Friday, April 20, 2018

AK Press Club: Tim Evans Investigative Journalism

These are rough notes from my first session at the Alaska Press Club Conference at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Tim Evans - Indianapolis Star

[Tim Evans broke the US gymnastics sex scandal story.]

Your reputation is the most important thing you have.

Don't push things beyond what you can do.  If you don't have the facts, don't do it.  I've got editors who push for stronger language.   Don't cave to the editor.

Try to have no errors, be exactly right.  Little screwups - name misspelled - will be attacked "If you can't spell my name, how can we trust anything you write."  Can't be too careful.  Not going to have two years on a project generally.  Don't be afraid to think small.  Not everything has to be a home run.

When we started gymnastics, Nassar was not on our radar.  Narrowed things down to four coaches.  Looking for situation where someone had done something, then went on to harm someone else.  If gymnastics had not taken any action.  Found coaches who had been reported, no action, went on to harm someone else.  Get beyond hypotheticals, get actual examples.

Given a gun permit despite law where they shouldn't have, caused problem, then did it again.  Police already had four coaches, multiple warnings, did nothing.  Nassar, a doctor, wasn't on the list.  Did the four coaches, and someone saw the story, then started getting calls about Nassar.  The calls were so strikingly similar,  Things he said to them all the same, sounded coached, working together.  We actually backgrounded the victims to make sure they weren't working together.  Their stories were so similar.  Made sure they were on different teams, didn't know each other.  Got two victims to agree, third didn't want to be named (has since come out.)  Editors had strict rules for anonymous stories.

Nassar denied - never penetrated.  That caused response from victims
Got tip Aug 4, story ran Sept 12.  Biggest sports sex scandal in US maybe world history.

I don't have a beat any more - advantages because people know you and give you tips.  Now I helicopter in, don't know squat.  Beat contacts really helpful.  Going to meetings, see people every day.  Staffers.  Spend time with them, they know what's going on.  I don't have that luxury now - harder to develop sources.
Downside - if you're the only people in the meeting, if you skewer someone, you have to deal with them next week.  But if you do it with a little care.   Commissioners filed suit against each other over open meetings,  I knew something was going on.  You're going to ruin our reputation - it's going be on the first page, then it will be dismissed in 3 months and won't get covered.  And we did put it on the first page when it was dismissed.  That helped.  You have to report those kinds of things, be as fair as possible.
Don't pisss off a good source, or people you deal with day in and day out.

Beat - got to maintain good relations.

Investigation - more advocacy.  Have to give both sides, laying out a problem, identifying the causes, how to correct the problem.  Little difficult to shift in and out of that.  Have to stop and think about.  Easy to get more accusatory, but have to pull back.

Q:  At what point do you contact the person you're targeting?

A:  Final interview, wait nervously close to the end.  They could come up with something that blows your story out of the water.  Early, you might ask "what is your policy, I'm just trying to understand?"  I play dumb real well.  We wait to within a few days of publication.
First Start story on child abuse.  State agency lying about kid who died in forster care.  Hard to tell because kids are all anonymous.  Got an insider who gave us a list of kids who died.  20% more than in the report.  Did our investigation, they were short counting.  About a week before, on Thursday, governor said "We just discovered we miscounted."  But we were ready because we'd done our homework and could say they only reported that after we called them.  Can't give them too much time.

Try to get someone else to go with you.  They could have lawyers and others around them.  They'll try to intimidate you, keep you off your questions.  Have someone taking notes.  Two heads better than one.  Can say, "We'll get to that, but now I'm asking this question."  We rehearse our questions, try to anticipate their responses and not get caught off guard.  Worst thing is to ask your million dollar question and they have a good response you aren't ready for and throw you off.  Again, two heads better than none.  You may be there an hour, but really looking for their quick deflection.

Q:  Doing a story what are the factors you consider ,what effects do you want?
A:  1.  Who's going to care?  Gotta know your audience.  In Indiana, lots of gun owners, I am too, so not an issue.  But we began to notice lots of guns.  Laws say you have to be good character which is vague - sheriff can sign you off.  Don't have to have felony, just bad character.  Started looking at gun violence.  Tighter gun laws, not going to work.  But wanted to get them to enforce laws in effect.   Looked at people of 'bad character' who got concealed carry permits and committed crime.  We showed state not doing good job of enforcing law.  We felt good,   Indiana didn't fix the problem, they just hid it by concealing list of concealed permit holders.

All info about permit holders was online including addresses and phone numbers.  when we published in the newspaper they freaked out and cut back.

Q: Impacts of investigative reporting.
A:  We work with the net.  We have big commitment to investigations.  We may work for three weeks and come back and say, this really isn't a big story, won't make an impact, let's move on to something else.  I'm lucky in good newsroom with strong leaders.

Q:  How investigative stories are packaged, put on social media, what's the choreography for that?
A:  Big investigation roll out on Sunday, big headlines.  20, 10 years ago.  Don't think we do it that well at the Star.  Our first Nassar story, probably had 100 links in it.  That got us attention early on.  Highly sourced, well documented.  Can embed documents right into the story.  Had a social media plan for launch of USA gymnastic stuff, designer got faces and Olympic logo, facebook and twitter.  We have a long form template we have to use that isn't very good.  In gymnastic story got much more traffic online as in print.  Center was in Indianapolis, but it was a national story.  USA Today pushed it.  Readership far beyond print reach.
Copy editor because a visual producer, was great.  Digital more important than the print.  Print almost afterthought?

Q:  When did you think about the headline?
A:  Them was "out of balance".  On balance team they mark where they should get off, and Simone marked it with a dollar sign.  Started story in March, first published in August.  Theme came up in June.  Got people helping from USA Network.  First story read like everyone had an input - because they did.

Q:  How did online and print headline differ?
Online to get best SEO, best google search results, online people focused on that.  Might have twisted words a bit to boost search hits.

Q  ???
A:  8-5 shift in the past.  I take every phone call  Work 70 hours.    Roman Finnegan.  Source on child abuse in state system.  He was scattered.  Knew he had a story, but couldn't pin him down.  Said, send me one page email with five key points.  He sent 20 pages.  I finally gave up on him.  He got an attorney and eventually got $9 million settlement and I didn't get the story, pissed me off.  But at certain point you have to cut and run.

Q:  ???
A:  Got to watch it in small market.  I've asked to talk to all employees, and then people want to know what I'm looking at.

Q:  When you devote more resources to investigative project, you have to give something up.  How do you make that decision?
A:  I don't have to make that decision.  It is a huge investment.  We got a lot of clicks.  I could have been writing breaking stories every day and gotten more clicks.  Job is investigative reporter but also do consumer help line.  We got back $1 million through that.  I've done two investigations based on that.

One other thing I want to get to - fact checking is HUGE.  Get detail wrong, diminishes everything else you do.  Most of our stories, take the expert, he takes victims, 3rd person takes another view.  Everyone reads everything and everyone knows everything.  Then one would take lead on writing so one voice, print it out, project on screen and go through it line for line.  Any fact or assertion we  made, we got back make sure we know it's good.  Go back to documents.  Not that don't trust each other, but want to prove before it's out.    Reedited at the end, we go through it all again.  Every assertion, every name, claim in court document, we have to show the others.  Haven't had any corrections or lawsuits.  Credibility is everything you've got.
For print, we're there at night to watch the page proofs, that's an easy place for someone to insert an error.

Q:  How often seek out research grants for investigations?
A:  Not as often as we should.  But did use state law to get access to child abuse stats.  Kaiser reporters, got some travel money.  People dying after minor surgery.  For profit hospitals.  Great opportunity for smaller papers.  Fellowship for narrative investigative project on child welfare.  They're out there.  Will help convince an editor.

A:  Always start with high hope.  Sometimes just can't pin it down.  Used staff to substantiate charges against ??, got close but couldn't prove it, protected records.  Knew it was good story.  Don't give up on your sources.  People may eventually feel they can talk.  Gymnastics people feared career.  I'd just call back and ask if there was any change.  Once the dominoes started to fall, more people will talk.  Some blame victims for not speaking up early.  But that's such an intimate thing if they are victims themselves.  Some will never talk, others will come forward.  Victim shaming really pisses me off. People are ready at their own time.  Every do a rape case?  Questioning is discussing.  People ask how did you get the to talk?  When they are ready, they are happy to talk to someone who would listen.  Parents pushing their kids to say nothing so they don't jeopardize their sports careers.  Lots of remorse.

Q:  Star made a decision on that?
A:  Mixed feelings.  Easy to say if someone arrested or targeted in lawsuit, but this doctor with no malpractice, no complaints, icon in the sport, and we come out of the blue with two women saying he molested me.  Pillar of local and sports community, we had to nail it in the first story.
Just because someone tells you something, that doesn't release you from your liability.  Lawyers there too.

Q:  What are the metrics - official and
A:  Lucky don't have a click quota.  Some beat reporters do have quotas.  We're isolated ab it because of big story.  If  I don't know how they calibrate it.  Clicks are important.
Page views, volume.  Now shifted to time spent on page.  In and out quick hurts you.  Return readers.  Engage time.  Click to other stories from our site.
Investigations 50-100K readers first day.  
Q: What about impacts.  Impacts outside the clicks.  Beyond that change laws, change lives, survivors to say if it weren't for you, he'd still be molesting little girls.  Pulitzer.  Obit - should have one Pulitzer.  Not doing it to get rich or make friends.  WW II vet paid $9000 to fix wife's car, got ripped off, I wrote a story on this, and a couple weeks ago, got the Mustang back all restored, he's 96.  That's the power.  Little things that make it rewarding.

Again, these are rough notes, but should give you an idea of what happens in these sessions.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.