In the world of local TV news, a general assignment reporter’s day is extremely demanding, and it can be exhausting. Getting the interviews done, shooting interesting standups, filing for multiple newscasts, posting on social media, writing for the web, looking for new stories, keeping up with breaking news, networking with contacts - all while looking TV ready! Could you imagine fitting in anything more?
I’m suggesting you do!
I firmly believe that all reporters, in every market, should carve out some time to investigate, because each local news reporter should be able to tell long-format news stories.
First, it can be an amazing experience. When the piece is done, it is truly satisfying to see all the extra time and dedication come together. Producing exclusives, investigative reports and special reports can really make you feel in touch with the true intentions of journalism. But getting there involves a lot of research, countless records and as one of my former news directors used to say, “A lot of digging.”
That former news director allowed me to learn investigative and long-format storytelling in market 80-something. I was relatively young in my career, and she offered guidance, resources and time off the street to focus on combing through documents. She taught me to be patient when I was frustrated with long-term projects. She inspired me to be fearless because knocking on doors and asking uncomfortable questions is part of the job. Through this opportunity to learn investigative journalism, I learned discipline, grounded myself in integrity and embraced the kind of journalism that enlightens, inspires and maybe even leads to change. I also learned the career leverage that can come with winning some major awards.
And then, I started working in top 20 newsrooms, where the pace of the news is fast, fast, fast! The days of having “time” to do these kinds of stories were gone. I was frustrated because the truth about the daily grind is that it’s not always satisfying. Far too many times, amazing content is left on the cutting room floor because deadlines prevail.
Shortly after I started working in my first major market newsroom, I knew that I couldn’t just spit out breaking news, and pump out reports that were no longer than a minute-thirty, and stay happy. I also knew that I had the skillset to investigate and to write long. So I started using those skills amid the grind.
I soon learned that small efforts each day would lead to big stories. Those stories helped me thrive as a general assignment reporter because they allowed me to work at the pace of a major market but still feed my passion.
I know that “carving out time” isn’t easy, especially if you don’t have much experience with this type of storytelling.
I put together a quick how-to list to help. It condenses how I learned to fit the investigative in with the daily grind.
1) Understand that It’s All Connected to Your Daily Work: Through my experience I have learned that the best “investigative” and “exclusive” stories come from general assignment reporting. Look for trends. If you cover one shooting, it is just a crime story but if you cover one shooting in the same area every week, that’s something bigger. Learn to identify those kinds of trends. When interviewing someone for a daily story, take some time to chat beyond the topic you are there for. Amazing leads can come out of an “off the record” conversation. You may be surprised by what people will tell you in confidence. A simple nudge to “check this out” could turn into a major story.
2) Request Information/Data Frequently: I think filing a weekly FOIA request is good practice, but if that seems too ambitious then make it a goal to request something from local government, police, fire, school districts, etc. at least once a month. You will soon find countless stories waiting to be told. Some will make good daily turns as enterprise stories, and some will make remarkable investigations.
3) Keep a Story List: No matter how challenging a story may seem, the first step to getting it done is writing the idea down. I mean it. Write it down! I keep a story list in a special notebook dedicated to my long-term projects. Any time I think of an idea, or get a tip, I write it down. Then I start working on turning the stories. I put effort into several of them at one time. Maybe that effort involves making phone calls, or requesting data, or talking to colleagues. Whatever gets the project started is just the second step. Eventually, that idea can become the title of a file folder, with information, data and phone numbers inside. Once I have enough research together, I pitch my story. It helps if you already have people to interview lined up.
4) Master Your Pitch: In order to get these stories shot and edited, you will need approval from your bosses. You will need to convince them that the story is worth telling, and that you have the research together to execute. For that reason, I warn you all to never pitch just an idea. That belongs on the story list I described above. Only pitch once you have research completed and enough to get started. Always write your pitch down in three sentences or less. If you can’t, then you are not ready to pitch. Figure out if email or a conversation is the best way to have your idea heard. Prepare yourself to answer questions about when you can deliver the story, how many days you will need to work on it in the field, what kind of resources you will need and why the story is important.
5) Manage Your Project: Once you get going, especially if it’s your first time, understand that this project will become overwhelming at some point. You need to be in control. Schedule your interviews in advance. Request days off the street in advance. If days off the street won’t work, request hours. You can get an interview done for a special report at 10 am, and then proceed with the news of the day. Whether you are working with one or more photographers make sure to communicate what you will need in terms of shots, creativity, etc. If you are confronting someone, or working on an investigation that could be controversial, save the most risky stuff for right before air, to avoid someone putting a stop to your story by reacting with a band aid fix.
6) Stay Organized: It is best to log interviews and shot list video right after you have worked in the field. You will be most efficient when the content is fresh. There is nothing worse than having to jog through hours of video to log all at once, after months of working on a piece. Writing can take a long time, so start your drafts early because you will want to re-work and revise.
You Should Know:
- These stories will challenge you to grow as a journalist, and help with career growth.
- There is room for this kind of work in every newsroom, and the payoff will come, especially, during sweeps.
- News Directors want exclusive stories on their air.
- Find a mentor, in or out of the newsroom.
- Look for seminars and conferences where you can learn about investigative reporting.
- Study long-format story composition by watching the work of other local news stations online, looking for the ones with investigative units. Murrow Award winners for Investigative Reporting are also a great place to find examples.
Build your investigative and FOI skills with full- and half-day workshops at Excellence in Journalism 2019, Sept. 5-7 in San Antonio. Learn even more with the Data in Local Newsrooms Training Program from Investigative Reporters & Editors in partnership with the Google News Initiative. Small market newsrooms are invited to apply by June 17 for two days of in-house IRE data training, plus follow-up data consultation and services as part of an ongoing partnership with IRE.