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Ace project editors share clutch tips for managing your next reporting deep dive

Ace project editors share clutch tips for managing your next reporting deep dive

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Kathleen McGrory and Roger Smith talk to reporters about managing big projects at the 2019 National Fellowship.
Kathleen McGrory, deputy investigations editor at the Tampa Bay Times, and former L.A. Times national editor Roger Smith talk to reporters about managing big projects at the 2019 National Fellowship.
(Photo by Chinyere Amobi/CHJ)

That big project you’re about to take on will be easier to write and more pleasing to your editors if you manage each piece of the process from beginning to end, said Kathleen McGrory, deputy investigations editor at the Tampa Bay Times.

That might include everything from using Excel or Google Drive to organize links to documents, keeping a diary, writing memos, and planning regular check-ins with editors, McGrory said. Joined by former Los Angeles Times national editor Roger Smith, McGrory shared those tips on managing big projects with reporters this week at the 2019 National Fellowship.

The pair told the group the most successful projects are built on a reporter's ability to keep track of everything, which, in the long run, will help build the structure of the story. Writing drafts before the reporting is completed can help reporters spot the holes in a big story, Smith and McGrory noted.

“You are collecting a tremendous amount of information and there are all kinds of tricks to keep this all on track," McGrory said. "One of my favorite things to do is to create a chronology, with links to news clips, documents, websites. Use Excel or Google Drive to create a source list. Write weekly memos that summarize your reporting. More words are better than no words.”

McGrory has a track record of pulling off big, high-impact projects. Her most recent deep dive is a series of stories on the rise of deaths at John Hopkins All Children's Hospital in Florida (you can read how she did it in her own words here).

Antipster told McGrory that physicians at the hospital had left a surgical needle in a baby’s chest. McGrory and her reporting partner Neil Bedi investigated the tip and later found that 10 heart surgery patients at All Children’s Hospital had died in 2017. That was nearly three times the statewide average. They also learned that complication rates had also surged.

Those tips with “life and death” implications can often lead to some of the best narrative stories, but they require robust reporting, added Smith, who, as a Los Angeles Times editor for 35 years, supervised coverage of the Affordable Care Act and was also the principal editor on two Pulitzer Prize-winning projects.

McGrory said she and Bedi used social media to connect with patients' families. By the end of their investigation, they had spoken with 50 sources. The reporting took months. In many newsrooms, that kind of time is a luxury, McGrory admitted. For those who have to file stories on a nearly daily basis, managing time and letting editors track the progress of the project helps bosses understand the need for more time. She said reporters should discuss a project with an editor as soon as it's clear a good story is emerging. That way, editors may start to build a broader team that can include photographers and social media managers.

“When you have an editor that's really in love with something, everything else falls into place,” Smith said. “Once you have your team, treat everybody like family. Success has many, many parents.”

Once your story runs, you're not done, McGrory said.

“It doesn't necessarily end with the story,” she said. “Even if you're not expecting a number of follows, you as a reporter in 2019 have to be prepared to engage with the audience.”

Here are seven tips the pair shared to help reporters keep on track:

1) Managing your expectations: Ask yourself, Do you have a minimum or a maximum story in mind? What is the story you can realistically deliver to your bosses?

2) Manage your time: Have weekly check-ins with editors, photographers and those on your team. Check in with yourself. Celebrate your small wins. Looking at what you did last week helps prioritize what you need to do next week.

3) Manage your reporting: Besides using Excel and Google Drive, reporters should also write weekly memos that summarize the reporting you did.

4) Manage your data: Keep your data organized using a diary of all the changes you've made to your data sets and write memos that list the findings.

5) Manage your sources: Do this by being transparent and explaining to your sources how you're going to report on the story. Keep in touch with them. Don't surprise them by writing something in the story that wasn't previously discussed.

6) Manage your bosses: Don't overpromise and underdeliver, but also make sure your boss knows why the work is important. Check in with him or her regularly.

7) Manage your publication and story production: Plan time for fact checking. Plan out the ways you will use social media before the story is published. 

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