[Note: When I got to the LA Times, I was asked to bring a more structured approach to what had been a chaotic system for conceiving and executing major projects. So I put together this memo and shared it with the staff. Including it here in case others find it useful.]
You got an intriguing tip. Or you read something that made you wonder – is there more to that? Maybe you keep waking up at 2 am with a nagging feeling that you might be on the cusp of something significant.
Let this walk-through serve as a potential guide for how the process of putting together a project can work, with the caveat that unexpected developments can make any well-intentioned plan suddenly look absurd.
Phase 1: Scout it out
*The work in this initial phase is not overly time consuming and can be mixed in with regular beat assignments. Reporter and editor will get together and discuss the potential project: What do you hope to achieve? What’s the best-case scenario? Every couple of weeks, at least, there should be honest conversations about whether progress is being made. Be prepared to change course or bail if it becomes a fool’s errand.
*Broaden your understanding by reading everything you can about the issue. Run the pertinent names/topics through LexisNexis, and save a digital copy of all the stories that you’ll want to refer back to as you move forward. Take note of the key people and records that appear in these stories.
*Make sure that the exact project you have in mind hasn’t already been published. It’s not necessarily a deal breaker if that’s the case, but you’ll need to be prepared to explain how you will advance or bring a new angle to the issue.
*Determine whether there are records that might shed some light on this. Can you get them with a public records request, or will you need to convince a reluctant source to help? If the records you want aren’t accessible, look for other sources where they might be hiding, even if it’s on a smaller scale: lawsuits, academic research, government audits, etc.
*If the records you need are on paper, consider starting off with a limited request to save time and money. You might want five years worth of records at some point, but first ask for three months – whatever is just enough to test your hypothesis. If it pans out, you can always go back and request more.
*If the information you need is in a database, it is almost always best to ask for the entire thing. The more you ask an agency to carve away parts of the data, the longer it may take. Even worse, you might fail to get a critical portion of the database that you don’t yet realize you will need.
*Never allow a public agency to deny your request for data on the grounds that it’s too big, too complicated, too time-consuming, etc. Just like with paper records, the agency can only deny a request for data by citing a lawful exemption. And just because a portion of the database is exempt, that doesn’t make the whole thing exempt. If you need to push back but don’t have the technical savvy to explain what you need and how it can be provided, seek help from someone within your organization, or on the NICAR-L listserv.
*Start reaching out to people: Experts, victims – even people who could wind up targets of the investigation are probably ok. These aren’t necessarily confrontational interviews, just broad conversations to help you become more familiar with the world you might enter. How do they do their job? What frustrates them? How’d they get where they are now? Who helped them out? Who hurt them? Who else should you be talking with? What should you be reading?
*At the end of this phase, you should be able to answer these questions: What secrets have you uncovered? Who are the powerful forces trying to keep their conduct hidden, and what do they gain? Who are the victims, and can you show how their lives are being affected? If you don’t know how to respond, you probably don’t have an investigative project.
Phase 2: Sell the idea
Once reporter and editor have determined there’s a project worth pursuing, it’s time to pitch it. Use this template to help everyone understand why you’re proposing this project and how we can go about landing it.
Project proposal template
Explain – in as clear and concise a manner as possible – what the project is all about. This can be done in a few sentences or a few grafs, but it should be direct and to the point.
Structure or themes
Break down how you envision the project unfolding, either as the individual stories you hope to publish or the major themes you plan to address. For example, you might pitch a three-day series in which Day 1 is a narrative case study, Day 2 is an overview story and Day 3 exposes the lack of government oversight. Summarize each piece.
Provide the following: 1. A realistic estimate of how long it will take to complete this project. 2. An explanation of any factors adding urgency (ongoing harm, looming federal investigation, competition, etc.).
What has already been published about this topic, including by your own organization? Provide links to key pieces. How will your project advance this issue beyond what has already been published? Why will our readers care? If it’s an investigative project, what secrets have been uncovered? Who are the victims? Provide details of what you have found so far that has you excited about this project.
Explain how you intend to report this out. What documents will you need, and how accessible are they? Is there a database that you can obtain, or will we need to build our own? Who are the key sources, and will they be reluctant to cooperate? Detail some of the challenges involved and how they might be overcome.
Let’s say many of the challenges prove insurmountable, and the epic project you envision can’t be executed – what are you left with? Briefly explain how this setback might still result in something that can be published.
Give an honest assessment of how you plan to juggle beat responsibilities with the reporting and writing needed for the project. Would additional reporters help?
Detail all the ways we might bring this project to life: photos, videos, searchable databases, data viz, graphics, podcasts, etc. If you have examples of innovative work published elsewhere that you’d like to adopt for your project, include it here. Also, should we consider teaming up with an outside organization?
Phase 3: Get to work
*After the project is approved, the project editor will pull together all the stakeholders for a group meeting as soon as possible. Reporter, photo, video, graphics, data, social media, web and print production, design, top editors – every department that will be involved at the end should have a representative there at the beginning. Share the project memo and describe what you hope to accomplish and when you are aiming to publish. You won’t want to lock onto anything this early, but it’s a good time to kick around ideas for alternative forms of story telling, innovative data viz, series titles or anything else that pops up. Most of the people in this meeting will be learning about the project for the first time, and their initial impressions can be valuable.
*The specifics of the project will be the most fluid in the early parts of this phase as the reporting process begins in earnest. Any significant changes need to be communicated to the affected department or the entire group. If an individual suddenly becomes a non-factor, let photo know he/she doesn’t need to be shot. If a critical database is uncovered but it won’t be available for two months, let everyone know that the publication date has been pushed back.
*If the reporting process treads across the beat of a reporter not involved in the project, give that reporter a heads up. They may not need to know the specifics, but it’s a courtesy to let them know that you might be making waves on their beat. They won’t want to look clueless if a source asks them what’s going on, and they might be able to help pass along information.
*The project editor should brief the attorney and the top of the masthead if there are any thorny issues that are likely to be discussed prior to publication. Make sure everyone is on the same page about using anonymous sources or sensitive documents and what the threshold for publication will entail.
*Share all assets with the project editor as they become available, even mock-ups. These will also be shared with the larger group when the stakeholders get together to discuss progress. These group meetings should be fairly regular – every 2-3 weeks at most. The important thing is for everyone involved to be part of the momentum behind the project.
*The project editor will share story drafts, or even just the tops of stories, as soon as they approach what the final draft is expected to look like. Print and web production should begin to focus in on design decisions based on these drafts.
*If something can be completed, get it done now. Photos, maps, graphics, cutlines, etc. shouldn’t be saved for the last minute.
*As the drafts sharpen and get finalized, start to plan for the aftermath. Should there be a Q&A, AMA, public forum or some other reporter/reader interaction? Should we brief state lawmakers or an organization like the ACLU? Does the reporter need to be on the ground somewhere, like the State Capitol, on publication day for a reaction piece?
Phase 4: The final push
*When the drafts are complete, every asset attached to the project must be finalized. Start setting hard deadlines for pieces like series title, headlines (print and web), social media plan and language, design, graphics, photos, etc. Lock in everything.
*The project editor will confer with print and web production to determine how much time is needed to handle the copy edit and build pages. Come up with a schedule of when copy will flow from project editor to production.
*Create a publication plan for web and print. Target actual days. Unless there’s a good reason to launch web and print on the same day, plan to have the web version ready to go during the week when traffic is higher.
*Have a gut check conversation about each story. Have we gone too far somewhere? Is every statement clearly supported by the reporting? If something feels shaky, either firm it up or lose it.
*Line-by-line, check every fact in the project, including name spellings, dates, locations, etc. Read it like you’re the attorney representing the target of the investigation and you’re hoping to find at least one error – no matter how insignificant – so that you can demand a correction and use it to undermine the entire project.
*Make sure that every person or organization named in the project is aware that a story is imminent. If targets of the investigation have ducked your interview requests, have a trail of phone and email messages that demonstrate your efforts to reach out. Make a final push to contact the targets about a week before publication and let them know this is last call. Send a registered letter that explains, in pretty specific detail, what the project will entail and the key findings. Include in the letter that you’re sending it because all of your attempts to discuss the issue with them have been rebuffed.
*Have a lawyer read the stories, headlines, cutlines and social media language. Address any questions or concerns.
*Send everything to the top of the masthead for final approval. Address any questions or concerns.
*Give a close read to page proofs and the web version. Make sure that the print pages jump as indicated and all of the assets attached to the web version are loading properly. Test all links on all platforms.
*Make sure that any late changes are reflected in both the web and print versions.
Phase 5: Bask in the glory
*Get the links to the story out to whoever needs it, including IRE, ProPublica and any organization that might share it with its mailing list.
*Check emails and phone messages for great tips, whether it’s on this project or the next one.
*Decompress in whatever way works for you. If you enjoyed this process, start thinking about how to get back to Phase 1.