Learning how to be an investigative reporter from the best

Fred Childers and I were able to attend the IRE Watchdog Workshop at LSU.

Fred Childers and I were able to attend the IRE Watchdog Workshop at LSU.

My main motivation to become a journalist back in high school/college was to make a difference, to be able to be a part of the fourth estate, be a government watchdog, and hold those in power accountable.

I remember watching a Law and Order episode back in college where one of the characters said, “Without journalism, there is no democracy” and I fist pumped in the air, “exactly!” I thought. The first time I ever read All the President’s men, about Woodward and Bernstein exposing corruption in the White House, I felt so inspired, it confirmed exactly why I wanted to become a journalist. Even as a senior in college as the Editor in Chief of my university newspaper, I along with the other editors constantly pushed our staff to look beneath the surface, report investigative stories, and avoid making the newspaper, at all costs, a “PR magazine” because that’s not what journalism is about. The news philosophy we had that year, did not make the school administration happy, but we wanted to uncover truth and practice journalism.

It’s easy as a naive college student to believe in the ideals of journalism, but it is different when you are actually a working professional. I’m sad to say somewhere along the way since college and up until very recently, I became jaded. Mostly I lost my ambition to be a watchdog journalist when I realized daily turns meant no time for investigative work. However, since I got into the business, I have made it a habit to scan through city council agendas/meeting minutes and even read through audit reports every Monday. But even doing that, I felt that still led to doing surface level stories. My dream of being a watchdog reporter was colliding pretty hard with reality, with staffing shortages and the constant need to feed “the beast” with daily turns.

The IRE Watchdog Workshop inspired me again to do investigative work.

The IRE Watchdog Workshop inspired me again to do investigative work.

But something happened at the beginning of January that inspired me again to want to be that watchdog reporter, I was in my news director’s office when she said, “I’m sending you to the IRE workshop in Baton Rouge at the end of the month.” I’m sure my reaction isn’t what she expected because I looked at her with a dead look on my face, I was confused, “IRE? What is IRE?” I asked her. “It’s an investigative journalism watchdog workshop,” she replied. My eyes must have nearly popped right out of my face, I was so excited! I immediately started geeking out, I think my second reaction is what she had initially expected, she didn’t look as disappointed after that.

The workshop was at LSU and every workshop was incredible. I soaked up all of the information like a sponge, furiously writing notes, while also trying to tweet out inspirational nuggets of information. I learned that just because you may not be given the time to fully dedicate your career to investigative journalism, there are tools out there to help you dig a little deeper on daily turns. I also learned you can constantly be working on several stories at one time, or even just have several public records requests out to constantly be keeping up with local government. Even though those FOIA requests may not turn into anything, at least as journalists, we are doing our due diligence to makes sure those in power are not going unchecked.

The IRE Watchdog Workshop at LSU had five excellent sessions.

The IRE Watchdog Workshop at LSU had five excellent sessions.

Each session was incredibly impressive and informational, but I think I was most impressed by the very first session of the day, “The art of the interview” by Lee Zurik, a WVUE (New Orleans station) investigative reporter. He gave us tips on how to conduct different interviews with subjects of investigative pieces and what times are best to do those interviews. He gave us solid tips like knowing the topic more than the person you are interviewing, even rehearse the interview, do the interview at the right time, and don’t do the interview too early on in the process because then you’ll have to ask follow up questions later.

He showed us a few examples of his stories and other investigative journalist stories across the country and I was impressed by how confident they were confronting mayors, sheriffs, and other public officials about alleged wrongdoing. If there is anything I need to work on, it’s my demeanor. I come off too nice, I feel, and need to toughen my skin a little bit. I hope that will come with experience.

Zurik explained that there are 3 types of interviews:

  • The Friendly Interview: a source willing to help out with a story.
  • The Unfriendly Interview: when you are confronting someone (usually a public official) about alleged wrongdoing and they have agreed to an interview. Zurik says he usually tells the politician, “This is going to air no matter what, if it’s not me, it’s going to be someone else, at least I will be fair.”
  • The Unscheduled Interview: If you can’t schedule an interview with a public official, find them! But you have to be transparent with viewers and talk about how you did try, so the viewer knows you have given the public official every chance to talk. One thing Zurik said he tells public officials, “I’ll schedule an interview with you, but if not, we’ll have an unscheduled interview.” He said the people that are fair game for the unscheduled interviews are certainly public officials because public money pays for their salaries. They are obligated to answer to the people and if they don’t, we as journalists have an obligation to confront them. He emphasized, you can’t worry about burning bridges, as long as you are being fair, then you are doing your job.

Zurik shared very specific directions for how to handle each interview, but I have chosen not to share those, because after all, this blog is public, and I don’t want to reveal all of my new secrets.

If you are a journalist and curious about it, I encourage you to join IRE, so you can have access to the notes from the workshop I attended and also other tip sheets.

It was fun to network with other Raycom employees at our sister stations across the region.

It was fun to network with other Raycom employees at our sister stations across the region.

One interesting tidbit I did learn is that Zurik says at any given time he is working on 15-20 stories at a time, all stories at different stages. He said to be able to handle that, “organization is key,” and he turns 8-10 stories during sweeps. He says the longest story he has turned was 10 minutes, because, “sometimes you can’t be fair in three minutes,” and what I have to say to that is, God bless his producers, they must be amazing.

Zurik and all of the other speakers that day, encouraged me to look deeper into each story I do and constantly be watching the public officials. It can be hard when I am a daily turn reporter, but I am inspired again to be a watchdog reporter, which is why I got into this business in the first place.

Shoutout to Raycom Media for allowing me to attend the conference, it was great not only education-wise, but I also got to network with other co-workers from all of our sister stations. It was an experience I won’t forget and I hope I can attend more conferences to further my education in this field!

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Getting my first journalism job

My written out strategy to get a journalism job

Something I’ve realized about myself is that when I really want something –I am very strategic about getting it. This showed when I first started applying to colleges and kept a huge organized binder filled with information on each college I was interested in, or the very detailed chart I created to apply for college scholarships.The same rang true when it came to running my wedding videography business and getting CNU TV up and running two years ago.

I’m one of those people that has my whole life planned out, but as a realist I realize that there has to be a lot of flexibility when it comes to long term plans. So when it came to hunting for a broadcast journalism job, I wrote out a list that including three phases of different strategies to get a job. The first phase began back in June–although I was still in school until August, I began applying for jobs all over the country via email, very randomly to essentially put feelers out. This strategy only got me one interest email from NBC Montana but panned into nothing. Also around this time I interviewed for a production technician job at WTKR, but it turned out the production manager did not think it would be a good fit for me and they hired someone else.

I wasn’t very serious about applying for jobs during this period because not only had I not graduated yet, but I also had weddings that I had to film booked solid every weekend from May 7-October 22nd. So I was bound to the area until the end of October!

The second phase began at the end of August after I completed my internship. I printed out a Nielson 2010 market chart that lists the cities and markets of every station in the country. I put little dashes next cities that were market 100+ that sounded interesting and then googled “broadcast stations in ____” then reviewed each website to see if there were any job openings for entry level reporters such as one man banders/videojournalists/multimedia journalists and if there were, I would email the news director a cover letter, link to my portfolio website, and resume. This took minimal effort so I applied to about 20 stations this way, really not expecting anything to stick. I was waiting for the months to inch closer toward October before I started sending out paper applications because I wanted to be able to move immediately if I was offered anything.

The second phase of my strategy

Toward the end of September I made a list of people from each of my internships that I had made a solid connection with and that I also thought of as mentors. Then I went to Linkedin.com and typed in each of their names. I then compiled a list of stations that each individual had worked at in the past. I took to google next and searched each station website to see if any had job openings. A good amount of them did not have stations with openings, but about a handful did.

So I made a new list with the stations that did have openings, I then went back to linkedin.com and typed in the stations call letters into the seach bar and noted if I had any shared connections with anybody that worked at those stations. I then wrote down the shared connections and determined if they were people that knew me well enough to put in a good word for me at that station. By then end of this search I only had three stations on my list that I had connections to. I also picked three random stations and began burning resume reel dvds, filling out numerous pages of paper applications, printing out sticker address labels, and printing out resumes and cover letters and purchasing packing materials. Needless to say it was significantly more work than just sending out mass emails with my links included.

I finally sent out all of my paper applications on September 17th, and let me tell you, shipping out 6 envelopes with priority shipping with tracking labels was not cheap. Thank goodness for the internet!

I expected to sit tight and wait a long time before I heard anything back, but on Monday September 19th I received an interest voicemail from KNOE in Louisiana wondering if I was still interested in the job and a call from WVEC to discuss the production assistant job. The interesting thing is that both of those jobs I applied for via email! Which made me feel a bit foolish for spending so much money at the post office a few days earlier. So the very next day after a conversation with both KNOE and WVEC, I had interviews set up. One on that  Wednesday at WVEC and another for the following Wednesday at KNOE in Monroe, Louisiana. Believe me it was a strange feeling knowing that everything was happening so quickly. All of a sudden it felt like my real life was FINALLY happening.

The interview at WVEC went great! I had so much fun touring the building and meeting everyone because I had interned at both of their rival stations and had never been to WVEC. Everybody there was so nice and I got to interview with Greg Brauer who is a CNU alumni and brothers with the vice president of the university, Bill Brauer whom I had interviewed the summer before for an article I was writing for the newspaper. It was a fantastic experience.

Flying over Mississippi to get to Louisiana!

My interview at KNOE went great too! My mom was able to accompany me on the trip so it wasn’t completely scary staying in a strange new place for a few days.

I interviewed with the news director Marla Gilcrease, who is super nice and very interesting. She was working at Fox News in New York City during September 11th, how wild is that. I then got to be interviewed by the brand new General Manager Ed Ortelli who is brand new and started 5 days earlier.

The exterior of KNOE

He asked me all about my journalism philosophy and what I thought was good journalism vs. bad, fortunately through my experiences in the past year I know exactly what my specific news philosophy is. I got to spend the day with reporter Jordyn Taylor, who by the end of the day became my future roomate! Everybody I met was really great and the sets at KNOE are brand new, shiny, and beautiful! I could definitely see myself working there, I even sat in the cubicle that would be mine.

A week later, Marla called and offered me the job! I start two weeks from today!

So if anybody reading this has aspirations to be a television news reporter, it can be done! You just have to have right amount of experience, knowledge, strategy, and passion. If you really love and believe in journalism, then you can do it.

Here is the email that got me my first journalism job:

The email that got me my first job!