IRE14: Web tools, tips and tricks for investigations

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.

Web tools, tips and tricks for investigations

Speakers: Jaimi Dowdell, senior training director at IRE

Things to learn today

  • Cut through the noise
  • Be a smarter searcher
  • Know where to find key information fast
  • Discover tools to save time
  • Learn to uncover information to drive stories

Google advanced search

  • Narrow your search terms
  • California agriculture enforcement is 8 million results. Add quotes around it, you get 7 results
  • Use the advanced search to narrow or limit the search. Search with AND / OR connectors.
  • Search Tennessee enforcement. Then with advanced search, you can narrow it to site or domain with a .gov. You can also narrow it pages with certain search words in the url.
  • You can search by file type. If you limit it to PowerPoint files, you can usually find someone’s contact information at the end of the slide deck.
  • If you want to find data or forms, you can also search for Excel file types. You often find government forms when you search for Excel and then you can make a public records request for that form.

Google image searches

  • Find an image, copy the url, then search in Google for the image url. You’ll see all the other places where that image has been published.

Search engine limits and other options

  • All search engines have strengths and weaknesses
  • Try stuff, test it and go. Use caution. Use what you find as a tip that requires more verification.
  • We all use Google first. But if you really want to search the web, you should try some others.
  • Others to try: DuckDuckGo, Blekko, Million Short. Blekko is her new favorite because she found some things on herself that she didn’t find elsewhere.
  • For background people, Duff Wilson’s Reporter’s Desktop is still very useful, especially the Who is John Doe? page on how to background people.
  • She also likes You can find social media and more.
  • PeekYou is like
  • Spokeo. It cost money and many results wrong but useful to try. You can also search for court records.
  • Other options: Facesaerch, birthdatabase, VineLink (track inmates but not all 50 states).

Records portals

  • BRBpub. Go to the public records page. You can find all the occupational licensing boards in your state.
  • Portico. From the University of Virginia. It has a directly of real estate assessors.
  • Online searches. Similar to BRB. A list of searchable databases
  • Directory. Shows state and county court database


  • WayBack Machine: Search web pages that have been removed
  • DomainTools: Find out who is behind a website. You can also sometimes find phone numbers there.

Searching social media

  • Addictomatic: Good for capturing social media around an event
  • SocialMention
  • Whostalkin
  • Samepoint
  • Icerocket


  • Search by geolocation on Twitter


IRE14: Investigating powerful institutions, inside & out

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.

Investigating powerful institutions, inside & out

Speakers: Matt Apuzzo, The New York Times; Ross Garber, lawyer; James Grimaldi, senior writer at The Wall Street Journal

Matt Apuzzo

His tipsheet is here.

Documents to look for

  • Where would it be written down. Who would have it. What would it be called.
  • Road map documents: Phone directories, flow charts, policy documents (we love draft policy documents)

The people you will meet on your journey:

  • The scorned lover. This person loved his organization, but then is left out. He’s using you to settle scores.They’re great. But you just need to know that they’re using you.
  • The only guy with half a brain in the damn place. Everyone else is an idiot. He likes you because you give him attention. He knows where the problems are. He’s using for an ego boost.
  • The charmer: She’s using you because she’s smart.
  • The suicide bomber: He’s in trouble and he’s using you to take the entire organization with  you.
  • The archivist: This person has all the emails in a box in the basement.

Ross Garber

He’s a lawyer hired by boards or governments to do internal investigations

Things to think about when there’s an internal investigation

  • Who is doing the investigation: If it’s the staff lawyers or HR staff, then it may be a smaller problem
  • If you see outside legal counsel coming in to do an internal investigation, that can signal the problem is larger. Why? We cost more money. Also, consider who the outside counsel is.
  • Every person interviewed by the investigator, the person is a potential source for a reporter
  • Every set of documents assembled for an investigator, that’s a potential set of records for a reporter to acquire

What he looks for

  • First, what public documents can he get. He can’t be spun by documents.
  • Before he hits the ground, he looks at securities documents, social media, Nexis
  • If he has time, he begins to acquire
  • When he hits the ground, he finds a sherpa to be his guide. It has to be someone he can trust to show him around
  • Second, he looks for an organization chart
  • Third, he wants a phone list
  • Then he debriefs his guide about the organization to find out what’s going on and what’s been done before he got there.
  • If he has time, he does email searches. He focuses on the key actors and key dates
  • He always looks for emails with no subjects. that’s where he finds the best information
  • Once he’s looked through all the documents, he considers talking to people. Talking to people is a lot more dangerous. Because once he starts to interview people, their next conversation could be with a reporter

How he approaches people

  • He tries to make them feel comfortable. He rarely wears a tie.
  • He brings an associate. He puts the associate outside of the site line of the person. The associate keeps notes.
  • His goal is to make the person get comfortable and build a relationship
  • He talks as long as he needs to collect as much as he does
  • Once he’s done that, then and only then does he break out the binders with the emails, tweets, etc.
  • After the interview, that person may not be going back to their desk again, if they’ve done something wrong

When reporters call, how does he deal with that

  • One of the first things he talks about with clients is what is the protocol with reporter
  • Normally, the rules is no one talks with out counsel clearing it, meaning him
  • That’s because there can be ramifications if people talk, with the stock price, law enforcement, etc.
  • Usually, all statements are cleared through the lawyers
  • Once the know enough, they anticipate a call from the press and a media statement is prepared.
  • That media statement says as little as possible. Every comma needs to truthful.
  • Your job is to say thank you and go away. Because if you don’t, that makes my job harder.
  • The inside press people will know the least about what’s going on. That’s because they are the ones most likely to have relationships with people in the press and would be most likely to talk. In a serious case, we may have outside crisis communications staff but even then their information is limited because it’s unclear if attorney-client privilege applies.

James Grimaldi

  • Search the clips: Search your own clips and Nexis.
  • Find a sherpa: But make sure to investigate them. Have the big talk: I will need to know everything about you. You might as well tell me now.
  • Map the connections: Get the org chart but you also want to make a social network graph to show the connections
  • Timeline: It seems obvious but I always start a timeline.
  • Do you homework: I don’t make a phone call until I’ve done a complete background on the person.

Other tips

  • James: Don’t ever say stuff to get in trouble. Don’t speak ill of the subject you’re investigating. Don’t put disparaging remarks in emails, notes and don’t even say it.
  • James: Prepare for the push back. Big institutions may call the editor or publisher. There may be letters to the editor or social media responses. The National Zoo ordered background checks. They wanted to know if the reporters were members of PETA.
  • James: Correct all errors
  • Matt: Visit the source at home. Call the flak when you have facts to talk with them about.
  • Ross: If you come in not knowing anything and ask for a general question, I will answer that question generally. The most you know, the better you are to ask questions and convince the flak that you’re onto a story instead of just fishing.
  • Ross: Outside investigations are secret because of attorney-client privilege. But often, the report is disclosed to someone else, such as a government agency. Once that report is disclosed, the attorney-client privilege is waived and sometimes, depending on the sate law, the attorney-client privilege may be waived for the entire topic.
  • Ross: I rarely create a full narrative report. i usually do a PowerPoint or bullet points. He usually just shows pictures of documents to show his case.
  • Ross: Don’t assume investigations are a whitewash. Agencies often want to get to all the facts.
  • Ross: Look at the relationship between the company and the law firm. He turns down a lot of work if his firm and partners have business work with a company. That could create a conflict of interest.
  • Ross: There is usually a record of an investigation just so the board can show a record of its due diligence




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.




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.


IRE14: How to find stories in government contracting data

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.

How to find stories in government contracting data

Speaker: Danielle Ivory, business-government at The New York Times and formerly at Bloomberg

The basics

  • Federal contracting spending more than doubled to about $541 billion from fiscal 2001 to 2008
  • About 70 percent of federal contracts are defense spending

Overview of search sites for federal contracts

  • This is the best place to search for information before the contract is awarded. Find RFPs, pre-solicitations, etc. Use the advanced search.
  • Search contract data with a variety of terms.
  • Federal Procurement Data System: Search contract data with a variety of terms.
  • Sunlight Foundation: : Search contract data with a variety of terms. User friendly interface.
  • Contracts: To get the actual contract, file a FOIA/records request.

Part 1: Before the award

  • Will it be a competitive contract or a non-competitive? A contracting officer for the agency generally puts out a a request for proposals (an RFP)
  • And then companies compete for the work

Non-competitive contracts

IRE14: Federal contract J&A

The justification and approval for a federal no-bid contract.

  • When do they happen: There may be only one company that offers the service. For example, the government may have
  • The government must justify why a contract is not competitive. There are eight reasons. Including: Short timeline
  • To find the government’s justification, search for the J&A, the justification and approval. That’s a box to check on the advanced search page. Some of them are not helpful. Like the one in the photo.
  • J&As are rich places to find story leads and information.

Part 2: The government awards the contract

  • At that point, lots of information becomes public. First, the winner’s name.
  • But remember, it’s really hard to find out before hand who wins the contract. The contract officer is prohibited by law from telling people before hand.
  • If you’re following the contract and you want to get the scoop, talk to Congress. The contracting office sometimes tells the representative whose district is where the work will be done. And Congress is a lot leakier than the contracting office.

Where to find contract information after the award

How to localize federal contract data

  • On and the FPDS site you can search based on place of performance (where the work is being done) or by the place of the vendor.

Things to watch for

  • Competition is always something to look for. If its listed as full and open competition, how many bidders did they have.

The losers

  • The companies that lose a contract bid are usually mad. They’re especially mad if they are the company that had the contract previously and have lost it in the new award.
  • Look for protests. How to get them:
  • The agency: Make a direct agency request. It usually requires a FOIA. It is absolutely public record. Ask for all the protesting documents and the protest decisions.
  • The GAO: Most companies when they lose an award will go to the Government Accountability Office, which has a protest unit. For companies that lose an incumbent contract, they can file a protest with the GAO and immediately get a stay on the new award and they can continue the work under the old contract. The GAO protests are very useful. They must come out within 100 days and they are very readable. The only way to see the actual bids made for contracts is through the GAO or lawsuits.
  • The court: The loser files a suit in federal court. Search civil suits on Pacer.


  • Subcontracting data is very opaque. A rule was passed recently that the first level of subcontractors over a certain amount needs to be publicly reported. That information should be available at
  • The government wants to award 23 percent of prime contracts to small business. The definition of small business changes by industry. It’s defined by the Small Business Administration under “small business standards.” Usually, a small business means less than $7 million in annual revenue or less than 500 employees.
  • At Bloomberg, she searched the federal contracting database every morning. Federal contracting was her beat.


How to make a local public records request

All the databases listed above are for federal contracts. For local contracting data, you’ll need to make a public records request to the city, county or police department that you cover. Here’s a template for how you might make that request. It’s important to include the fields you’d want in the database.

I’m requesting a spreadsheet or CSV file with the following information for all contracts with a start date between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2014:

ID number (other unique identifying number for the contract)
Project description
Vendor name
Vendor address
Vendor city
Vendor state
Vendor zip code
Vendor phone number
Agency name
Agency contract officer name
Agency contract officer email address
Date signed by vendor
Date signed by agency
Contract end date
Competitive bid (yes/no)
Base contract value
Contract modified (yes/no)
Final total paid under the contract




IRE14: Unmasking the cheaters: From biogenesis to BALCO

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.

Unmaking the cheaters: From biogenesis to BALCO

Speakers: Mark Fainaru-Wada, ESPN; Lance Williams, Center for Investigative Reporting; T.J. Quinn, ESPN investigative reporter; Tim Elfrink, managing editor at Miami New Times

Lance Williams

  • BALCO: Fantastic summary by Williams to describe it: A conspiracy to corrupt sports through designer steroids.
  • The story was laid out in their book, “Game of Shadows

T.J. Quinn

Tim Elfrink

Lessons learned from these stories

How do you get and maintain sources

  • Lance Williams: Cold calling sources is hard and even harder in doping cases where people don’t want to talk. Mark just kept calling and calling people until he eventually broke off small stories. With a key source, Lance called him to check in on him when he got a new job just to chat.

How to develop sources in the federal government

  • T.J. Quinn: It starts with one and leads to another. Once you have a source, you can tell the source that you need to talk with an agent in another field office and that person may let you use their name to make a connection. At one point, he got a fax number off a piece of paper from an office he needed to build sources in. He called 38 numbers around that number until he got someone’s voice mail. And he eventually got a call back. When I got ahold of someone, my pitch was always the same: I just need to know if what we’ve got is right.

Break from the masses

  • At the Bonds’ grand jury, most reporters hung out together in the courthouse. They all wanted to know what Bonds was saying on the inside. T.J. Quinn broke from the pack and found an alcove where he could hear the testimony.

Reading list



IRE14: Creating a culture of creativity

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: Creating a culture of creativity – pushing your newsroom to push the envelope

Speakers: Shazna Nessa,  AP interactive and innovations chief; Andrew Donohue, Center for Investigative Reporting; Leticia Britos Cavagnaro, Stanford d school

9 tips for building a culture of creativity

  1. Collaborate radically: Pull together reporters, photographers, editors and others to brainstorm solutions to problems.
  2. Recruit people who aren’t like you: Diverse teams means diverse solutions.
  3. Incentivize the process, not just the outcomes: Reward the process, not the outcome. Example: When brainstorming, reward the people with the most ideas, not the best idea.
  4. Know when to own (and not own) your ideas: Feel ownership so you will be compelled to act. But don’t feel so attached that you can’t let go of bad ideas.
  5. Separate idea generation from idea judgement: The quickest way to kill a great brainstorming session is to shut down ideas that other people throw out. Have time to throw out ideas without any limits, then make time to cross off the bad ones.
  6. Lower the bar to publishing: Stress the facts. Be flexible and experiment with everything else.
  7. Have a bias toward action: Don’t form a committee. Just do it.
  8. Are you asking the right question: Solve the biggest problem. Don’t ask “What kind of map should this story have?” Ask: “What’s the most compelling way possible to tell this story visually?”
  9. Empower people to recreate systems: If people don’t like how things work, empower them to fix it.

Other ideas

  • How can you be creative on deadline: “Constraints drive creativity”
  • For brainstorming sessions, don’t skill any ideas at the end
  • In newsrooms, we don’t experiment with facts. We experiment with everything else.
  • If you say we’re going to experiment, that lowers people’s blood pressure. If you just say we’re going to experiment and try thi and see how it works.
  • Use the “what if” framing. What if we …
  • Let’s come up with 10 ideas that are completely crazy
  • Standing vs. sitting changes the energy
  • If you fail and didn’t learn anything, that’s failure
  • How to bring innovation into a skeptical newsroom. Show them results.
  • If you need new energy, change the meeting room. Go outside.

Reading list