Managing the Investigative Project: Tips From a Pro

Managing investigative journalism projects can be more daunting than the reporting, and with increasing amounts of data and even cross-border collaborations, it can make or break the story.

“I sometimes think that the words journalism and management said together can be seen as an oxymoron,” said Walter Robinson, editor-at-large at The Boston Globe, who spoked at the Uncovering Asia 2016 conference in Nepal. “We manage chaos.”


Robinson speaks at Uncovering Asia 2016. Photo by Bikram Rai.

A good manager can harness that chaos into quality journalism that holds powerful institutions to account. Robinson, who oversaw the Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, shared lessons from his team with conference attendees Sunday. While not all will be applicable or practical in newsrooms around the world, some principles are universal.

Assemble the Right Team 

Of crucial importance is building the right investigative team, and that means people with complementary skills and supportive personalities. 

“If you don’t make this decision correctly, it can throw a wrench into everything else you do on an investigative project,” he explained, adding, “Having a complementary four-person team working together is like having a fifth brain in the room. Every time you sit down it brings an extra dimension to discussions.”

While Robinson left the four-person Spotlight team 10 years ago, his management methodology remains relevant. Spotlight, which was created in 1970, is the oldest continuous investigative team at any paper in the United States. 

Choose the Right Project 

Often the Spotlight team would have 15-20 story ideas waiting to be explored, Robinson recalled. They used a set criteria to select their projects:

  • The story must lead to the exposure of a grievous wrong
  • It must have wide interest and impact
  • It should be a story that has national implications. If you are uncovering something wrong in your own backyard, assume it’s going on in other places as well.
  • Publication of the story should lead to major change
  • Most importantly: make sure nobody else has done the same story!

After a project is selected it then has to be prospected. Newsrooms need to be sure they can finish the story before devoting extended resources to it, Robinson emphasized. “You do not launch four reporters on a 10- or 12-month story unless you know you can bring the story in.”

Report the Story

Once you’ve got your story, keep that team of complimentary reporters running smoothly by delegating assignments based on their skills, and have them meet frequently. Have daily, or at least twice weekly, team meetings to get that fifth brain into the room as often as possible. “Those sessions are so critical,” said Robinson.

It’s also helpful to have each reporter write a daily file that’s accessible to the team, so everybody can see what the others are working on.

It helps to write as you go, even for long projects, Robinson said. Start to write early because it helps guide your reporting and ensures that small but important details don’t get lost as notes accumulate. 

Communicate Laterally and Upward

While it varies by newsroom, on most investigative stories, other editors will almost always need to be involved. Whether it’s the database editor, online editor, photo editor, or any other relevant department, start early and have frequent meetings with them. The Boston Globe is a large paper, and Robinson recalls it was not uncommon to have sometimes 12 editors in story meetings.

But Robinson cautioned against making projects well known outside of the necessary circle of editors, as journalists are excellent gossips and a secret project won’t stay secret if it gets out to the whole newsroom.

Communicating up well often gets overlooked, but Robinson stated it is absolutely essential to maintain a tight relationship with your supervising editor. “Editors are generally pretty good at managing down, but they’re not very good at managing up.”

Without that, Robinson warned trouble is almost inevitable. If you bring a story to an editor after months of work and it’s not what they expected, they may want to tear it apart and start over. So to save time and energy, keep the supervising editor in the loop as the story evolves.

Prepare to Publish 

You need to fact check everything, literally. At the Globe, Robinson recalls round table sessions where editors would go through a story line by line, challenging every fact and where the reporter got it. He described this “painful” process as invaluable in ensuring stories were airtight before publication.

Also, be sure to give the subjects of your investigation ample time to respond. Calling the night before publication is generally not a good idea. When you give subjects more time to respond, they tend to respect your reporting more, and may even provide you with information or a statement that will make your story stronger upon publication.

Finally, decide how you’re releasing the story — in a back-to-back multi-part series over the course of a week? Or slowly, letting the series ooze out? Robinson is partial to the latter strategy, since after publication of the first installment, new tips often start rolling in and stories that may have been three parts can grow to eight or more.

At this stage, it may be necessary to manage egos. “One thing common about good reporters is that good reporters have good-sized egos,” Robinson said. To avoid infighting over who gets the credit, Spotlight stories are published under a joint byline, reading “this story was reported and written by the Globe Spotlight team,” followed by the names of the team with the writer’s first.

If a story meets the investigative criteria discussed above, it’s going to make some waves. Anticipate and plan for what kind of follow-up and reaction stories you will do before you publish. It is an important process that is much harder to do once the story is out and momentum is already building. 

Once you’ve done all that? Send your team on vacation, the seasoned editor advised. They’ve earned it.

As investigative journalism becomes more collaborative and cross-border, managers should look to the Panama Papers project for guidance, Robinson conceded, which he called “the gold standard for managing an investigative project.”

“I remain, as some of you, dumbfounded how they were able to herd so many cats,” Robinson said.


headshotslgiordano_7905Adiel Kaplan is a freelance investigative journalist based in Seattle, where she works with local news outlets including Crosscut, Seattle Weekly, and InvestigateWest.

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