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Beat the Clock: Lassoing and Taming Your Journalism Project

Beat the Clock: Lassoing and Taming Your Journalism Project

Picture of William Heisel

On Friday, I wrote about finding a horse to ride for your big journalism project instead of wasting your time hunting for unicorns. Here are more tips for managing your time and resources on an investigative story while still covering your regular beat.

Find something you can count. The best way to sell your story to your editors is to show them a little proof of concept early on. If you can count something instead of just describe it anecdotally, that will be a lot easier. Similarly, when it comes to writing the story for you readers, you will make a far more persuasive case if you can add things up for them. All of my most successful investigations grew out of databases that I built – either by myself or with a team.

For example, when I looked at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Dollar Homes program, I knew that I had to have an initial set of numbers to sell to my editor. So I took looked at the dollar homes in just one city over a 10-year period and tracked how many had been flipped for a big profit or had fallen into foreclosure. That was enough to persuade him that there was a good story to be told, and so I then broadened my scope.

Decide on a central question. The best way to narrow your scope is to ask one main question. For that Dollar Homes story, my question was: "Was the Dollar Homes program living up to its goals of promoting long-term home ownership among low-income families or was it having a negative impact on those families and their neighborhoods?"

More recently, when my team of reporters and editors first started talking about investigating the rise in valley fever cases in California, we kept asking one question: "Why are people still dying from Valley Fever and tens of thousands getting sick?" That question became the driving force behind our reporting, and it led to other questions that we summed up in the summary of the series that the Reporting on Health Collaborative outlets have been running. Here’s how Valley Public Radio framed the series:

Why are people still dying from Valley Fever and tens of thousands getting sick?  Misdiagnosis. A lack of public awareness. And a long history of inaction by government agencies. In this occasional series, we will explore the startling rise of cases, the science of studying the disease, the high costs to patients and taxpayers, the weak federal and private interest in funding treatments and vaccines, and the public health response. The number of valley fever cases has soared so high in recent years that health experts are calling it "The Second Epidemic."

In a continuing series, Valley Public Radio and other members of the new Reporting On Health Collaborative will explore the rise of cases, the tricky science of studying the disease, the high costs to patients and taxpayers, the lack of private interest in funding treatments and vaccines, and the long history of inaction by government agencies.

Michelle Levander, the editor-in-chief for Center for Health Journalism Digital, suggested during the webinar that gave rise to these posts that everyone when starting a project try to write a paragraph like that to help them decide what they are going to pursue and what they are NOT going to pursue. Take that paragraph and make it the heart of a detailed outline for the story that you will build as you report.

Next: How to keep the big project from taking over your life

Photo Credit: Alex Lomix via Flickr

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