Day #4: What Next?

January 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Phoenix, AZ: After wrapping up the last of the sessions of the Campus Coverage Project on Sunday, it was back to Sky Harbor International and a flight to JFK where yet another major snowfall awaited me. And yet, this time the 5-hour flight back to New York was different.

Falling down the rabbit hole of investigative journalism: The loud thud means you've hit it big!

Four intense days had flown by and I suddenly found myself overwhelmed for the first time in a week, but not by the usual things that make student journalists scratch their heads in frustration.

I kept wondering to myself, what next? Story ideas, which have been and will probably continue to be one of my greatest journalistic weaknesses, were suddenly clawing at me from several directions like a mob of hungry vultures.

My mind continues to race with questions. Which stories do I pursue? What happens after the FOIA request? What happens if my university is perfect? Where do I even start?

Luckily for me, my university is probably as perfect as most other massive institutions with little to no oversight. Just to clarify: I’m not hoping for some kind of scandal or inconsistency in my university, it’s just that something is bound to go amiss in a community of over 20,000 people and an institution in command of millions in funding. And that’s not cynicism talking, it’s just logic.

I like to think of journalists as flashlights that shine on the obscure or darker areas of life that remain unseen from the general public in addition to covering the obvious and the breaking, though I know of plenty other people who continue to think that journalists both start the fire and pull the alarm.

For now, I’m content with simply gathering the most I can about my university until the beginning of the semester at the end of the month. Story ideas are great, but research and reporting are even better.

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Day #3: “Becoming a Student of the Interview”

January 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Phoenix, AZ: By Day #3 of the Campus Coverage Project, we students had already found that we had more than a few things in common despite our varied geography and backgrounds.


For one thing, stonewalling administrators are very much the norm and not the exception. And for another, we were all in general agreement when it came to the comfort of the Phoenix Sheraton’s lofty beds and the eccentric likability of Eric Nalder.

Nalder, a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter formerly of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Seattle Times, gave us his take on the art of the interview, or as he called it, “honest manipulation.”

According to Nalder, an interview should feel at once conversational and hypnotic, basically “a scientific penetration of the brain.” He explained to students that while the goal of any interview is to “penetrate levels of privacy,” he also stressed that reporters should not misrepresent themselves or deceive others in the process of procuring information.

“We’re in the truth business,” Nalder said. “This isn’t a business for people who are cynical, it’s for people who are skeptical.”

For someone who has cracked some of the most interesting cases in investigative journalism simply by interviewing people (often more than once and for longer than the typical lunch date), Nalder’s tactic of getting people to talk by first taking a simple chronology of their lives is much harder than it sounds.

The process involves a sort of finesse that can only be obtained by “silencing the ego.” But whose ego exactly? Well, as it turns out, yours.

It’s very much in the vein of ‘you’re your own worst enemy,’ which I can personally attest to.  I can’t remember my last interview that went “as planned,” let alone one where the person I was interviewing divulged more than I had expected—though apparently Nalder can, which is why he is the master and I am but a mere apprentice.

But as he pointed out several times over the course of his lecture, it took many years and many interviews before he “became a student of the interview.” But luckily for us, he did and the next time I have an interview you can bet that I’ll be trying out a few of his methods—albeit with varying levels of success. After all, Nalder also taught me that a little bit of serendipity is built into life, even journalism.

Day #2.5: Budgets, Databases and FOIA! Oh, My!

January 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Phoenix, AZ: After an exhausting first full day that included seven sessions over the course of 12 hours, today’s set of six sessions over 12 hours was a welcome change–or perhaps I’m just beginning to build a resistance to investigative conferences!

Pretty soon, I'll look like this!

No matter how you slice it, my brain is beginning to feel like a well-toned body of gray matter. This investigative boot camp is doing wonders for my journalistic sensibilities, as well as my general physical endurance.

Yesterday’s sessions focused on the watchdog trifecta: budgets, databases and FOIA.

Sessions like “Minding the Money” took a systematic look at higher ed institutions with a look at the cold hard cash, making use of the old Watergate adage; ‘follow the money.’

And follow it we did! All the way to federal audit clearinghouses and court record databases, most of which are available at various sites online or are a simple FOIA request away. We learned about how to avoid getting FERPA‘d and the fallacies (okay, maybe ‘fallacies’ isn’t the right word) of open records laws.

At the end of the day, I walked (more like crawled) back to my hotel feeling tired, but nevertheless, empowered! Though, empowered in a purely appropriate, non-power-hungry, journalism kind of way.

After always being told what we couldn’t do, or being constantly reminded of how low on the totem pole we are as ‘just students,’ it was nice to finally see a solution or be taken seriously by older people. Not once did any of the speakers at the conference tell us that we should drop a story because it might be too difficult or that it didn’t matter in the large scope of things.

I felt like a real journalist, learning real skills, pursuing real stories that really mattered. And you can bet that I’ll be taking back a couple things or two with me to campus next semester.

Follow me as I tweet happenings from the annual Campus Coverage Project (#ccp11) @jiejennyzou.

Day #2: “A Document State of Mind”

January 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Phoenix, AZ: Day two of investigative journalism boot camp started off with a quick talk with veteran reporter Jim Steele over a bagel and some orange juice in ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.

Jim Steele, pictured right, has worked with fellow reporter Donald Barlett, to form one of the most impactful investigative duos in American history that continues on to this day.

Does the name Steele sound familiar? Because it should.

Think Steele, as in one half of the legendary Barlett and Steele investigative duo that broke and continue to break some of the most important Pulitzer, and IRE, award winning journalism work since 1971.

Steele delivered a short, but cardinal rule for 75 budding student journalists: “Never assume.”

Steele began his journalism career as a cub reporter working for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

That is, never assume that someone will never speak to you, and never assume which document will ‘break’ the case for you. “The best governments do not want you to know things,” Steele said. And more often than not, reporters will mistakenly spend their time waiting for a “blockbuster” of information when they should be spending their time piecing together a usually “blotchy” narrative, he said.

Even in a digital age that is unparalleled by its ability to break news and provide immediacy to millions in the blink of an eye, it’s nice to know that good ole’ shoe-leather reporting will never go out of style.

So what’s the secret to success for one of the industry’s rare long-standing collaborations? A love for reporting, vigorous peer editing and a scientific approach to investigations. “We test the hypothesis,” Steele said. “Is this true or is that not true?”

Steele and Barlett made a splash in the journalism industry back in the 70s when they broke the norms of investigative journalism and went beyond simply monitoring illegal activity. It was their work on ethics breaches and broken systems that resulted in “a huge tidal shift” in the investigative genre.

For the first time, it was all about “finding a root cause,” whether it involved illegal activity or perfectly legal activity that proved to be anything but clean.

But in an industry that has routinely sold itself short by making everyone an expert on something, it’s too easy to lose credibility and lose viewers at the same time.

Which is where the documents come in.

For Steele, it’s all about maintaining “a document state of mind.”

“The heart of great journalists is curiosity,” Steele said. And with those words, I couldn’t think of a better way to jump down the rabbit hole that is the world of investigative reporting.

Follow my feed on the Campus Coverage Project (#ccp11) on twitter @jiejennyzou.

Campus Coverage Project: Day #1

January 7, 2011 § 1 Comment

Phoenix, AZ.  “It’s the best time to be in the business,” according to Manny Garcia, executive editor of El Nuevo Herald.

So for all of you naysayers who doubt the power of journalism and its ability to subsist as a shifting industry, the joke’s on you. With the advent of social media and advanced digital storytelling techniques, journalists are better equipped to break news more quickly and over a larger audience base than traditional media allows for.

The opportunities are there, and as Garcia pointed out, they belong to those with varied skill sets, as well as the personality and drive to earn the trust of sources. But most importantly, they often go to the reporters with an investigative edge. Because after all, “Watchdog sells papers and moves ratings.”

And here in Phoenix, it’s what personally drives over 75 participants in this year’s Campus Coverage Project, a co-partnered conference aimed at providing college journalists with the tools they need to sufficiently cover the institutions they attend.

After a rousing introduction from IRE’s Mark Horvit detailing an array of breaking and important work, all from college journalists, I can say without a doubt that I am pumped for whatever this weekend has in store!

Horvit discussed the pressing need for more coverage of  the massive institutions that are often responsible for large community employment, command millions of dollars in funding and are routinely overlooked. The importance of the higher education beat is important not only from an economical standpoint, but from a social context as well. As Horvit pointed out, these are the very institutions that are responsible for producing much of America’s future leaders of business and industry.

And who better to cover the university beat than university students?

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