Sunday, October 16, 2011

Q: How does an investigative reporter get started?

Many investigative reporters got where they are by starting as beat reporters. This is a good way to get story ideas and familiarity with an area.

On "day one," you have an assigned "beat" -- an area of coverage. Maybe it's city government, or the courthouse, or local business. At the WSJ we had reporters covering finance, medicine and healthcare, technology, education, mergers and acquisitions, automobiles, energy, etc. We had a database where most Fortune 500 companies were assigned to exactly one reporter as the responsible person for any news involving that company.

We subscribed to the newswires (AP, Reuters, Dow Jones) and filtered for any news involving our companies and beats. We read the SEC filings.

On "day one," I called my companies and introduced myself as the new WSJ reporter covering them. They would invite me to their HQ to meet the CEO, one or two other executives, and the PR apparatus. Sometimes they would complain in a friendly way about previous WSJ coverage or about too-favorable coverage of their competitor. Sometimes they invite you to visit their factory or meet their customers. They encourage you to attend their industry conference or trade shows.

Some companies will go all-out. When UPS gets a new WSJ reporter covering them, they order the person a brown uniform in their size and have them ride in a delivery truck for a day so the reporter gets a sense of how the company works.




Over time, you cover the routine news on your beat. For a corporate beat, that can be new products, government actions, lawsuits by competitors or customers or regulators, and of course any kind of financial figure. Especially at the beginning, the company will be more than happy to suggest ways to make them look good and will feed you all manner of minor news items in advance.

Perhaps the CFO will call you every quarter (just after the earnings conference call) and submit to a wide-ranging discussion of how great things are going. Perhaps the company will invite you back once a year for an on-the-record chat with the CEO. They suggest that the CEO would make a great candidate for the weekly "chat with the boss" interview feature and that he is really transforming the company -- not just the company but the whole industry. They are happy to set you up with pundits and independent analysts who will echo this conclusion. They would be happy to give you all the access to write a feature story about their research efforts in xyz. This is a great story, as yet untold, about dramatic change that will be coming in 5-8 years that they are just starting on but already have promising results in the lab.

Once your name starts appearing on articles in an area, all manner of people will start to contact you to pitch stories -- customers (happy and unhappy), middlemen, pundits, tiny shit companies that want to talk about a new product they are developing and will have on the market in 3-5 years (I have since learned that these are called "startups" and are God's choice of corporate form), whistleblowers, disgruntled ex-employees, disgruntled current employees, competitors, etc.

Maybe one day you get a call from a shadowy anonymous person urging you to look into issue xyz -- he thinks you will find something damaging to the company. These people often believe that reporters have superhuman investigative abilities that work like Russell Crowe in "State of Play", and that somehow they reached the only imbecile in the profession when they called you. "Look into xyz's phone records." When you explain that you cannot just get somebody's cell phone records, and could they maybe just send you the documents they do have so you can take a look, they become enraged and threaten to go to the NYT with their story since you are so inept. This happens 20 times.

You will work on this story for six weeks while handling your normal beat duties. Your editor starts to ask when this story that is consuming so much of your time is ever going to see the light of day.

Perhaps after a while, you will put together the pieces and find something damaging about one of the companies on your beat. It will not be "the big story" that you suspect and know in your gut is true (probably because somebody told you), but it will be a much smaller story that you happen to have the documents to prove. Maybe one division was particularly sloppy and corrupt.

You bring what you have to the PR person (who by this point you are friendly with and have known for a while) for a response. They are concerned -- of course they respect you as a reporter, but they can't understand how you got off on this line. Of course they would be happy to set you straight.

They set up a meeting with you, the company's chief PR person, the COO's right-hand-person who is responsible for the area involved in your report, and the COO's underling's underling who is actually the one who knows about the situation described in your work. You dress up for the meeting, and the PR person greets you in a friendly manner, telling you you didn't have to dress up; this is just a friendly meeting and they appreciate your coming out to HQ. The meeting is professional but strained -- you present what you have found and the company just cannot understand how you reached these conclusions, and the whole thing is just a big misunderstanding. They say that even if there was any impropriety, that whole division was shut down and reassigned 18 months ago in a reorganization, so your whole findings -- even if true -- are moot anyway. The issue was confined to one bad apple anyway, they say, who moved on long ago. These issues are routine and they have a first-class compliance program. Besides, government investigators already examined this exact issue and decided not to take any action, they say. There's no story here.

You explain that if that's so, you would love if they would go on the record and rebut your findings point-by-point. They say they're thinking about it but they want you to reconsider publishing.

Eventually the company gives you a statement: an unhelpful one-sentence terse sentence denying the allegations generally. They call your boss (the editor) and ask him to reconsider running the report. It will be damaging, they say, and will cause customers to switch unfairly to the competitor. The boss says he will take it under advisement, but when he gets off the phone (you were there listening), he grins and says this must be good if they are that concerned about it.

You print the story. Everybody in your bureau congratulates you on your first big investigative story, although few of them seem to have read beyond the fourth paragraph. They put the company's stock price up on a big screen and everybody remarks gleefully as it plummets through the day. The whistleblower calls you to say he is furious, you totally missed the actual story by focusing on this one tiny aspect of it, and how could you give so much credence to people who defended the company when HE AND YOU BOTH know that the company is crooked from head to toe? He is through with you, he says, and hangs up. His next call will be to The New York Times.

You start to go through your email and see that you have a grand total of four emails from readers about this story that you poured two months of effort into. This compares unfavorably with last week's feature story about a new way to train puppies, which took two days to write and received 600 emails. You search in vain for an "attaboy" note from the editor in chief, who you have barely even met but who does occasionally send "attaboy" notes to you (cc-ing your boss) when you write a particularly good story. (The last "attaboy" was for the puppy story.)

Later that day, you call the PR person (as you normally do) just to take their temperature. Well, that's what you say, but the real reason for your call is to make sure you do not have to print a damaging correction, since this is the first time the company will have actually read the story and they will undoubtedly be going through it with tweezers to find ANYTHING to hang you on. The PR person says of course they disagree with the story -- you knew that -- but they appreciate your professionalism and respect you as a reporter and of course the relationship will continue.

They are writing a letter to the editor rebutting your conclusions point-by-point and calling you names and assume you understand they had to do it. You wonder why they didn't just give you the point-by-point rebuttal in the first place because you could have put that in the story.

Although the PR person remains friendly with you and continues to respond to your inquiries, you notice something has changed in the relationship. You stop getting tips from the PR person about minor news the company is about to make, and those stories start appearing in the NYT instead. You have to scramble to catch up. At a trade show, you sit down with a bunch of employees of the company, and they look at your WSJ nametag and gasp, are you the one who wrote THAT ARTICLE? You notice in September that you never got invited to chat with the CEO this year; didn't that usually happen in July?

Fourteen months later, the company announces that it has resolved a pending government investigation for $725 million. You had no idea this investigation was even ongoing, but on reading the details your eyes open -- it was for the EXACT ISSUE you wrote about. Actually, no, it was for a much bigger one than even you suspected, of which your story was just a tiny portion. You go back to read your own story and it is not nearly as piercing as you remembered.

In the ensuing coverage of this massive settlement, nobody remembers or mentions your story.

At this point, you have become an investigative reporter!

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