The LION Publishers Summit, held Oct. 3–5 in Columbia College’s 1104 S. Wabash Building, brought together journalists from all over the country to pick each other’s brains about community journalism in the digital age.
Suzanne McBride, associate professor in Columbia College’s Journalism Department and cofounder of the online news site AustinTalks.org, which make hyper-local news available to the Chicago community of Austin.
McBride presented a speech, providing tips and tricks for investigative community news.
“When I mostly think of investigative reporting I often think of those big exposés 60 Minutes does that takes months of work by many people,” she said. “But I want you to kind of think of investigative as quick hit enterprise stories. They don’t have to be these big in-depth investigative pieces.”
McBride shared some quick, easy ways to write engaging stories that don’t take too much time, mostly using online databases to access important documents.
For information about non-profit organization, McBride suggested visiting Guidestar.org, a site that makes information available about every IRS-registered nonprofit organization, in the interest of transparency.
McBride said investigating matters of business is particularly challenging, because the information is sometimes purposefully difficult to acquire.
“One of the things to keep in mind for Illinois and Indiana and other Midwest states is a lot of info is still kept in paper files,” she said. “I think the business community is still very proprietary with information.”
When looking for business licenses, McBride said the U.S Securities and Exchange Commission’s database, called Edgar, is an invaluable resource because it is the main federal oversight of companies and smaller businesses.
James Stuart, a reporter at Detailed Block in Charlotte, NC, said he uses Edgar to gather information about startups, the main focus of Detailed Block.
“There’s a lot of resources but most people look at the registration of investments,” he said. “They’re just like ‘oh there’s money’ they never talk about the political databases and stuff.”
McBride also said she recommended looking at salaries of business executives and other school and public officials. Brandy Boyd, reporter at The Natomas Buzz, said she gets story ideas from that.
“Like an executive director who’s making six figures in the inner city working with less fortunate children, that might be a story,” she said.
Thomas Rae, reporter at La Grange Today, said the most valuable thing to him when gathering information for an investigative piece is to be well-versed in the state’s FOIA laws.
“Every state has their own freedom of information act. Read them, read it again, then read it again because half the people you deal with don’t get it and will [say] you can’t see something,” he said. “They will have you jumping through hoops you don’t have to go through.”
Once documentation is acquired, McBride said it is a good idea to publish the documents directly on a site, but it is also important to do more exploration of the topic.
“Getting the info and putting it out there is one thing,” she said. “Going back and doing thoughtful interesting analysis is another. I would encourage you to do both.”
Another important aspect of investigative journalism is collaboration, according to McBride. She said the Investigative News Network, an organization dedicated to helping independent reporters produce impactful stories, is always looking to connect journalists or produce investigative pieces for publication.
The stories are out there, McBride said, reporters just have to know how to find them.
“I think there’s a huge vacuum there,” she said. “There’s a lot of room for these stories.”