#121 – Meet the I-Team: Investigative journalists Tisha Thompson and Rick Yarborough

It takes time to learn how to be an investigative reporter and do it well. NBC Washington’s Tisha Thompson and Rick Yarborough have mastered the art of producing consistently enterprised stories that make a difference.

While they are both humble and say they found the path to investigative reporting in different ways, multiple awards prove their work is some of the best in the country and in joining us on It’s All Journalism, the reporter and producer team shared some tricks they’ve learned over the years.

Full disclosure, Tisha and I are old friends. I met Rick through the Investigative Reporters and Editors professional organization.

Rick Yarborough and Tisha Thompson

Rick Yarborough and Tisha Thompson are part of the investigative reporting team at Washington, D.C.’s NBC affiliate. (Photo by Michael O’Connell)

Our conversation started with the question that is often asked when it comes to local TV reporting, ‘How much do looks matter?’

“It’s a visual medium,” says Yarborough whose career was jump-started when he took the morning producing shift out of college at WIS in South Carolina.

“This is stupid. Here we are talking about investigative reporting and now I’m talking about my hair. But that’s what television is,” Thompson says.

While she found it frustrating to focus on appearance, everyone trying to make it in TV news knows it’s something that needs to be addressed if you’re on air.

“It just means you have to have a super thick skin and just keep trucking forward. And you have to be willing to take advice about whatever it is that isn’t working,” she says.

The two have churned out hundreds of investigative pieces in Washington, D.C. The latest for NBC Washington details the documents that expose the DUIs, speeding tickets and traffic infractions racked up by diplomats. The classified documents took years to procure as they were being withheld from the public because of diplomatic immunity.

Coming up with story ideas is the same process as it has always been, Yarborough says. The ideas come both from sources and by questioning what they hear and see.

“Tips are our bread and butter. That’s what we do. Some of our best stories are things Tisha has seen driving into work or I’ve noticed,” Yarborough says.

As far as style, NBC’s I-Team isn’t confrontational to start. Thompson says after every avenue has been exhausted, she’ll offer the department or person they’re attempting to contact the options.

You treat people with respect. You tell them what’s coming at them. I don’t want someone in an interview to be like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ That’s a stupid interview. — Tisha Thompson

“We can do this in a well lit room, where you know what’s coming at you and you have thought about what your answers are going to be. … Or we can do this when you’re not expecting me,” she says.

Though they stress that approach is reserved for stories that matter to people’s lives or livelihoods.

“You treat people with respect. You tell them what’s coming at them. I don’t want someone in an interview to be like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ That’s a stupid interview,” Thompson says.

The approach they use for an interview shocks people, she says. Both talk about why they like to spend time with the source before the camera starts rolling.

Later in the podcast, Yarborough discusses how they have to think twice about using social media, how to get what you want from a Freedom of Information request and the best ways to avoid paperwork.

— Megan Cloherty

Related Podcasts:

#66 – Investigating for big production: Showtime teams up with the Investigative Reporting Workshop

#41 – John Sullivan — Portrait of an investigative reporter

#37 – FOIA advocate Rick Blum tells journalists to be patient but persistent in seeking government records

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#120 – Mr. Glaser goes to Washington; PBS MediaShift hosts open data event

Mark Glaser, editor of PBS MediaShift, has been covering the shifting media landscape for six years. Part of his mission is to bring new ideas about journalism innovation and startups to the masses.

Glaser and the MediaShift team recently traveled to Washington, D.C., for a Collab/SpaceDC event on open data sponsored by the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri.

Mike and Mark

Mark Glaser, right, editor of PBS MediaShift participates in a shameless selfie with It’s All Journalism producer Michael O’Connell.

“It’s really a collaborative workshop, an all-day workshop that highlights innovative projects,” he said. “And we use improv comedy techniques to get people to work together better, to say ‘Yes’ to other people’s ideas instead of ‘No, that’s a stupid idea.'”

This was the fifth such event MediaShift has put on around the country.

“We try, not like some of the pitch competitions that happen with innovation projects and startups, we actually, instead of naming a winner, making a competition, we really make it about collaboration and kind of helping these projects overcome some of their challenges,” Glaser said.
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#119 — Branded Content: The New York Times finds new life in old business model

Earlier this year, The New York Times launched T Brand Studio, a unit within its advertising department to create branded content for the newspaper’s digital platform.

“Branded content, when you think about it from what it used to be, that was John Deere printing a catalogue,” said Melanie Deziel, the social media strategist for T Brand Studio. “That was Betty Crocker putting a recipe on the back of a box. They were creating content. Brands have been creating content for a really long time.”

Melanie Deziel

Melanie Deziel is the social media strategist for T Brand Studio at The New York Times.

What’s changed in branded content is the same thing that’s changed in journalism as a whole.

“Publishers are adjusting to all of these incredible tools we have at our disposal with the rise of digital and smartphones and tablets and all of that,” she said. “Just as publishers are adjusting, brands are too and they’re realizing that for many of them, they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. They can leverage those tools by partnering with a publisher.”

What publishers like The New York Times hope to reap from such an arrangement is using branded content to help finance the quality journalism the editorial side of their business is creating.
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#118 – ONA14 Wrapup — Crowdsourcing, video production and covering local news

This week, we’re wrapping up our coverage of the 2014 Online News Association Conference in Chicago. Our podcast features three one-on-one interviews that I did on the floor of the Midway.

Phil Groman

Phil Groman explains how the video/crowdsourcing platform Stringwire works. (Photo by Michael O’Connell)

First up, I talk to is Phil Groman, the product lead and the founder of Stringwire, a platform developed by NBCUniversal to crowdsource live video from eyewitnesses at the scene of breaking news.

“We’re trying to close the gap between a story breaking, and a professional news crew getting on the scene,” Groman said. “And in the interim period, as news organizations, we rely on third-party platforms, on media that has already been generated in the past, on YouTube videos or tweets or Instagram photos that have been posted. In a breaking-news context, there is this continuum of the story that is captured, but after the fact, through these recorded mediums.”

What Stringwire aims to do is provide a place for eyewitnesses at the scene of breaking-news events to stream live video, which can be verified more quickly.

“Stringwire has always been as tool for citizen reporting, as a tool for crowdsourcing from the people that are close to the stories,” Groman said. “But during our internal beta it was, of course, used by our own journalists when they got deployed to a story.”

Carla Zuill

Carla Zuill talks about covering local news in Bermuda. (Photo by Michael O’Connell)

The Stringwire app is now available for download on GooglePlay and the iTunes Store.

The second interview is with Carla Zuill, who works with Ocean Media, a small company that’s planning to launch an online daily to cover news in Bermuda.

Bermuda has a small population — about 65,000 — and the younger part of that potential audience is the most engaged when it comes to digital media.

“We’re currently looking for a way actually to engage more youth in the community, getting them more involved in the day-to-day happenings on the island,” Zuill said. “We’re not just going to be online data, but we’re also looking to be trend setter in how we’re going to disseminate our information as well using comprehensive social media.”

Cristoph Pleitgen

Cristoph Pleitgen explains how Wochit works, during a presentation at the 2014 Online News Association Conference in Chicago. (Photo by Michael O’Connell)

The final portion of the podcast starts off with a presentation by Cristoph Pleitgen, the business development leader at Wochit.

Wotchit was founded to tackle two problems — to make video production for Web and mobile commercially feasible and to streamline the video production process.

“We’re not the people who will bring you fully automated video,” Pleitgen said. “That’s not something we believe in. We think from a user perspective, it’s not particularly engaging. We think it’s editorially risky, and we wonder what it does for you as a news brand. Instead, we’d like to use technology, smart automation … at the hands of storytellers, of bloggers, of journalists. Our mission is to empower journalists and not replace them.”

After his presentation, he sat down to chat and answer a few questions about how Wotchit works.

Michael O’Connell

ONA14 Podcasts:

#117 – Amy O’Leary & Tyson Evans — Behind the scenes of the New York Times Innovation Report

#116 – Josh Stearns — Building sustainability for local news

#115 – Diversity, entrepreneurship and making podcasts more visible

#114 – So you wanna podcast? Tips on how to be an online audio star

#113 – Let’s get social with Jeff Jarvis and Mandy Jenkins

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#117 – Amy O’Leary & Tyson Evans — Behind the scenes of the New York Times Innovation Report

Amy O’Leary was at a journalism conference in Amsterdam when she first heard the New York Times Innovation report had been leaked and made public.

As the Times‘ deputy editor of digital operations, O’Leary was part of the team that spent six months preparing the document that was only supposed to be glimpsed by the upper echelon of the newspaper’s editorial staff. Now it was out there online for everyone to see, courtesy of BuzzFeed.

“When if first got out, we were all kind of upset,” she said. “We just didn’t know how people were going to take it. We had this very candid document that had a lot of our most naked challenges laid to to bare in this report, and we just didn’t know. Our harshest critics, our stiffest competition could all sort of pick this apart. And that just never feels good.”

Amy O'Leary & Tyson Evans

Amy O’Leary, left, is the deputy editor of digital operations at The New York Times. Tyson Evans is the Times’ editor of newsroom strategy. (Photo by Michael O’Connell)

Tyson Evans, editor of newsroom strategy at the Times, was one of those who’d seen the report before it had been leaked.

“There had been a little circulation within the Times of people who were asking for feedback around it,” he said. “We were trying to kind of gauge what were the first steps after the report was maybe seen. And then, all of a sudden, everyone was reading it and it was like the most water cooler conversation you could imagine, right?”

Evans described it as something of a magical moment in the newsroom, when everyone was speaking from the same textbook.

“We had this amazing shared document all of a sudden, where everyone was talking about ‘What did you think about the point they made on page 60?'” he said.

When O’Leary and her team put together the report, it included five recommendations that they hoped the Times‘ editorial leadership would adopt.

“We had no idea if our bosses were going to green light any of them,” she said. “The document was meant to persuade them to do these things, and what we didn’t actually expect was that they approved all of them basically immediately. That surprised us. We thought they were going to turn some of them down and maybe just focus on one.”

This occurred shortly after the report was delivered in March and before it’s public posting in May by BuzzFeed reporter Myles Tanzer.

“If anything, having it public and with the public commitment from our editors that they want to pursue all of these, really does hold us accountable in an open and public way to follow through,” O’Leary said. “And I think that’s good.”

O’Leary and Evans spoke about the report and its sudden appearance in the public eye during a Sept. 26 keynote address at the Online News Association’s annual conference in Chicago. The next afternoon, they sat down with It’s All Journalism producers Megan Cloherty and Michael O’Connell to discuss what having the innovation report publicly available means for the Times and the journalism industry as a whole.

Michael O’Connell

Related Podcasts:

#110 – Bill Keller goes from The New York Times to a new, nonprofit news organization

#98 – What does a successful digital newsroom look like?

#94 – The New York Times is The New York Times … but

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#116 – Josh Stearns — Building sustainability for local news

Josh Stearns has been interested in promoting press freedom for a long time.

“The reason that I got into press freedom is that I was concerned about the state of local news specifically, and protecting the smallest journalists and the smallest operations,” he said. “I just think that when it comes to the health of local communities, we need those people who are both doing the accountability/watchdog reporting locally but also just the neighborhood news, the things that connect us as people to our communities and to others in our neighborhoods.”

Josh Stearns

Josh Stearns is the director of journalism and sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. (Photo by Michael O’Connell)

Stearns is director of journalism and sustainability for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, which is working on a two-year grant from the Knight Foundation looking at community engagement and journalism sustainability issues for community websites.

“I’m working with six local sites around New York and New Jersey basically as a startup mentor and R&D coach, helping them figure out how do they move from just getting off the ground to actually having a diverse revenue stream that’s going to sustain them over the long term.

The sites Stearns is working with range from those founded by former reporters at CNN and The New Jersey Star-Ledger who launched their own hyper-local news sites, to Justin Auciello, an urban planner who founded the Jersey Shore Hurricane News, a Facebook-based news site. The White House honored Auciello for providing Jersey Shore residents with up-to-date news in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

“It’s a really wide-range of groups, but all of them are really focused on supporting their local communities and trying to fill the news gaps that are occurring in New Jersey,” he said.
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#115 – Diversity, entrepreneurship and making podcasts more visible

Journalists, particularly journalists of color, are in need of financial backing for their projects as well as training on how to pitch their ideas to the business community.

The New U program seeks to address those shortfalls through a crash course for minority journalists who are entrepreneurs. Those who go through New U training have the opportunity to win several thousand dollars to fund their new journalism venture.

Umbreen Bhatti and Kaizar Campwala

Umbreen Bhatti, left, a lawyer and a 2014 John S. Knight fellow at Stanford University, and Kaizar Campwala, who works in partnerships and marketing at Stitcher, talk to It’s All Journalism about diversity, entrepreneurship and podcasts at the 2014 Online News Association Conference in Chicago. (Photo by Michael O’Connell)

We talked to Umbreen Bhatti and Kaizar Campwala about the program. Bhatti said keeping an audience in mind is the most important factor in a successful new journalism venture. If a person doesn’t cater to an audience, then she won’t be successful.

“So often journalists are thinking about their audiences in a generalized way. Could it be useful to think of a really specific type of person?” said Bhatti, a lawyer and a 2014 John S. Knight fellow at Stanford University.

Bhatti gives tips for how people can understand their users. For example, journalists need to be able to identify the gap between what people say they like and what they actually do.
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#114 – So you wanna podcast? Tips on how to be an online audio star

Why not podcast?

I was a student in American University’s Interactive Journalism program when the idea first came to me.

How to podcast

It’s All Journalism producers Megan Cloherty, left, and Michael O’Connell give a presentation at the 2014 Online News Association Conference on how to podcast. (Photo courtesy of @DaveColePhoto)

What I liked about the AU program were the discussions we had about how the journalism industry was changing. We also got to meet innovative journalists who shared their experiences working in digital newsrooms.

This was heady stuff for me, a 50-something editor in the midst of a career crisis. I’d learn these lessons on the weekend and then turn around and apply them Monday morning in my job as a Web editor at a chain of weekly newspapers.

But as the program wound down, I wanted to find a way to continue these discussions and learn more skills from smart journalists.
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#113 – Let’s get social with Jeff Jarvis and Mandy Jenkins

It's All Journalism podcasts live on the Midway floor at the 2014 Online News Association annual conference in Chicago on Thursday, Sept. 24. Producers Michael O'Connell and Megan Cloherty are joined by Jeff Jarvis, media pundit and professor at the City University of New York's Journalism School, and Mandy Jenkins, the open news editor at Storyful. (Photo by Josh Hatch)

It’s All Journalism podcasts live on the Midway floor at the 2014 Online News Association annual conference in Chicago on Thursday, Sept. 24. Producers Michael O’Connell and Megan Cloherty are joined by Jeff Jarvis, media pundit and professor at the City University of New York’s Journalism School, and Mandy Jenkins, the open news editor at Storyful. (Photo courtesy of Josh Hatch)

Social journalism is more than social media.

“It’s about turning journalism on its head and listening to the communities that we serve and first find out what their needs are,” Jeff Jarvis, media pundit, author, and BuzzMachine blogger, said Thursday, Sept. 25, at the 2014 Online News Association Conference in Chicago.

As a professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, Jarvis is spearheading a new social journalism program that goes beyond just training students how to use Twitter and Facebook well.

“Those are certainly tools people have, but this is really about realizing that journalism properly constructed is not in the content business,” he said. “Journalism is a service and a service accomplishes things for people. So, you’ve got to know what people’s goals and needs are before you can actively help them meet those needs.”

It’s All Journalism producers Megan Cloherty and Michael O’Connell interviewed Jarvis and Mandy Jenkins, the open news editor at Storyful, as part of a live podcast at the ONA Conference.

Jenkins blazed trails at TBD.com, the Huffington Post and Digital First Media’s Thunderdome in the way journalists can use social media to help them tell stories. She sees this new CUNY program as a reflection of what’s happening in newsrooms today.

“Every bit that we’re trying to do from identifying eyewitnesses, to getting their voices heard, to putting them in touch with the audience and bringing the audience in as the storyteller,” she said. “It’s a circular process. Getting more people to come into the industry who already understand that is going to be killer.”

Jarvis pointed to Jenkins as an example of someone was more than just the “social person” in the newsroom.

“She’s a journalist who understands social,” he said. “That’s the key of where we have to shift this. Mandy is really a model for many of our students going forward.”

Jenkins also talked about the ongoing efforts of ONA’s User Generated Content Ethics Group being led by Fergus Bell and Andy Carvin of the Associated Press.

She participated in an informal meeting Thursday of the group, which discussed some of the key ethical issues newsrooms are struggling with when in comes to using “eyewitness media.”

“There’s been a group of journalists who have working on that over the last year, really identifying some key points on that, ranging from crediting eyewitnesses, to keeping them safe,” she said.

Other topics of the group discussion concerned verification and even the trauma social journalists may experience as they wade through eyewitness media.

Michael O’Connell

Similar Podcasts:

#24 – Social media expert Mandy Jenkins explains how to crowdsource breaking news

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#112 – How’s your digital hygiene? Practical advice on improving your digital security

Seamus Tuohy likes to use the term “digital hygiene” to describe a set of best practices for how people incorporate digital security in their daily lives.

Seamus Tuohy

Seamus Tuohy was in studio talking about Internet security. (Photo by Michael O’Connell)

“I have to enter between five and six passwords to check my email in the morning, because I have a USB stick that’s encrypted that holds my password,” he said. “It actually holds a few different encrypted mini-volumes that each have passwords different computers or different uses.”

Tuohy is a technical adviser at Internews, an international non-profit whose aim is to empower journalists across the globe.

“We provide services to independent media organizations and civil society groups, both helping them develop the capacity to build radio stations or other media development work, as well as helping digital security services, services around developing better content, as well as services around teaching people basic journalism skills in areas where there’s news to be had, but are having a hard time getting it out,” Touhy said.

He builds tools to help communities involved in conflicts to secure their communications.

“My work mainly involves finding the right circumvention or anti-censorship tools that work for a certain population, both the utility of those tools and actually if they can be used in the field,” he said.

On this week’s podcast, Tuohy discusses the importance of Internet security in protecting a journalist’s work and communications with sources.

“The things that journalists overseas need are actually the same things that we need here in the U.S.,” Tuohy said. “Often times, journalists need to secure their communications so their sources don’t get out, so their story doesn’t get snatched or taken from them by another news organization. Also, just to be able to do the research. In a lot of societies, huge parts of the Internet are being cut off, and so, being able to evade censorship to find the news, find external sources, find corroboration of the stories you’re trying to tell is incredibly important.”

He points out some of the common vulnerabilities around laptops and cellphones, and offers some suggestions on how journalists can improve their digital hygiene.

Michael O’Connell

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#73 – Willow Brugh: Open Source to an open world of Internet freedom

#45 – NPR’s apps editor Brian Boyer turns data into stories

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