A good source is worth every minute you put into cultivating him or her. A source can tip you off to stories you might not find any other way, steer you in the right direction and keep you from making embarrassing mistakes. But reporters need more than sources when they’re working on tough stories. They also need allies.
Will Carless and Andrew Donohoe of Voice of San Diego, a nonprofit news organization, say they couldn’t have managed their five-year investigation into financial abuse by a government-sponsored agency without some allies. In the most recent IRE Journal, they describe allies as “absolute experts in the field, who are willing to go way beyond the 15-minute phone interview….people who will sit down with you for two hours and pore through complicated documents that only a few people understand.”
As they dug into the workings of the Southeastern Economic Development Corp., they talked to appraisers, accountants, land-use lawyers and zoning experts. And they didn’t just consult with them. They got the experts involved in the story.
We shared our suspicions and anger with them and made them as excited about getting to the bottom of the story as we were…And in the end they shared in our successes and the fruits of our labor.
Figuring out what was going on at the agency took perseverance and moxie. One official repeatedly refused to hand over records that were clearly public, Carless and Donohoe write. The solution? Start a “Watch” blog detailing what secretaries, lawyers and politicians told the reporters as they pressed for the records. And the blog enlisted new allies for the reporting project.
Soon, readers began to chime in with their own calls and emails to politicians and to [the official’s] office. Public indignation began to simmer, then boil.
After two months, Voice of San Diego got the records and validated the blog “Watch” technique. They’ve used it several times since then, starting blogs that put the heat on public officials who refuse to answer questions or respond to requests. Bravo, I say. And thanks to them for sharing their strategies.