Six tips to improve your deep stories

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By Riley Rogerson

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When was the last time you read the local news? Better question: When was the last time you read local news from Alaska, Arizona and Arkansas in the same day?

Bethany Barnes of the Tampa Bay Times and Lulu Ramadan of the Palm Beach Post know it has probably been a while, and they have your back. Each Sunday, Barnes and Ramadan, alongside fellow locally-minded colleagues, publish Local Matters, a free newsletter chock full of the best in local investigative journalism.

At the virtual IRE journalism conference on June 14, Barnes and Ramadan showcased their favorite local stories from the past year and, because as Barnes put it, these stories reveal “really great tips that we basically think you can steal.”

1. Get inventive with public records

In the Anchorage Daily News piece, “Alaska’s attorney general sent hundreds of ‘uncomfortable’ texts to a female colleague,” reporter Kyle Hopkins revamped his record use.

Hopkins tweeted 55 kiss emojis to display the times the attorney general used the emoji in one month of texts with the junior staffer. Ramadan called the post “the best tweet of the year,” and Barnes reminded reporters to ask themselves, “How can you visualize impact?”

More stories that mastered public records:

2. Invest in source relationships

In the Green Bay Press Gazette’s “First came sex abuse allegations at the abbey. Then secret payments. Then a suicide.” reporter Haley BeMiller chronicled the journey of a man who had received nearly $420,000 payments from a monastery after a childhood sexual assault. No formal contract existed between the monastery and Nate Lindstrom, so BeMiller relied on her relationship with Lindstrom and his family to substantiate the claims. 

During her research, Lindstrom killed himself. Yet, BeMiller’s relationship with Lindstrom’s family was so strong that she was able to continue reporting the story after his death with their help.

“It is an excellent example of if you build enough trust with a source, especially on a delicate topic and so much trust so that you can continue to speak to their family after their passing, you can really corroborate an account of an allegation like this,” Ramadan said.

Other source-heavy stories: 

3. Small narratives can tell a big story

Greenville News reporters Ariel Gilreath and Carol Motsinger wrote “The Girl with Two Names” about Fatima Quintana, who didn’t know she was illegally adopted. While narrating Quintana’s story, Gilreath and Motsinger unraveled deeper issues with the immigration and adoption systems. 

“It’s a really good example of how you can show these systematic things through a gripping, well-told story about somebody else,” Barnes said. “Taking and humanizing the way the system acts on people, that’s what I think is so good about this story.” 

Another story that intimately exposes a systemic issue:

4. Get creative against the odds

During devastating winter storms in Texas in February, Texas reporters braved the freeze to support their readers.

The Texas Tribune started a texting service to share breaking news and power updates. Meanwhile, Houston Chronicle journalists James Osborne, Eric Dexheimer, Jay Root and staff published “’Collective amnesia’: Texas politicians knowingly blew 3 chances to fix the failing power grid” reminding officials of their decade-old promises to correct Texas’ vulnerable power grid. 

“Both outlets, and all of the news outlets in Texas, were able to use creative reporting techniques to get information to people,” Ramadan said. “It was truly creative and excellent reporting under the hardest of circumstances.” 

More stories that overcame obstacles: 

5. Build out your beat

Amid Black Lives Matter protests last summer, ABC15 criminal justice reporter Dave Biscobing dug deep into Arizona police operations. In his investigation “Politically Charged,” Biscobing uncovered that some cops concocted a “fictional gang” to prosecute protesters.

“It’s a really great example of a rolling investigation, of staying on a topic in your beat and, you know, questioning everything,” Barnes said. 

Other stories that sprung from beat reporting: 

6. Data is your friend

While reporting on police shootings, the Denver Post found Colorado did not have a comprehensive database of state police shootings. So the Denver Post filled the void. 

In journalist Elise Schmelzer’s piece, “We tracked every police shooting in Colorado last year. Here’s what we learned,” she discovered that in 2019, someone was shot by police on average once every five days.

“Another example of public-service journalism giving people the information they otherwise can’t get,” Ramadan said.  

More local data journalism at its finest: