The Center for Public Interest Journalism sponsored six Philadelphia-area journalists who attended the Investigative Reporters and Editors’ IRE 2013 conference earlier this summer in San Antonia. Last week, Calkins Media reporter and Temple Journalism adjunct professor James McGinnis shared his experience. Now, freelancer Laura Goldman writes about new skills, new tools, and new plans following the conference.
I am going to start my synopsis of the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference 2013 (IRE 2013) with the major lesson I learned from attending the conference: Data is king and the excel spreadsheet is god. I can’t repeat this enough. The best friend of the investigative reporter is the excel sheet.
I arrived a day early to attend a seminar, “Breaking Local Stories with Economic Data, sponsored by the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism. This is a link to the excellent presentation by Thomas Dail and Jeannine Aversa from the public affairs office of the US Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). Dail, who is always ready to evangelize his agency’s statistics, offered to come to Philadelphia to make a presentation.
My main takeaway was the US Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) has troves of data, available on the county level, that want reporters to utilize. Their statistics would be useful in stories about the drop or rise in annual income of residents, the percentage of locals receiving food stamps, welfare benefits or disability, and which industries employ. Extrapolating the data that manufacturing jobs have decreased in the area, a reporter could write an enthralling human interest story on what happened to those previously employed in the industry.
Many non-profits, many of which presented at IRE2013, and other government agencies, such as the Census Bureau and the IRS, also were eager for reporters to use the detailed analysis their organizations have prepared. Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, urged reporters to use the analysis the organization has prepared on economic development subsidies given out by governments to corporations. They rate each state’s programs for transparency, oversight, and enforcement. They also scrutinize the jobs created and the quality of those jobs.
It would probably surprise none of us reporting locally that Philadelphia and Pennsylvania rank low for transparency. It has been hard for me to discern all the subsidies that Comcast has received have made economic sense for the taxpayer.
Even when securing access to the original data is hard work, the resulting story is worth it. A Pittsburgh reporter regaled the crowd with her ability to outrun city officials’ obstructive attempts to keep her from getting 311 data. Once she did get the information, it told a fascinating story about the needs and concerns of Pittsburgh residents. This kind of story could easily be replicated in Philadelphia.
Being older, I am probably less tech savvy than many. The charismatic personality of David Ho, editor of mobile, tablets, and emerging technology at the Wall Street Journal, made the adoption of new technology and devices possible even for me.
He and Stephen Stock, the other speaker on the panel, Best Mobile Apps for Reporting, began by recommending must-have devices for reporters including keyboards for tablets, external mini battery packs, and Galaxy still camera mounts. Some of the apps they suggested were Banjo to track social media in a specific area, Dragon Dictation to record your own notes, RecordMyCall, Scannerloader to scan courthouse documents, and LiveATC in order to listen air traffic controllers all over the world.
I later attended a special session on Banjo led by Jennifer Peck, director of engagement at Banjo. I have not used it extensively yet, but it would have come in handy when I worked on the ABC World News and Good Morning America segments on the Salvation Army building collapses. It would have aided me in finding witnesses and family members of the victims of the building collapse.
One of the most attended panels was “Keeping Your Sources Safe” presented by Steve Doig, professor of journalism at the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, since the NSA scandal had just broken. Some of his suggestions using search engine ixquick.com, anonymizer.com, or torproject.org for anonymous searches. Ixquick.com, which is free, keeps no ip addresses and search terms are deleted after 48 hours. It is a natural inclination to Google a potential source before a meet but later it might help the government discern your source for an explosive story.
He also recommended *67, buying a phone card from spoofcard.com, or using the PhoneGangster app on your iPhone to conceal your identity during a phone conversation. The latter two also change your voice. I have the presentation if anyone is interested in additional information.
I was able to meet some of my journalistic heroes, such as Mother Jones’ David Corn, who wrote the infamous Romney 47% story, NBC’s Michael Isikoff, and the New York Times’ David Barstow and Mexican freelancer Alejandra Xanic von Betrab, who exposed the payment of bribes in Mexico by Walmart, at the conference. I freelance for ABC’s Good Morning America and World News in the field so it was a real delight for me to meet Brian Ross and Rhonda Scwartz of ABC’s investigative unit when they spoke on the “Investigating Human Rights Panel. My favorite line from Ross’ presentation was: “I have used my Disney issued credit card to bail out associates. (Good for me to know since they have sent me to some iffy places.)
The conference has inspired me to get back to my investigative reporting instead of my more lighthearted entertainment reporting. I am planning to collaborate on an expose of for profit prisons with Shane Bauer. Shane Bauer, who was detained by the Iranian authorities for 26 months, has recently written a gripping article on solitary confinement for Mother Jones. The New York Times Laura Holson has encouraged me to expand my investigation into Tory Buch’s foundation. My earlier investigation found the billionaire Tory Burch had donated minimally money to her own eponymous named foundation. Piper Kerman, who wrote the prison memoir “Orange is the New Black” which the Netflix series of the same name is based on, and I have discussed working on prisoner reentry stories.
Thank you to the Temple Center of Public Interest Journalism for sponsoring my trip. I am happy to share my experiences and the tip sheets I collected with others.