Organized chaos. That’s how Lee Zurik of WVUE in New Orleans describes his work days. And no wonder. He anchors two prime time newscasts every night and also serves as the station’s chief investigative reporter. How does he manage to keep producing award-winning work?
We asked Zurik to share his strategies for finding and keeping track of stories while making the most of his limited time.
Request Records – Often
Most of my investigations are based on documents. It’s hard for anyone to factually find fault with something that has been put in writing – in a public document. So I spend at least a part of every week making requests and sorting through records I’ve received.
For me, it accomplishes two things. First, the more I look at records, the more I am able to tell when something doesn’t look right. When you see public entities that work well – that have a “clean” set of records – the problem agencies stick out.
Second, many times I will make a records request for some basic documents like salaries for all employees and then get an unsolicited call or letter telling me what I should be looking for. I guess word spreads when records requests are filed, and when employees hear someone is looking into their entity it is an impetus to call me.
I try to request all of my records electronically. It usually makes it easier for the agencies – they can send a simple email. And for me, it’s a helpful way to keep my records organized.
Know the Law
A few co-workers joke with me – “You play an attorney on TV.” I keep electronic files of relevant court cases and opinions from attorneys general. I also keep copies of all letters our attorney has written on our behalf. And I use them all – frequently.
When a public entity that doesn’t necessarily know the law rejects a records request, before I get any attorney involved, I fire off a letter myself – citing specific cases and opinions. Most of the time, I get access to the records and save our station the money an attorney would cost.
Look at hidden entities
Brett Shipp, a terrific reporter from WFAA, spoke at an IRE Conference two years ago about investigating obscure entities and agencies. That was possibly the best advice I have received. I have had the most success as an investigative reporter looking into those entities. The less sun that’s been shined, the more chance there is for abuse.
Here’s an example that won a national Murrow award:
Let your investigations roll
The more I do this, the more I think the key to most strong investigations is that they don’t disappear after one story. While there are certainly examples otherwise, most strong investigations I see these days dig deeper than one story or two. I think that’s the key to significant journalism that leads to action.
It can be a challenge, because less news viewing means many of your viewers haven’t seen some of your past stories. A fine line exists between rehashing an entire story to update new viewers and telling a new story to loyal viewers. You don’t want to alienate either.
Maintain a Story Board
One thing that helps me stay organized is keeping a dry erase storyboard. I produce at least half a dozen stories every sweeps period and sprinkle in a few stories a month (most times more) out of sweeps. My board has each sweeps month and stories I have planned. So today, I have stories I am planning to do in November, February, and even May. Obviously these change, but it gives me a good idea of where I am. It also shows I consistently have multiple projects going at the same time. Some are short range and others much longer. Last May, we started airing a series of reports we called “Dirty Deeds.” That was a project we worked on for two years. We also aired a few stories in May on campaign spending. That research only took a few days.
Watch your peers
I try to spend a few minutes every week looking at other investigative reporters work from around the country. Twitter makes this easy. It gives me story ideas and shows me how to tell better stories. There are many great reporters around the country, but I never miss a story by Bob Segall (WTHR), Tony Kovaleski (KNTV), Stephen Stock (KNTV), Phil Williams (WTVF), Brett Shipp (WFAA), and Byron Harris (WFAA). All have their own style, but all are tremendous storytellers and investigative reporters.
And finally, if you’re not a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors) – join. That’s how I learned to be an investigative reporter. Until Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005, I was a sports anchor. After the storm, my boss asked me to switch over to news. That has turned into the best decision of my career. I had some basic knowledge from my days as a student at Syracuse University, but no professional experience as an investigative news reporter. I basically taught myself with the resources on the website (tipsheets) and IRE journals.