Treat your beat like an investigation

Watchdog workshop

By Holly Beech

Editor’s Note: Holly Beech won an Idaho Press Club Don Watkins Mid-Career Scholarship to attend an IRE watchdog workshop in Portland in April. This is her article on what she learned there. You, too, can apply for an Idaho Press Club scholarship; the deadline is Feb. 15. See our website,, for details.

Jason Leopold is involved in dozens of lawsuits against the government challenging public record denials. A senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News, Leopold presented at the Investigative Reporters and Editors watchdog workshop in Portland, Oregon, on April 14. Thanks to a mid-career scholarship from the Idaho Press Club, I was able to attend. We heard from an inspiring lineup of journalists, including Reveal’s senior editor, Ziva Branstetter, and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Paige St. John of the Los Angeles Times.

Our reporting team at the Idaho Press, unlike Leopold, probably won’t be suing the NSA anytime soon or, as with St. John, flying down to Bermuda to connect with evasive sources. Our staff must balance deep-dive investigations with daily news stories. Even still, these tips were useful because reporters should think of their beats like an investigation, St. John said. Covering a beat is just an extended investigation, she said. You must set long-term story goals and develop sources and stories over time. You must mine public records, question the traditional narrative, rise above story pitches and become an expert in the subject matter.

Other useful tips from the workshop included:

Ask these five questions before starting an investigation:

* Who’s being harmed?

* Can we quantify the harm?

* Is the problem new?

* Who allowed it to happen?

* Will readers care?

Summarize your story in a sentence, rather than as an abstract topic. The summary needs a verb. For example, “Mortgage lenders in 61 cities are discriminating against people of color” is a more effective guide for an investigation than “Redlining in America.”

Write as you go.  Land a great interview? Write it up before the details fade. Find an important document? Summarize it. You can figure out how it all fits together later. Add correct web links as you write, which will serve as a fact-checking tool later.

Become the master of your subject matter. Understand how the system is supposed to work and who it is supposed to serve — who is accountable? Who is vulnerable? Question the narrative and the rhetoric. Put things together and see the larger patterns. The difference between a reporter and a scribe is critical thinking.

Build your source list. Call sources frequently, not just when you need a quote for a story. Stick with the “no surprise” rule by being up front about what’s on the record and what they can expect to see in print.

Thank you to the Idaho Press Club for the opportunity to travel outside my normal circles and gain perspective from other journalists.

Holly Beech is the assistant editor of the Idaho Press.