Sarah Reinecke, Argus Leader
John Russell is proof that it doesn’t take extensive background information, source lists or road maps to become an award-winning journalist.
For The Indianapolis Star reporter, it was a feeling that something was off that led to 23 open records requests, 40 stories and the 2011 Best of Gannett Freedom of Information Award. Russell was a panelist Friday at the IRE conference in Boston for a session titled: On the beat: businesses and corporations. Jennifer Forsyth of The Wall Street Journal and Diana Henriques of The New York Times also shared tips.
Russell spent 18 months looking into a scandal involving Duke Energy and its $2 billion power plant and his work led to an FBI investigation, indictments and government hearings that are still ongoing.
“I had this feeling in my stomach that something was a little bit fishy,” he said. “I had no friends, no sources, no background. My only sources were open records.”
Originally, Russell’s editor had asked him to do a “two phone call” story based on a press release, but quickly he realized there was much more to it.
“Know your documents, work your sources,” he said. “It can’t all be in the paper and it can’t all be in the interview.”
Forsyth highlighted resources that all business reporters should use and check regularly, including SEC filings (http://www.sec.gov/edgar.shtml) and PACER. She said trade publications are great for finding sources, and even the ads can be instructive.
She also shared a trick for reading redacted statements found online on sites such as PACER. She said most of the time, if you highlight, copy and paste it into a word document, everything is visible.
When Henriques attended her first IRE conference in 1979, reporters had to go to the secretary of state’s office in the capital to discover much of anything, but now most of it can be found on Emma, a municipal bond search website (www.emma.msrb.org).
Bid appeals can also produce information, even from privately held companies, such as in the case of a school testing company applying to do high-stakes testing in a lot of states.
During the question and answer session, Forsyth suggested finding where sources hang out, running into them and having friendly conversations that engage them to find some common ground. Henriques also said it’s important to know a source’s vocabulary and use their language to put them at ease. That means that if a military official sends a formal e-mail, don’t respond back with a quick couple of words, but instead take time to respond in the same way.