Career Advice

Pulitzer Prize-Winner Michael J. Berens on Investigative Reporting, Wooing Editors, and Finding Death Certificates

By Spenser Davis June 11th, 2014

Investigative journalism is all about the long game. Hours of research, interviews, analysis, and writing requires patience, and usually, reporters don’t get any extra cash while waiting for the phone to ring. Freelancers may be interested in investigative work, but without the backing of a major publication, such projects can quickly turn into time-consuming fool’s errands. However, breaking into investigative journalism as a freelancer is possible, as long as you know where to look.

In 2012, Seattle Times journalist Michael J. Berens won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism for “Methadone and the Politics of Pain,” a series about the consequences of methadone usage in the Washington state medical system. When it comes to the ins and outs of investigative reporting, Berens has more than a few tricks up his sleeve he’d like to share with freelancers. Over the phone, he spoke about the importance of journalist-editor relationships, sharing one’s work online, and taking advantage of public records data.

It’s very hard get a full-time job nowadays, so new journalists are told to freelance before they can get a job with a newspaper. How is it possible for aspiring investigative reporters to begin as freelancers?

Investigative stories are harder to freelance than any other genre of journalism, because the trust level has to be so high between reporter and editor. Investigative pieces often have a strict methodology from beginning to end, to protect yourself and the story. It’s tough to come to a publication or an editor after the fact and say, “I’ve done this investigation, and I’d like you to publish it.” There has to be a relationship from the beginning with most investigative stories, and the very nature of an investigative story is often dependent on point-of-view, and some editors are uncomfortable with relying on that from a person they don’t know.

When there isn’t an established relationship between a reporter and a publication or editor, and a reporter has an idea, how should the reporter address the publication in hopes of getting the pitch accepted?

It’s really important to decide at the beginning who you want to write for. Every publication has a different set of standards or culture in the way that they write and present stories, in the way they structure their publication, and the stories in it. To go get a story and then try to sell it blindly to a bunch of different places without knowing what they want or what their history is with that topic, you’ve given yourself a fairly impossible task.

Would you suggest freelancers reach out directly to those editors, or is there a better way of finding that “in” at most publications?

It’s often done so haphazardly, which is a point of frustration for both sides. First, I’d recommend going to investigative journalism conferences, one of the largest of which, IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference), is coming up this month in San Francisco. There will be over one thousand of the top investigative journalists and editors in America, all in one place, just sharing stories and chatting about journalism. These are great places to strike up conversations with editors to just ask in a natural manner whether or not they take freelance work, and who you should contact for your pitches. It helps if you’ve met them or other editors in a professional setting at one of these conferences, rather than just cold-calling them. With investigative reporting especially, it’s unlikely that an editor will just accept blindly anything that you send them without knowing more about you and whether or not they should trust you with the story.

For those just starting out in journalism without many (or any) publishing credits, how do you recommend they build their portfolio without a full-time gig or established relationship with a publication?

To at least have some work out there, many freelancers go ahead and self-publish their work on their own websites and then promote it via social media. You want to do whatever you can to point people to your writing, and build your portfolio even if it’s just being published on a blog. No matter what you’re posting online, if it’s something that gets readers, you can show the publications you’re pitching that people know about you and enjoy your work.

What are some ways freelancers can stand out from the crowd?

One way is to find and develop an expertise that people are looking for. There are thousands of outlets out there looking for freelance healthcare stories. There are nonprofits, endowments, grant programs, and so many other places that are just begging for healthcare stories from freelancers. But this is where having that expertise comes in—you have to absolutely know what you’re talking about with healthcare stories. It’s not something you can just pick up and brief yourself on in 30 seconds. But you also have to know what sells a piece, what makes a good story.

What are some other investigative niches freelancers should be looking into?

Criminal justice is another one that, like healthcare, is always going to be in demand. Bill Keller, former editor of The New York Times, is starting up this nonprofit criminal justice website. They are scouring the country right now for freelancers to write for them. I have a good friend who sent an e-mail to Bill Keller’s organization and explained who he was and his expertise in criminal justice, and told him about a story he wanted to write. Bill Keller messaged him back and told him they’d love to have him write that piece for them. That’s an example where just having that proven expertise and background helped to build a freelancer-editor relationship from scratch.

What resources and tools do you recommend freelancers use that are easily accessible and not dependent on the backing or money of a large publication?

The number one most powerful tool for finding stories and developing them is public records searches. I can’t tell you how many doors have opened because I’ve filed a public records request and obtained documents that revealed an even better story than I was researching in the first place. That’s a tool that’s available that’s open to every citizen in every state, and I’m shocked by how little people take advantage of public records law. For instance, in Washington State, you’re allowed to access a database of every death certificate in the state. Do you realize how many stories can be found in such a database? For instance, I used this database to track every person who’d died in an adult care home in the state. All you have to do is take the addresses of every adult care home in the state and run them through the database. It’s really quite easy to find all of this, and often it’s completely free.

What are some ways freelancers can use these resources to compete with staff journalists already backed by a publication?

I would file these public records requests and find my story, then go find the outlet that the story would fit the most. Now I’ve got some ammunition, and I could go to the publication and say “I have this right now. You could get the information, too, but I have it and the story immediately.” Editors respond to what they can see, and if they see you’ve got the story now instead of the weeks or months later it would be when someone on their staff could get their hands on it, they are more likely to want you to write it. General stories with commonly found information that require no expertise or specific experience are not going to get you into these publications. You have to show that you have those skills or those documents or whatever it takes to show that not only is the story unique, but you are uniquely suited to write it the best way possible.

Aside from the public records services and, are there any other places you check to find story ideas?

I’m always looking for new ideas for stories. That’s such a major part of being a journalist, being able to find the story when nobody else can. I run a website, Watchdog Reporter, and on the page titled “Handouts,” I’ve got a document called “Finding the Story” that has a couple pages of some of the resources I use. Some of my biggest stories and projects have also come from press releases. A lot of reporters seem to not know that some of these resources even exist or think that they are too difficult to obtain, when in reality it’s so easy to access records of all kind, many that might lead to stories that are hiding in plain sight. I think that’s why these journalism conferences are so popular and helpful, because journalists just talk and trade tips about where to find stories and information. I could go through thousands of places you could hunt for stories and find great stuff, if you know what and where to look.

Image via Metro UK

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