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Veteran editor Jim Neff on how to get ‘the investigative mindset’

Veteran editor Jim Neff on how to get ‘the investigative mindset’

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(Photo: William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)

Jim Neff’s investigative bona fides run deep. During his 15 years leading investigations at the Seattle Times, he headed up five projects that were Pulitzer finalists, three of which took home the prize. 

Neff now serves as deputy managing editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he continues to shepherd hard-hitting exposes such as 2016 National Fellows Barbara Laker's and Wendy Ruderman’s Toxic City project, a sprawling three-year investigation into how lead and other toxins are poisoning the city’s schoolchildren. The series has won wide acclaim and local notice. “It actually rocked the city of Philadelphia,” Neff told fellow journalists in his keynote at this week’s 2018 Data Fellowship.

His long experience editing Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative stars such as Ruderman and Laker in Philadelphia and Mike Berens in Seattle has given him a unique vantage on what separates the star reporters from the rest of the pack.

“I find that among ambitious reporters like yourselves, there is a skill level we all have,” Neff said, noting that most experienced reporters can sweep up court records, sort and group in Excel, write clearly, and find and interview people. “On those technical skills, we’re all kind of bunched together here.”

But then there are the outliers, the reporter who routinely blows you away with a watchdog or public service story that seems so original and important that you’re left to wonder how she keeps unearthing these stories. “You know, you’re jealous,” he said. 

These elite reporters tend to share what Neff calls “the investigative mindset.”

“It’s the story selection and that execution that really sets you apart, because there’s only so many hours in the week to work, there’s a million stories out there in the naked city, and you got to pick the ones that can make a difference.”

Jim Neff, deputy managing editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Neff’s own investigative mindset starts with the exercise of assuming a perfect world. In other words, how should a given institution or process work if everything goes perfectly?

 

For example, he pointed to Mike Berens’ investigation of the rapid growth of adult family homes in Washington state, which were being pitched at the time as a more pleasant alternative to nursing homes for seniors. In Neff’s ideal scenario, the staff in these adults homes would be caring and attentive, and the homes would be safe and not overcrowded. A reporter trying to find out precisely how these homes are supposed to function would read all the relevant state and federal rules and regulations governing them, line by line.

“When you know how it’s supposed to work, when you go out and do your reporting, you can measure against this perfect world,” Neff said. 

When Berens started doing that kind of reporting, he uncovered a horrifying pattern of abuses and fraud, ultimately fueled by a perverse incentive: it was cheaper for the state to move seniors into these homes. As Berens’ wrote in 2010:

“The Times uncovered accounts of elderly victims who were imprisoned in their rooms, roped into their beds at night, strapped to chairs during the day so they wouldn’t wander off, drugged into submission or left without proper medical treatment for weeks.”

The greater the gulf between the imagined perfect world and the real world turned up by your reporting, the more powerful the journalism, Neff said.

Finding out how things are supposed to work will typically require some long slogs through dry documents and esoteric rabbit holes. Do it anyway, Neff urges. Read the instruction manual, read the transcripts, pour over the court file and exhibits — or as Neff did last week, Google the manual that prosecutors have to follow to obtain wiretaps. You’ll turn up nuggets that will inform your interviews, refocus your questions and allow you to spot those newsworthy gaps between the rules and reality. “Whatever the topic, get the manual,” Neff said. “Get the manual, but you also have to read the file.”

Once you’ve done all that hard investigative work and arrived at some potentially explosive findings, how do you bring the story to life? “You look for your signature case, you look for the humans,” Neff said. “When you know what your harm is, then you have to tell it through a fellow human being.”

That’s where old-fashioned street reporting chops can carry the day. Neff recalled the extraordinary lengths that the Inquirer’s Laker (he affectionately calls her “the closer”) went to to land the story of Dean Pagan, a 6-year-old boy who was severely poisoned by the lead chips that fell from the ceiling onto his classroom desk every day. The boy had to be hospitalized and lost his ability do simple addition.

After hearing outlines of his story from her sources, Laker had to find out his name and ultimately persuade the parents to talk to her. It was incredibly challenging work. But the story, a heartbreaking example of the project’s most damning findings, was too powerful to let go.

“It took months,” Neff said, hinting at another common feature of standout enterprise reporters. “They just worked and worked and worked.”

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