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.)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Cohen (email@example.com) offered some resources available the old-fashioned way, on paper:
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org), 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
expediting projects and not getting mired in the minutiae. One of her
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.
Beth Marchak (email@example.com) of The Plain Dealer offers these tips for getting inside an agency:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
For international phone directories, try http://www.infobel.be/infobel/infobelworld.html.
People: To find dead people who once received Social Security benefits, try htp://www.ancestry.com; to find pilots, try http://www.landings.com; to find a list of online databases, try htp://www.internets.com.
Professionals: To find physicians, try htp://www.ama-assn.org or htp://www.docboa rd.org; to find phone books of institutions, try htp://www.uiuc.edu/cgi-bin/ph.
Federal government directories: htp://www.access.gpo.gov/plumbook/toc.html.
For a list of online newspapers that put their clips online for free, try htp://sunsite.unc.edu/slanews/internet/archives.html.
By Nick Jesdanun
The Associated Press
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:
In the works is an event with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to discuss campaign finance.
If you have a suggestion for an upcoming RRA event, please contact newsmaker committee chairman Carl Weiser, at (703) 276-5829 or at email@example.com.
By Carl Weiser
Gannett News Service
It's a good source for all kinds of state-by-state medical data, from abortion rates to weird medical incidents. Every week the site is updated with a new issue of "Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report," which makes for some interesting reading.
One of the recent issues has a report about a Kentucky farmer killed by carbon monoxide from his tractor -- while he was outside in a field. Another has a story about a rubella outbreak on a Florida-based cruise ship. Not all the specifics were given, but it was a good start.
To get there, go to http://www.cdc.gov. Click on the little blue MMWR box and search for your state, or even counties or towns. Or you can click on the "MMWR Weekly" box, which gives you their weekly updates, listing the headlines.
The "surveillance summaries'' box connects to good state-by-state data on a lot of diseases, as does the "summary of notifiable diseases" box. A notifiable disease is something you really don't want to catch.
The beat, of course, is Washington regional reporter. The stories were not on Whitewater or Monica Lewinsky, but on Boeing's merger, Microsoft's antitrust troubles and tobacco settlement lawyer fees.
The Times, which last year became the first newspaper of its size ever to win two Pulitzers in the same year, is very conservative in the number of nominations it makes each year.
RRA President Jerry Zremski of The Buffalo News also was nominated by his newspaper for a Pulitzer Prize. He was nominated as part of a Buffalo-based team that produced a series on suburban sprawl.
The board plans follow-up e-mails and phone calls in March in an effort to double the number of active memberships. After two more warnings, non-paying members will have their names dropped from the RRA membership list and no longer will receive the newsletter or announcements of upcoming events.
The board also is compiling 34 member surveys to get a better sense of what regionals want from newsmaker and professional affairs events. Members who have yet to return the survey are requested to do so as soon as possible.
The board also discussed upcoming newsmaker events tentatively set around the upcoming ISTEA debate in Congress and this month's National Governors' Association meeting in Washington (although the latter event was later canceled by Ohio Gov. George Voinovich, whose aides cited a scheduling conflict).
By Jerry Zremski
The Buffalo News
It's an odd time to be a regional reporter, seeing how most of us don't cover the nether regions.
All many of us can do, really, is sit back and watch Ken Starr and the Paula Jones defense team leak like the mighty Mississippi to the Media Elite. We can just keep on doing what we do best: report the news from Washington for the folks back home.
After all, we regionals don't have the kinds of sources that the Media Elite have. I, for one, don't have any idea who Reportedly is, even though Reportedly is appearing in all sorts of stories and threatening to become the Deep Throat of Monicagate.
Reportedly -- who, like Yanni and Fabio, doesn't seem to have an actual name -- broke his or her biggest story yet in the Jan. 29 issue of The Washington Post.
Here's what Reportedly said:
"On that day in the Oval Office, however, (Kathleen) Willey took her financial woes to the president and flirt turned to fire, according to an account she REPORTEDLY has given in a sworn deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case" (emphasis added).
Reportedly must be highly credible -- credible enough to allow the Post to violate the long-held rule that when using unnamed sources, we must have two who independently confirm the same facts before we base a story on those sources.
I've scoured that story a few times, and I still can't find that second source, though Reportedly is quoted a couple other times.
Of course, Reportedly is not the only impeccable single anonymous source to be quoted in Monicagate stories. "Friends" of one type or another are equally reliable.
On the same day, another Post story quoted a "friend" of Monica Lewinsky's as saying she was "brimming with excitement" over an encounter with George Stephanopoulos.
"You know the greatest thing about it?" the Post quoted Monica as saying, according to her "friend." "I wasn't wearing my bra."
Well. So now it seems we have a new rule. A single anonymous source is sturdy enough to impugn someone's character, as long as it's "Reportedly," or as long as it's a "friend."
It all makes me worry, really. For one thing, I have a lot of friends. And for another, my editor asked me a tough question the other day:
"Do the reporters down there in Washington have any idea how reviled they've become?" Yes, I suppose we do. Even those of us who don't know Reportedly, and who stick to that old two-anonymous-source rule, hear more contempt on the other end of the phone lines these days, from both readers and sources.
All we regionals can do about it, I suppose, is to hold our heads high and, at all cost, keep our feet out of the quicksand all around us.
Thankfully, Matt Drudge isn't out to beat me on my story about the Justice Department's involvement in an Indian land claim near Buffalo, and I did not expect to see him at any of this month's budget briefings. So I can keep on going about my business the way I learned it back in j-school, where Reportedly was a pariah and anonymous sources were a last resort.
Of course, that old-school approach will never land me a guest appearance on "Meet the Press." But then again, it's not really "Meet the Press" anymore.
It's Meet Matt Drudge.
By Adriel Bettelheim
The Denver Post
This year's historic balanced budget and predictions of a surplus of between $10 billion and $50 billion have already spawned a heated debate between the White House and Congress over how to respond. President Clinton wants to save the surplus while tackling a Social Security overhaul. Some Republicans in Congress want to use it for tax cuts or more roads and bridges.
"In some ways, it will be an intellectually refreshing year. But in other ways, it will be a frustrating year for everybody, members included," noted Stan Collender, budget expert with Burson Marsteller in Washington.
Collender, Congressional Quarterly budget reporter Andrew Taylor, White House Office of Management and Budget spokesman Larry Haas and Senate Budget Committee assistant staff director Carole McGuire offered some tips at a recent RRA seminar on what to look for in coming months.
"Paul, we're working on a story about the Fed. We'd like to interview Alan Greenspan and want to know if you can help us out. If not, could you just give us the name and phone number of Greenspan's flack?"
Sure, why not? So what if Greenspan doesn't give interviews to The New York Times or The Washington Post for fear of setting off a reaction in the markets? Why wouldn't he want to talk to a small paper in the Rust Belt?
Needless to say, I gave the paper the number of the Fed's press office. I should have mentioned if they ever need to get in touch with Chief Justice Rehnquist, I've got a direct line...
But I didn't. Editor-reporter relations are simply too important to our
here in Washington.
-- Paul Kane,
States News Service
Got news? Call Jill Young Miller at (202) 824-8225, or e-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org.
Richmond, a graduate of New Mexico's School of Journalism, capped his nine-year career with a series on the environmental and economic policies of New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.
The series for The Record of Hackensack, N.J., garnered numerous awards, including the National Press Club's 1997 Robert L. Kozic award for Environmental Reporting and the 1996 John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism.
In 1993, Kelly was hired by The Record to cover Washington while working for States News Service. A year later, he joined the paper's staff and was assigned to cover state government in Trenton.
Contributions can be sent to: The Kelly Richmond Memorial Fund, University of New Mexico Foundation, Hodgin Hall, Second Floor, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, N.M. 87131
The four-and-a-half-day workshop will bring together more than 25 of the leading environmental journalists, scientists, educators and environmental leaders to speak on Great Lakes issues and environmental journalism.
The workshop will be held June 2 to 6 at MSU's Kellogg Center and MSU's Journalism School. The deadline for applying is March 16.
This institute is aimed at training journalists from the Great Lakes states (New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota) and the Canadian province of Ontario.
The fellowship pays for your tuition, room and board, reading materials and computer training. There is no cost to apply. Journalists selected to participate must pay a $75 registration fee upon acceptance.
Among the new topics to be discussed at the 1998 institute are sustainable development, nuclear power, biodiversity and forestry. Sessions will also be held on air and water pollution, exotic species, environmental justice, computer-assisted reporting and other issues.
Past speakers have included top officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory and other agencies and universities.
The institute will con sist of lectures, debates, hands-on exercises, workshops, tours and other educational programs. Participants will observe pollution-monitoring efforts on board the research vessel, Shenehon, on Lake Michigan; view environmental research at the Kellogg Biological Station in Hickory Corners, Michigan; see one of the Midwest's most advanced solar-powered homes and visit a Lansing Lugnuts baseball game.
To receive an application form and more information about the institute, contact Barb Miller by calling (517) 432-1415; by fax at (517) 355-7710; by e-mail at Mille384@pilot.msu.edu or by writing to 342 Communication Arts Building, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824-1212.
Or you can download an application form at http://www.journalism.msu.edu/environment/Lake.html.
Applicants will need to submit an application form, a resume, a one-page letter of interest and a nomination letter from an editor or supervisor.
A new Web site, operated by the House Press Gallery, provides vote information as well as other details about life in the House. The Ronald Reagan Airport vote, for instance, was available within an hour of the floor action.
In addition, the site includes lists of the day's committee hearings, statistics (such as members' salaries), gallery notices, floor proceedings (which list the fact that someone spoke on a topic, but does not record what was said) and links to various other sites.
Superintendent Jerry Gallegos said the site will soon include election primary dates and other election filing deadline information.
The address for the press gallery's site is http://www.house.gov/daily/hpg.htm.
-- Sylvia Smith,
Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette