At last month’s Investigative Reporters & Editors conference, in Boston, hundreds of reporters attended dozens of sessions on everything from analyzing unstructured data to working with the coolest web tools and building a digital newsroom. The conference, which started in the 1970s, after a Phoenix reporter died in a car bomb while covering the mob, is usually considered an investigative-only playground, but narrative writers can learn a lot from these journalists’ techniques and resources.

When might a narrative writer need investigative skills? A few possible scenarios:

• When developing a character’s timeline and activities beyond the basic backgrounding
• When navigating precarious relationships with sources
• When organizing large and potentially complicated amounts of material
• When gathering data and documents that might provide storytelling context – geopolitical, financial, etc.

We asked This Land correspondent Kiera Feldman to cover the conference with an eye for material that might be particularly useful in narrative. She netted a range of ideas, tips and resources. Today, in Part 1, she covers areas including documents and data, online research and source relationships. Check back tomorrow for Part 2, “Writing the Investigative Story,” with best practices from Ken Armstrong of the Seattle Times and Steve Fainaru of ESPN.


• “Everything you want to know is written down somewhere. And you’ve got to believe that with every fiber of your being.” – Walt Bogdanich, the New York Times

• An alternative to filing a Freedom of Information Act request: archives. “In my experience, archivists – unlike government FOIA officers – like to hear from journalists; their culture is to disclose rather than deny. Has your topic touched the White House? Presidential archives are vast and precisely catalogued. Their websites list findings aids (also called inventories or folder-title lists), oral histories, and previously processed materials.” – Jeff Neff, the Seattle Times

• The “first stop” for federal records: the National Archives.

• Be resourceful. Harvey Cashore headed up a CBC investigation into sex abuse in Scouts Canada. The organization would not even divulge the number of abuse cases it had seen. “We thought, ‘Well, we’ll make our own list then,’” Cashore said. His CBC team spent two months calling and visiting courthouses across Canada, compiling a list of perpetrators and victims.

• Using public records laws is an art form. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is an invaluable resource. (Here’s a handy Freedom of Information Act letter generator.) FOIA largely applies to the executive branch, meaning it doesn’t cover Congress, the federal courts, private corporations, state/local governments. (For a state-by-state assessment of local open records laws, the Center for Public Integrity’s Caitlin Ginley directed us to a survey by the Center for Public Integrity.) First Amendment attorney Elizabeth Ritvo advised:

When you have a FOIA request, ask for a document. There’s such a temptation to ask a question. The government doesn’t have to answer your question – they give documents. They have no obligation to create a document that doesn’t exist. Do your homework before you draft (a FOIA request). Look at what documents an agency is required to create by law. Don’t waste your time and resources on documents that are already out there. You should also find out what branch or office has the records that you want.

• “Be a pain in the ass,” said media law attorney Jeff Pyle. Suing for access to public documents can be expensive and time consuming, but blogging and editorializing can yield results. “The government responds to embarrassment more than anything.”

• “I think the best journalists on the planet earth have this document fetish.” – Charles Lewis, Center for Public Integrity founder, in the panel “Investigating Power

Advanced web

• To get the most out of Google, a company rep suggested Basic Search Help. A simple yet handy tip that I’d never tried: Conduct a search, and then click the “more” tab on the left side of the page. One of the menu options is “blogs,” which I now use all the time to peruse commenter gossip. Plus: do a search with “.pdf” or “.doc,” and good stuff often turns up.

• With his two presentations, “Social Media Sleuthing” and “Social Media Tools,” IRE’s Doug Haddix made me simultaneously grateful to be a reporter in the Internet age – and terrified to be a citizen. (Both presentations are online.) is useful for culling multiple sites at once. And there’s to search Twitter more effectively, along with the Archivist to save Twitter searches and export them to Excel (before people wisely decide to delete their tweets). Facebook, of course, is invaluable for finding sources – friends, relatives, colleagues, classmates, photos – especially for people who don’t have much of a paper trail otherwise.

• Former employees (disgruntled or otherwise) make terrific sources. Haddix and many other panelists recommend LinkedIn Pro. If you attend a 35-minute online training, LinkedIn will reward you with a free one-year upgrade. The next session is July 26 at noon EDT. Join the “LinkedIn for Journalists” group and register here.

Source relationships

• “You need to know as much as your sources know, and then they’ll trust you.” Make yourself into “the expert” and people will talk to you. “There’s really no shortcut for that.” – Gary Marx, the Chicago Tribune

• “Build your bridges in peace time. Don’t wait for the crisis.” – Carol Marbin Miller, the Miami Herald

• Like many IRE presenters, Miller suggested hanging out wherever it is that “your” people (in her case, child welfare sources) are found. (Josh Bernstein, who covers national security for The Daily, said that he found the bar where FBI agents and cops drank on Thursday nights, and where they’d inevitably gossip about work, and started going there to eavesdrop.) Spending time in the courthouse, Miller said, “You’d be surprised at how much bailiffs and bailiffs’ assistants know and want to help.” Same with psychologists, expert witnesses, etc. Start slowly and build relationships, she advised. They might not pan out right away, “but under the right circumstances those sources will talk,” like when something happens that offends their sense of ethics.

• Miller had a final tip that I liked: Take the calls that your instincts might warn you against (e.g. church people, overly involved community members). “Much of the time they’ll keep you on the phone for two hours and they’re crazy,” Miller said, “but a lot of the time they’re right, and have a good story for you.”

• I missed “The Art of Source Development” with the AP’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Adam Goldman and others, but here are some useful selections from the notes of Stan Alcorn, a journalist friend:

Adam Goldman: Don’t be afraid of losing sources; rebuild. If you make sources you will lose them. He lost sources over his NYPD series, including one relationship that had taken years to establish.

How to deal with walkouts: It happened when a source came just to ask how he got his cell phone number and he bungled a response. Prepare for the unexpected.

Building trust: “I tend to spend time with people that I like.” Doesn’t mean the person is your friend, or you have things in common.

Do your homework: Study  your potential source.

Notebook: Don’t slap it down on the table when you meet with people. Sometimes don’t even bring it out. He’s migrated to the less off-putting Moleskin (a small one) and fills it up.

Organization: Microsoft OneNote will change your life.

Kimberly Kindy of the Washington Post: Be an honest broker. Give, don’t just take. Don’t make sources feel like a one-night stand. 

• If you contact a guy in solitary, you may be the only person who’s contacted him in years. When you embark on this kind of work, whether it’s visits or calls – you need to pick up (if they call) and you need to write back. Because they will call you. That relationship is a very big relationship to them. You are their lifeline in many ways. It’s not a relationship you should take lightly. I may be one of the few people they write to, and there’s a weight to that, and I think we need to understand the gravity of that weight. – independent journalist Susan Greene, on working with vulnerable sources. She discussed her story on long-term solitary confinement, on a DART Center for Journalism and Trauma-sponsored panel on covering prison abuse.

IRE blogs, highlights and tip sheets (membership required for many tip sheets) are now live on IRE’s site, and you’ll find videos of some presentations on YouTube. And here, courtesy of Margot Williams, NPR news investigations databases correspondent, are widely useful research links:

Effective Googling

• Advanced search:
• Translated search:
• Advanced News Search:
• Google Dashboard (to keep track of all your personal Docs, blogs, etc.):

Find a person: phones

• AnyWho:
• InfoBel:
• Numberway:
• MelissaData (free lookups):

Find a person: work

• LinkedIn:
• America’s Career InfoNet database:
• FAA:
• U.N. aid workers:

Search public records

• Federal inmate lookup:
• Finra BrokerCheck:
•, free:
• Search Systems, free:
• Free Public Records Directory (search by state):
• CourtReference (by state):
• NETR Online (real estate record directory):
• VineLink (Victim Information and Notification Everyday):

Watchlists, wanted and missing-persons lists

• Corporate Intelligence Project:
• Interpol wanted persons:
• OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control):
• EPLS (Excluded Parties List System, debarred business with U.S.):
• Denied-persons list:
• ICRC (Red Cross; missing in Somalia):

Corporation research

• Worldwide Company Data directory:
• Open Data for Journalists (slideshow):
• GlobalEdge:
• BizNar deep web business search:


• Guidestar:
• (U.K. charities register):
• Charity Navigator:
• National Center for Charitable Statistics:
• Foundation Finder:
• Global think-tank directory:


• Guardian DataStore world government data:
• Wolfram Alpha “computational knowledge engine”:
• Official Statistics on the Web (University of Auckland Library):
• Population Reference Bureau DataFinder:

International planes & ships finders

• NATO daily piracy update:
• Ecoterra:

• Equasis:

• Ship-to-shore phone directory:
• FlightAware (live flight tracking):
• Flightwise (flight tracking):
• FAA Aircraft registry:
• Landings (airport advisories, directives, etc.):
• Airport Codes:

Interesting misc.

• TRACE Compendium (corruption, anti-bribery):
• U.S. work visas database:
• Aid worker security database:
• Iran Trade & Business:
• Iran Trade & Traders:

FOIAs, leaks, deletes, archives

• Government Attic (warehoused FOIA results):
• JunketSleuth (“exposing government travel excesses”):
• Public Intelligence (research aggregator):
• Archive-it:
• (archives):
• CyberCemetery (defunct government websites):
• Internet Archive Wayback Machine:
• ArchivesBlogs (international news, for archivists):
• National Security Archive:
• Guantanamo docket (New York Times/NPR):
• Document Cloud:

Lobbying for U.S. and non-U.S. interests

• Senate Office of Public Records Lobbying Disclosure Act:
• Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA):

U.S. lawmakers disclosure

• Legistorm:
• Center for Responsive Politics:
• Campaign Finance FEC:

Web research

• Toddington International (free tools):
• InfoDocket:
• FullTextReports:
• PI Buzz (private eye research links):


Most popular stories from Nieman Storyboard

Show comments / Leave a comment