LoBasso’s #IRE14 takeaway: 3 Reasons to believe in “No Surprises Journalism”

Randy LoBasso

Randy LoBasso

Philadelphia Weekly Staff Writer Randy LoBasso was among six Philadelphia-area journalists who attended the Investigative Reporters and Editors 2014 Conference with support form the Center for Public Interest Journalism. So far in 2014, the Center for Public Interest Journalism has selected 31 Philadelphia-area journalists for support to attend national journalism conferences, thanks to a generous grant from the Wyncote Foundation.

Randy LoBasso: 3 Reasons to believe in “No Surprises Journalism”

Much of the journalism world was floored late last year when Mark Schoofs left investigative nonprofit news source ProPublica to head Buzzfeed’s new investigative reporting outfit.

It was a unique intersection of two vastly different American journalistic entities. Schoofs, on the one hand, is a Pulitzer-winning veteran of the Village Voice and the Wall Street Journal. The Yale journalism instructor has reported from more than 25 countries on four continents and actually holds two patents. He soon found his work alongside Buzzfeed’s bread and butter, a/k/a celebrity gossip with labels like “OMG” and listicles explaining why Publix is the best supermarket “ever.”

His hiring was a message to Buzzfeed’s current and future readers, and the industry: As publications the country over dismiss investigative reporters and editors, or turn to partisan news coverage in order to bait readers for a click, Buzzfeed—which had too often been cast aside by critics as nothing but feline photos and so-called “life hack” tips—was revving up its investigative engine, putting Schoofs in charge of six reporters amongst the internet juggernaut’s 130-person newsroom.

“Mark is the best in the business — a brilliant reporter, teacher, storyteller with the sort of deep experience we need as we continue to expand the kind of rigorous reporting that people want to read and share,” wrote Buzzfeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith in a press release announcing the hire. “He’s a creative, entrepreneurial guy with long-ago roots in the vital gay press and an endless curiosity about the changing medium.”

Having followed his work for a few years, and having come to respect what Buzzfeed’s been doing with their massive Internet real estate, I was pretty excited to hear both Schoofs speak, and discern the advice he was about to give to those attending the “Bulletproofing stories, anticipating missteps and managing blowback” panel during the Investigative Reporters and Editors 2014 conference. He presented alongside Maud Beelman, Patricia DiCarlo and Blake Morrison, all well-respected journalists and editors in their own rights.

After telling the audience his method for finding the right reporters (can they think both big and small? Can the write? Have they landed big project in the past?) he went over an “incredible tool” he utilizes in his daily work. Something both incredibly simple, and incredibly necessary, it was an often overlooked and uncomfortable reporter’s tool he dubbed “no surprises journalism.”

It is, in short, this: When your story goes to press, you should have already made sure that no single character or source in the piece is surprised by any of the information presented, whatsoever. When you do this, he explained, send your facts to your sources in at least five different ways—a physical letter, an email, a courier, “slip it under the door; just make sure that you’ve gone to the ends of the earth,” he said. Why? Three main reasons.

It’s your final fact-check.

When you get a fact wrong—and we all have—it’s embarrassing. I can remember times in the beginning of my now 4-year journalism career when I’d forgotten a small anecdote or gotten a date wrong in my subject’s life. While this doesn’t necessarily ruin the story (although it can), it may make readers distrust your work, and it’s sloppy.

But if you can send a letter to your subject, not just explaining the facts about them described in your story, but the facts around them, “it is just the single best thing you can do,” noted Schoofs, but noted: “When you send the letter, do not send the draft of the actual story. You don’t want to have a discussion about whether this adjective is, you know, whatever, whatever. Just the facts.”

It gets people to talk.

“I cannot tell you the number of times people have refused to speak with me until they get one of these letters,” said Schoofs, who added the letter should be edited (reporters should not send the letters without first allowing an editor to take a look), and have been looked at by a lawyer, “because you can libel a person through letters…if you’re sending it to a secondary source [and writing] about, say, the main subject of your piece.”

After sending a secondary source his “no surprises” letter, he noted, that source has often come back to him and said, “You know, there’s this other thing I forgot to tell you about.”

It’s ethical.

“These days, any story, anywhere, has the chance to go viral,” he said, “and have literally millions of people read it, right? So, if you’re willing to tell millions of people something about, I don’t know, Blake, but you’re not willing to tell Blake what you’re willing to say, where’s your intellectual honesty? Where’s your integrity? If you’re writing about somebody, you should be willing to say to that person, ‘This is what I am going to write.’ And if you can’t do that, you might want to think about why.”

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