-Denver

    Data on deadline: Keli Rabon and Stephen Brock put together this list of handy databases you can use for breaking-news stories. “Be ready before breaking news hits,” Brock said at the panel “CAR under pressure.” “Practice the data.”

    interesting websites from the presentation:

  • Geofeedia: Type in a location and get pictures and social media posts from people in that area. Great for breaking news.
  • Open Status Search: Search public Facebook updates without logging into Facebook.
  • Safer Products: Search consumer complaints and government recalls regarding thousands of consumer products on this website published by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
  • Jun 14, 2012: 4:07 pm

    Demystifying Web scraping: Ted Han and Sean Sposito’s Google Docs presentation. Nifty.

    Jun 14, 2012: 3:47 pm

    Tips on Twitter:

    Jun 14, 2012: 3:15 pm

    Anthony DeBarros, USA Today

    Anthony DeBarros, USA Today

    Google Doc presentation of free computer-assisted reporting tools: Download a list of free resources discussed by Anthony DeBarros of USA Today and Matt Stiles of NPR.

    Jun 14, 2012: 3:04 pm

    Gannett Tumblr: Gannett journalists are covering the conference at “Gannett @ IRE. Great posts, pictures and videos.

    Jun 14, 2012: 2:56 pm

    Interactive wind map: Amazing map of wind patterns in the United States. “We hadn’t visualized wind before and hadn’t realized its power,” said Google’s Martin Wattenberg, who helped create the map by marshaling government data.

    Jun 14, 2012: 12:38 pm

    Panel tip: Get the records retention schedule.

    From the Department of Things Reporters Should Really Be Doing A Whole Lot More Often, this tip comes from Ellen Gabler.

    “I love teaching people about asking for data,” said Gabler this morning at “The ask: Requesting and negotiating for data.” To know what to ask for, you have to know what exists.

    “Ask agencies for their records retention schedule,” Gabler said. This gives you a complete list of every type of document kept by the agency, which can point you to interesting records and databases.

    Jun 14, 2012: 12:13 pm

    Panel Tip: Create a data log.

    Steve Doig and Elizabeth Lucas offered this gem at the “Taming monstrous datasets” panel.

    When you analyze data, the queries can get really complicated. You might be doing some queries, crunch some numbers, and move on to the next part of the story. Then, weeks or months later when it’s time to publish and you’re bulletproofing those figures, an editor is going to ask how you came up with them. “You need to be able to answer that,” Doig said.

    The solution is keeping a log of your work. It’s tedious, Lucas said, but it’s worth the trouble. When you turn in numbers for a story, attach a log documenting your process.

    “An audit trail is absolutely essential,” Doig said.

    Jun 14, 2012: 11:59 am

  • Muckety: Maps relationships between powerful people and organizations.
  • Muse: Useful tool for analyzing email archives.
  • 30 free tools for data visualizations and analysis: Handy, sortable chart of free tools.
  • Jun 14, 2012: 10:37 am

  • Aviation Wildlife Strikes Database: Federal Aviation Administration data that tracks incidents involving birds and even deer that are struck by aircraft.
  • NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System: Tracks reports of safety concerns raised anonymously by pilots.
  • Jun 14, 2012: 10:00 am

  • Scout from the Sunlight Foundation: Get alerts emailed to you whenever Congress or state lawmakers discuss an issue you care about. It’s like Google alerts based on official government records. Free.
  • Follow the Money: Free workshop from the Reynolds Center about tracking companies’ influence on politics.
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