February 1998

Veterans offer tips at IRE conference

By James V. Grimaldi
and John M. Biers

The Investigative Reporters and Editors' regional conference a few weekends ago provided reporters with a wealth of new techniques as well as tried-and-true tricks to reporting, interviewing, researching, organizing and writing.

About 200 people attended the wide-ranging conference that included everything from panels on backgrounding individuals and companies on deadline to a rollicking yet meandering debate on how the media has covered the Clinton scandal.

As a public service to busy and harried journalists unable to attend the conference, The Regional Reporter provides a sampling of some of the conference's reporting tips and advice. (We'll spare you the details on the Clinton debate.)

The Interview

Scott Wilson of The Washington Post offered useful interviewing techniques he perfected while covering the Aberdeen, Md., military sex scandal.

The most important thing? "To make yourself a credible person," Wilson said.

He recommends "auditing" stories, especially controversial ones, by phoning sources afterward for a thoughtful critique.

Other tips: Don't burn anyone; be incredibly accurate; overwhelm your subject with your knowledge.

Wilson also hearkened back to some basics we sometimes forget: Don't pounce on sources. Avoid "yes" and "no" questions. Don't stick to a list of prepared questions. Try to understand what is preventing someone from speaking to you.

Finally, use silence to your advantage, as people tend to fill voids.


On deadline, finding details about individuals and companies can be difficult without some handy tools, said Margot Williams of The Washington Post and Gary Cohen of U.S. News and World Report.

William offered some excellent online Internet resources, highlighted later. William is reachable at Cohen ( offered some resources available the old-fashioned way, on paper:

Organizing Projects

A panel on organizing and writing small projects was invaluable to anyone who wants to do sophisticated stories, but lacks the time we suspect they require. David Boardman and Deb Nelson of The Seattle Times explained their secrets for nailing great stories Quickly and Very Quickly.

In "Diary of a two-day reporting effort," Boardman and Nelson described how their colleague, Eric Nalder (, quickly confirmed that Washington State ferries were lacking enough life rafts-- a great story in the aftermath of the "Titanic" movie. One technique: Recruit agency employees in the know to help you obtain and understand key documents.

Nelson's "Diary of three-week reporting effort" offered similar guidance for expediting projects and not getting mired in the minutiae. One of her secrets:
Build "string" on a number of stories simultaneously while you're waiting for your FOIAs to go through or for people to call you back.

Federal Agencies

Beth Marchak ( of The Plain Dealer offers these tips for getting inside an agency:

Welfare Overhaul

The Wall Street Journal's Chris Georges and The Washington Post's Kate Boo spoke of the need to report on welfare changes from the ground. Sometimes changes come along the margins, unexpectedly.

Georges did one story that documented how grocery stores were suddenly selling cheaper brands because food stamp recipients had less money.

A time-worn investigative technique applies: Follow the money. For example, find out how local governments and community programs are dealing with new money for day care. Use the opportunity to explore other low-income issues, including transportation, housing and working.

Some sources recommended: Donna Pavetti of the Urban Institute, (202) 857-8660; Mark Greenberg, Center for Law and Social Policy, useful for tracking trends in the states, (212) 532-3200.

For a view from the right, contact the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector, who helped Congress write the bill, (202) 546-4400. For the left, contact Wendell Primus of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, (202) 408-1080; he quit the Clinton administration in protest when the bill was signed.

James V. Grimaldi is the regional coordinator for Investigative Reporters and Editors; he can be reached at (202) 662-7455 and at

Site's recommended by Margot Williams

Phone and e-mail directories:

For international phone directories, try

People: To find dead people who once received Social Security benefits, try htp://; to find pilots, try; to find a list of online databases, try htp://

Professionals: To find physicians, try htp:// or htp://www.docboa; to find phone books of institutions, try htp://

Federal government directories: htp://

For a list of online newspapers that put their clips online for free, try htp://

How to steer your way through highway debate

By Nick Jesdanun
The Associated Press

With the federal budget expected to end with surpluses in years to come, a debate that once centered around how to balance the budget is becoming one of what to do with the extra money.

One man lining up for a chunk is Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Others want to see the surplus used to provide additional tax cuts or reduce the national debt. President Clinton wants it reserved for Social Security.

These issues are likely to consume much of 1998, an election year.

First, a little about the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, or ISTEA. It's the 1991 law that funded most federal highway, bridge and mass transit programs through Sept. 30, 1997.

Congress has been working on renewing the measure, but lawmakers were unable to reach agreement on key issues, including how much to spend overall on transportation.

Highway money is funded primarily through gasoline taxes. Those taxes haven't been spent as fast as they have been collected, with the difference used to help balance the budget on paper.

Calling the practice unfair, Shuster has tried to increase spending in ISTEA's successor. The bill his committee approved would increase spending on highways from about $21 billion a year to $32 billion, an amount that would exceed balanced-budget spending caps by $27 billion to $34 billion over five years.

Senate transportation leaders (led by Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Chafee, R-R.I.) and the Clinton administration also wanted to increase spending for transportation, but not to the degree Shuster desired. House Republican leaders also balked, remaining reluctant to shatter their historic balanced-budget agreement with the White House.

Congress remained in a stalemate and passed a six-month extension to tide over states.

With the programs about to expire again, Shuster has been meeting with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other GOP leaders in an effort to reach agreement. But Shuster has said he was prepared for a fight, as has House Budget Chairman John Kasich, R-Ohio, a leading opponent of increased spending.

So what's a regional reporter to do in sorting through the numbers and rhetoric? Plenty.

For starters, the overall funding level will affect what each state gets for its highways. House and Senate Transportation Committees can provide estimates for their bill. The Northeast-Midwest Institute also has published state-by-state lists.

Then there's the debate over equity. Southern and other growing states (the "donor" states) complain they do not get enough money under the current distribution formulas to meet their increased needs. Northeastern states, the "donee" states that now get more federal money than their motorists pay in gas taxes, are protective of the formulas, saying they reflect the region's need to maintain older and more heavily traveled roads.

There is sentiment in Congress to shift more of the money to the donor states, which is one reason Shuster wants to increase spending significantly. He has said the increased dollars will help him provide more equity without lowering funding levels for states used to getting a larger share. Depending on whether your state is a donor or a donee, count on your delegation to either scream or applaud anytime a formula change is proposed.

Then there are the funds earmarked for specific projects, many of which are in districts of the members of the House Transportation Committee. Although the Senate generally shuns projects deemed "pork" by critics and "demonstration" by supporters, it usually approves them as part of the final compromise package.

So far, no project list has been released -- that's likely to be inserted into the bill just before it leaves the full House committee. But committee officials already have given some lawmakers an indication about what they could expect for their particular project. Ask them, although be forewarned that anything could change.

Jonathan Riskind at the Columbus Dispatch asked Ohio transportation officials last year how much of the earmarked money in the 1991 bill actually got spent. State officials complained that many of the projects were not high on their own priority list. He found that Ohio spent only $58.2 million out of the $165.2 million authorized.

Other issues of interest include: