IRE14: Creating an investigative culture in your newsroom

This is part of a series of posts from the Investigative Reporters and Editors 2014 conference. Follow along with the conference on Twitter with #IRE2014. Here’s the full schedule and a list of all conference tipsheets.

Managers track: Building and protecting the watchdog brand

Speakers: Jonathan Mitchell, vice president of news for NBC Bay Area; George Stanley, managing editor, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Manny Garcia, Joyce Terhaar, executive editor, Sacramento Bee

Joyce Terhaar: 10 tips

  1. Get support from the top execs for investigative reporting
  2. Build and nurture data journalism with good hires and training. Data = deeper more efficient reporting.
  3. Set expectations that beat reporters regularly file records requests while doing daily stories.
  4. Consider adding a regular watchdog column. Risk: You have space to fill. Reward: You have space to fill so you’ll be forced to produce. At the Bee, they ask the newsroom to produce for the watchdog column.
  5. Create an I-team, if you can.
  6. Pick a strong editor. The editor must be tough enough to say no to an investigative proposal or to challenge reporting. And they need to stand up to outside pressure
  7. Develop a process for fact-checking before publication. Get legal review as needed.
  8. Ensure collaboration among digital, visuals, etc. Reporters who backfill need to be recognized and thanked. It takes a team to do investigative work to pick up the daily load.
  9. Consider help from others. Use crowd sourced data where its relevant, partner with a credible media group or nonprofit. But make sure your partners are qualified.
  10. Demand fair and responsible journalism as an end product. You need to feel comfortable defending your work.

Good work by the SacBee

George Stanley What are you choosing to invest in? What can we offer that no one else can?

  • Our answer: Investigative journalism.
  • With fewer resources, we want to make sure we’re doing the stories that really matter

We developed a process for evaluating investigative ideas

  • What’s the key question?
  • Why is it important to our readers? And why now?
  • Does no body know about this?

Gather skills and brains

  • How can we best tell the story

Deadly delays

  • A story that showed their process
  • The story brought in people from across teams: Reporting, data, news apps, etc.

Execution means all in

  • Demand the very best
  • Question you own assumptions
  • Check every fact as if the story were about you
  • Do NOT avoid difficult conversations. Many people struggle with that

How can you afford it?

  • investment up front pays huge dividends in multiple ways
  • Pay off to society for our fives months of work on Deadly Days. But that’s a tiny investment considering babies across the country won’t have lifelong illnesses.
  • As you grow expertise, you get more stories.
  • Investigative projects can become investigative beats
  • Some things take a long time and a great deal of accumulated knowledge to find.

Good work by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Jonathan Mitchell

  • Build a process for doing investigative reporting
  • He has “church” every week. You’re not allowed to schedule an interview then. We bring in guest speakers. We critique our stories. We cross train people.
  • Continuing education is a big thing for our staff. We go to IRE and NICAR.
  • Protect your brand for investigative reporting
  • They built a brand for investigative reporting modeled after 60 Minutes. They hired an agency to help.


  • Joyce: With fewer staff, they do rolling investigations and not big five-part projects.
  • Joyce: They try to make sure the presentation of investigative works makes it clear that the work is special
  • George: They focus more on social media marketing with key groups related to the story
  • Joyce: They’ve done lots of partnerships with USC Center for Health Reporting. She said they’re also working now with a private group to clean and publish political contributions, including independent expenditures
  • George: They’ve had good success with partnerships. But they have run into problems when they don’t have strong leadership.
  • Joyce: When PR people attack your work, you can’t let the bullshit stand. You have to respond in new and public ways.


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