New York Times reporter Matt Apuzzo’s tips for investigating powerful institutions

Several tipsheets were released at last week’s Investigative Reporters & Editors conference. Here’s New York Times reporter Matt Apuzzo’s, posted with his permission:

Investigating Powerful Institutions: Inside and Out
(An outsider’s perspective)

Matt Apuzzo

Matt Apuzzo

Matt Apuzzo
The New York Times

Read: Read everything that’s been written. Do a Nexis search for your organization, going back at least five years. If you’re looking into a large organization – Pfizer, the CIA, General Electric – narrow your search with keywords: Pfizer and sales representatives. CIA and Russia. General Electric and medical devices. Select every story that is even remotely relevant. Sort chronologically. Save it to a PDF. Put it in on all your devices and read it whenever you have a moment – on the subway, before bed, while you’re on hold, while you’re having coffee. As you read, write down all the names you come across. This is the public history of your organization.

Meet: You have your starting list of people. Now think broadly about others who have information that can help you. If you’re covering a company, for instance, you don’t just want the usual suspects – the flacks and the executives. You need to think about the organization as a network of people who have some stake in the company. There lawyers, inside and outside. Worker bees and midlevel managers. Retirees. Shippers. Contractors. Union organizers. Analysts. Politicians. Economic development officials. Whistleblowers. Competitors. Suppliers. Regulators. Lobbyists. Even if you don’t know who these people are, add the job titles to your list of names.

If you’re a beat reporter trying to understand an organization, your Rolodex isn’t close to complete until you’ve got sources throughout this network. If you’re investigating a specific aspect of an organization, you can focus your inquiry more quickly on relevant areas.

Finding people is easier now than ever before. LinkedIn and Facebook graph search are two great places to start. Surprisingly Google Plus is not bad either. Even though nobody uses it, Google has made signing up basically mandatory for any Google user, and many people fill out their profiles./CONTINUES

When it comes to finding people, the difference between success and failure is often the willingness to be rejected. Banish the thoughts “She won’t talk to me,” or “He’ll never meet with me” from your brains. This is not a junior high school dance. You will not be shamed Monday morning if you put yourself out there and get turned down.

Pick up the phone. Send an email. Write a letter. Go to their homes unannounced. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. But consider this: You would never tell a stranger about what an idiot your boss is while you’re sitting in the middle of your office, talking on the phone.

In your meetings with people, listen for ways information moves through your organization. Look for pockets of power and influence beyond the front office. How do you do that? By asking who makes decisions, who controls the budget, whose opinion matters. As you work through your list of people, ask for suggestions on whom to talk to next. Ask if you can use their name. Better yet, ask if they’ll set something up for you.

For publicly traded companies, analysts are fantastic source of information and it’s incredible how terribly journalists use them. Analysts get paid to understand organizations. They have exclusive access to executives and documents. Reporters should care less about what analysts know and more about how they know it. Can they pull up their notes, or a recording, from that old analyst call with the CEO? Yes. Do they know which regulators have become particularly cozy with management? Absolutely. Do they know who really calls the shots, what the feds are looking for with that subpoena or how the company has managed to get around the new accounting regulations? For sure.

Documents: Generally, there are two kinds of documents. Revelatory documents and roadmap documents. The key email, the internal report, the explosive audit: These are revelatory documents. They are the backbone of many a great story and many a great IRE panel (so much so that I won’t spend a ton of time here on all the great ways to find those documents). But as a strategy, always be thinking: Where would it be written down, who would have it, and what would that document be called? Everything is written down somewhere.

Roadmap documents are much less sexy, but just as important. Phone directories. Organizational charts. Annual reports. Legal opinions. Flow charts. Policy documents. (Even better, drafts of policy documents!). Look for places where your organization intersects with the government, and you’ll find public records there. Is it regulated? Does it have to file paperwork with the government? Does it receive state or federal money? Does it try to influence the government? Are its facilities inspected, its real properties taxed? What does it own? Does it invent things and seek patents?

One of my favorite sources of roadmap documents is lawsuits, because of all the discovery documents – depositions, emails, etc. – that comes with them. Even if they aren’t at all related to what I’m investigating, they give me access points and help me understand the culture. I also love divorce records and bankruptcy records.

The people you will meet on your journey: There are many types of people, of course, but the most helpful often fit into one (or more) of these categories. Recognizing them can help you understand how they are using you and what they can offer.

The scorned lover: He loved this organization and, in the end, it didn’t love him back or didn’t live up to his ideals. Often he’s using you to settle scores or ease his conscience. But whistleblowers often fit here too.

The only guy with half a brain: Everyone else is an idiot. His brilliance is unappreciated. He likes your attention because obviously you see how smart he is. He knows what the problems are and why they exist. He’s using you to show the world how smart he is, or just as an ego boost.

The charmer: She’s talking to you because she thinks she’s smart enough to manipulate your reporting. She’s often got juicy tips. She’s using you to off her rivals, advance her career, or keep you from looking too closely at her own issues.

The suicide bomber: He’s in trouble. He’s using you to take the organization down with him.

The archivist: She is actually also a member of one of the previous categories. But she has the added benefit of having kept a home office as a shrine to her career and the organization. She won’t tell you right off the bat, but if she’s mentioning documents and emails and reports as she talks, it’s a good sign that she keeps copies. She’s using you for one of the aforementioned reasons.