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

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.

Jul 1, 2013: 8:32 am

Daniel Russell, research master at Google
Daniel Russell, research master at Google

More awesome search tips from Google expert Daniel Russell, with real-world examples.

Jun 24, 2013: 12:07 pm

Creative ways to find sources:

Jun 24, 2013: 10:27 am

How to find America’s worst charities: Excellent tips by Kendall Taggart at the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Jun 24, 2013: 7:40 am

Tips and tweets:

Jun 23, 2013: 1:22 pm

Investigative journalist Bill Dedman speaking at a panel about investigating the wealthy
Pulitzer-Prize winner Bill Dedman, speaking at a panel about investigating the wealthy

Investigating the wealthy sounds like a daunting task, but there’s actually a vast amount of historical resources available to the reporter who wants to try.

Investigative reporter Lise Olsen of the Houston Chronicle once visited a probate court clerk’s office to check out a tip that lawyers were making themselves rich at the expense of the estate of a wealthy but incapacited man. The clerk asked how many boxes she wanted to get in the case — there were 30.

In other words, probate courts are a gold mine. Olsen suggested looking at fee schedules and reports filed by court-appointed guardians.

It helps that wealthy Texans are chatty and often more approachable than their East and West-coast counterparts, said Mimi Swartz, an executive editor at Texas Monthly. In many cases, the only people who crave more attention than rich Texans are their lawyers. You can learn a lot about how the real world works by simply listening to their stories.

“One way to pay kickbacks to judges is to play poker and lose,” Swartz said.

Ancestry.com can help you find genealogical records. For a modest fee, you can find an actual picture of the ship that ferried specific European immigrants across the Atlantic.

A curious mind can always lead you to a good story. Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Bill Dedman stumbled across the unusual case of reclusive heiress Huguette Clark while he was house hunting and checked the most expensive mansions that were for sale. It launched him on a story that started out as a feature about Clark, whose father was a wealthy copper-mine baron and disgraced lawmaker. But the story morphed into an investigation of Clark’s current whereabouts — she hadn’t lived in any of her mansions for years, and Dedman’s reporting raised questions about the people overseeing her vast fortune.

The bizarre tale struck a chord with readers. It went viral and Dedman ended up writing a book about it called “Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune.”

Dedman relied on cemetery records, depositions in court cases and old newspaper clippings. He obtained pictures of Clark’s estates and the artwork she painted. He wanted to do a good job describing them, so he talked to experts.

Botanical consultants told him precisely what kind of unique plants were on the estate grounds.

A professor of fashion history described the kind of apparel Clark wore as a young woman.

An art expert told Dedman that in the old days, women usually painted with pastels. Oil painting was considered a manly art form. Yet Clark chose to be an oil painter. It showed an intriguing snippet of her character — which Dedman would not have discovered if he hadn’t gone to the trouble of talking to a knowledgeable expert.

Jun 22, 2013: 7:57 pm

Tips on Twitter:

https://twitter.com/sgoldstein/status/348548832109416448

Jun 21, 2013: 4:35 pm

Tips on Twitter:

Jun 21, 2013: 4:11 pm

Check out interesting panels you missed at the IRE conference by reading the IRE Conference blog and Gannett’s IRE 2013 tumblr. Armies of reporters and journalism students are posting good stuff, including:

  • Delving into crime data and finding flaws
  • Transparency: Getting past “No”
  • Tips for environmental investigations
  • Jun 21, 2013: 11:40 am

    Tips on Twitter about investigating charities:

    Jun 21, 2013: 11:23 am

    Wall Street Journal Reporter Rob Barry, speaking at the 2013 IRE conference
    Wall Street Journal Reporter Rob Barry, speaking at the 2013 IRE conference

    So much information at IRE conferences is about how and where to find documents and information. It’s always interesting to hear what you should do after you amass that giant mountain of data and documents.

    During yesterday’s Business Investigations panel, Reporter David Heath of the Center for Public Integrity talked about “the magic of simply sorting by date” when you take all your documents from a variety of sources and plug the information into a spreadsheet to make a timeline.

    “It’s a very simple process,” Heath said. “It sounds too basic to talk about.” Heath includes everything he finds in the timeline early on in the reporting process because at first you don’t know what’s important. As the chronology grows, patterns, connections and narratives begin to emerge.

    While investigating a shady company, Heath found a corporate filing signed by a man who claimed to lead the firm. But during that same time period, the same person also signed a different document in which he claimed to have nothing to do with the company. Heath later learned one of the government disclosures had been forged.

    “Timelines are essential,” Heath said.

    Other interesting tidbits at the panel:

  • Not many people know about LinkedIn’s advanced search page, which can help you find current and former employees of companies.
  • Journalists can get LinkedIn premium accounts for free, which allows you to email people on LinkedIn without being in their network. Very handy for finding sources.
  • Annual reports filed by companies with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission can be daunting. But be sure to check out sections titled “risk factors” and “legal proceedings.” These are where companies are usually at their most honest. They lay out things that could go wrong and major litigation. For companies that are very skilled at polishing their image, these sections help you find “chinks in their armor,” Heath said.
  • Jun 20, 2013: 3:31 pm

    Best #IRE13 tweets so far:

    Jun 20, 2013: 2:55 pm

    Even before the 2013 IRE Conference officially started, the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism hosted a free seminar Wednesday about finding interesting news stories in seemingly dry economic data.

    One cool thing about this panel was how they showcased actual news stories, then worked backwards and revealed how the kernel of the story idea was found in the data.

    For this article about the Eagle Ford Shale boom that ran in the San Antonio Express-News, the reporters did the following:

    • Visited the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis website;
    • Clicked on the “interactive” tab;
    • Sifted through a series of menus that took them down to the county level;
    • Checked how much per-capita personal income had increased in the Eagle Ford Shale counties. Once you get the data you can look at it in a variety of formats, such as tables or charts:
    Growth of personal income in Karnes County in the Eagle Ford Shale
    Growth of personal income in Karnes County in the Eagle Ford Shale

    This story and other articles used as examples all relied on economic data — but the stories were also filled with the voices of real people to bring those numbers to life.

    All the resources and presentations discussed in the seminar are available here.

    Jun 20, 2013: 2:50 pm

    Naturally, the 2013 IRE Conference is on Guidebook. You can check the conference schedule on your phone, save the events you want to attend and get reminders. I also like how you can view a map of the hotel, read about the speakers and check the #IRE13 feeds on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

    Yet another cool resource I learned from IRE.

    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

    https://twitter.com/willhuntsberry/status/214163754848485376/

    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.