IRE14: Placing your bets and choosing the right stories

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: Placing your bets – Choosing the right stories

Speakers: Stephen Engelberg, editor in chief at ProPublica; Evelyn Larrubia, education editor at KPCC;  Mark Katches, editorial director at the Center for Investigative Reporting

How is your newsroom structured

  • Stephen: They focus on only investigative stories with impact and they don’t have daily obligations like a daily newspaper.
  • Evelyn: Her newsroom is more focused on daily stories.
  • Mark: His newsroom has beats but they are topical and broad.

How do you do investigative pitches

  • Evelyn: Right now, it’s summer and slow in education. We ask our reporters to think about what’s going to happen in the 2014-15 school year. We ask them to pitch their stories and explain why that story and why now. If you have a good reporter and he/she finds a story you’re not excited about it, let them run with it. Passion is what drives things. If a reporter is passionate about a story, they often come back with something that is wonderful.
  • Stephen: The dirty truth: There is no magic to picking stories. You are throwing yourself off the bridge. For the first part, it feels like suicide. But then the cord pulls and it’s really fun. Editors often want to know: What is the best stuff we can get from this story? But history has shown, that the best story is never anything you can imagine. We do have a pitch memo. But the basic fiber of investigative story is an anecdote and data.

How long do you let reporters forage for good investigative ideas

  • Evelyn: They have to do it while covering other beats.

What criteria do you look for in picking stories

  • Stephen: He looks for impact. He doesn’t want to just tell sad stories. Don’t look for topics. Look for stories. Look for things that have outrage then build out an accountability matrix. Ask who is impacted by this? And what can we do about it?
  • Evelyn: You have to know your audience. What do they care about? What will impact a large number of people? Another way to view it: Is there a specialized audience that’s very engaged on a topic. Such as arts in education. That’s a topic that KPCC is mining and they’re building a strong audience.
  • Mark: Impact.

Mark’s 5 key questions to evaluate impact

Questions to ask in the pitch to evaluate the impact of a story. If you can answer yes to all five, you’ve got a pretty amazing story. If you’ve got two, you’ve still got a good story.

  1. Is it a new problem? Is it a problem that I don’t know anything about?
  2. Can you quantify the problem?
  3. Can we humanize the problem? If you’re just writing about a system and not people, you’re going to have a problem making an impact.
  4. Are you holding people accountable? That’s critical. Who’s responsible for the problem? Name names. Show how they are responsible for the problem.
  5. Are enough people affected? Is there a moral outrage.


  • Stephen: You can’t show up at Frontline the week before the story lands and ask them to TV it. Example: ProPublica and This American Life on Use Only as Directed.
  • Evelyn: Collaboration takes a lot longer than you think it will. But sometimes it’s worth it. It helps to have a pretty cooked story before you pitch it to a partner. You need a sales pitch.
  • Mark: They look for ways to broaden the reach of their stories. Example: America’s worst charities. It was a partnership among CIR, the Tampa Bay Times and CNN. One of the worst telemarketing firms was in Tampa’s backyard.

When you publish stories and no one cares, what lessons did you learn

  • Stephen: Avoid systems. People don’t care about systems.
  • Evelyn: Workers comp. Dry.
  • Mark: Avoid systems. What helps: Hold people accountable and humanize the problem.


  • Mark: The best stories bubble up from beats. His reporters cover big, broad beats that they mine for stories.
  • Stephen: There may be a case where the number of people affected is small but the weight of that impact is so heavy that it is worth doing.
  • Jeff Leen’s take on how they evaluate big stories at The Washington Post: “We choose our investigations based on the scope of the matter and the degree of harm to the public good. We also are motivated by the evidence we can obtain and document into wrongdoing. We will pursue any good lead into a matter of public interest.”
  • Stephen: Ask: Is it mediocre or does it really suck?
  • Mark: With what is the single best piece of advice on how to evaluate investigative ideas: What’s your central question?
  • Stephen: It’s important to have check-in points every week or two weeks. Has the problem been solved? Is it not as bad as we first thought?
  • Stephen: He’d rather let reporters forage too long than to kill the reporting too soon.




One thought on “IRE14: Placing your bets and choosing the right stories

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s