Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Rolling out the investigative blog

After using twitter to cover live events, such as trials, I’d been thinking about what it would be like to have an investigative report unfold online as it happened.

Those kinds of reports take time, however, and you can go weeks and months with nothing happening. Sometimes, it takes months of pre-reporting in your spare time to find out if a story is even worth pursuing. Banging it out 140 characters at a time wouldn’t necessarily be effective, especially when mixed in with the regular routine of my courthouse beat.

A blog, however, might be the right medium. Think of it as an investigative blog.

That’s what we began last week on “What the Judge Ate for Breakfast,” my courts blog at the Eagle.

The set-up piece describes how the idea came about – a project with some Kansas law students about the effectiveness of a 2001 law requiring DNA testing on old rape and murder cases. But it wasn’t until we started looking into a 29-year-old local murder case that a story began to take shape.

Usually, reporters dwell out of sight, revealing only the end result. Katie Lohrenz, my best collaborator and most supportive colleague, said this was an opportunity to let people really see the actual chase of the story.

There are risks involved, and we talked about them in the newsroom:

Couldn’t someone follow the blog, and then steal our story? Well, that would be kind of difficult, since the time stamp on the first blog post gave us ownership early. Someone else stepping in, without at least linking back, would be so obvious.

What if the story took a sudden turn, or didn’t pan out the way we thought it would? Investigative reporting is all about, well, investigation. So the readers would follow us through those turns.

Katie saw it this way: “There’s a reason Superman was a newspaper reporter. Because it’s a cool job, and people are interested, even if you’re not Superman.”

Definitely not Superman, here, I wanted to cheat. Get a few background posts in the can, and roll them out gradually. John Boogert, our deputy editor of interactive news, and Katie had a different idea. This is online news, they reminded me. No sense letting it get stale. I wrote sent the first one to our online team, expecting it to be published at some future date of their choosing. It published Friday, the same day.

In the meantime, I’m continuing doing other features of the blog, such as the “Common Law” courtroom video series.

“Presumed Guilty” won’t necessarily take over the blog. It will just be another feature, tied together with Word Press categories and tags.

Just as most investigative pieces don’t stop the daily routine of working the beat and producing stories. You do what you can, when you can.

The first post has already started a conversation. Maybe our readers will come up with ideas on how to proceed and it will become a crowd-sourced investigation.

They can watch us work through the mundane of searching through musty newspaper clips, public records, maybe even prison visits with an inmate who has argued his conviction for 30 years. They will see our successes and our failures.

At the end, we’ll have a story. As with all investigations, we don’t know what it will be yet. This much we know: it will tell us how our laws and justice system work for us, or even against us.

Investigative reporting can be kind of like a mystery. I’ve done it for years. But now, I get to write about it as I go.

However it turns out, it’ll be an exciting trip.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for doing this, Ron. As with other investigative work--including such things as research papers--we usually don't know how they'll turn out until the final words on the paper are written. That is, unless we're predisposed to an answer--in which case the work we're doing is neither investigative or unbiased. Glad you have an open mind--along with the students.