When people first see the title on my new letterhead—Director, Multimedia Investigative Reporting—they often greet me with a blank stare or funny smirk. "What? Were all the good jobs already taken?" my brother joked during his recent visit to the Washington, D.C. bureau of The Associated Press.
I can't blame my brother or numerous other wisecrackers for wondering what's going on. For years I held some of the more standard management titles in the AP, such as news editor or assistant bureau chief. But I'll confess that my new one is growing on me, much as is the work that goes with it.
A little more than a year ago, Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll and Washington Bureau Chief Sandra Johnson put me in charge of an intriguing experiment to combine multimedia reporting with investigative reporting. Their idea was as straightforward as it was tantalizing: take a half dozen of AP's best print reporters, tell them they can pursue any investigative story across the globe but only if they can command audiences in the AP's four news formats simultaneously. The challenge, which was a new one for many AP reporters, was to produce compelling journalism that would captivate a wide variety of news consumer tastes. It also meant adapting to the different attention spans and interests of print, Web, television and radio audiences.
When I heard the proposal, I thought this would be easy. I'd made a few friends through the years in AP's TV division. I listened to NPR during my daily commute, and I'd even gotten into the habit of reading newspapers online, often leaving the print copies in the driveway for my wife to read.
How difficult could this really be? Ask any of our team members today, and they'll explain.
Arriving from our print orientation, this was the journalistic equivalent of "Survivor" contestants trying to fashion rocks into flints so they could light a fire. Every tool, term and colleague from another AP news division seemed completely foreign to us. Our first interactions with TV producers must have looked like American tourists in Paris rifling through a translation guide trying to figure out what was just said. None of us had ever worked in a "cutting room" before nor responded to a request for "b-roll." At one of our first organizational meetings, I tried to introduce the team to software used to create Web interactivity. "Anyone here ever heard of Flash?" I asked innocently. "That's what the digital camera does when you press the button, right?" one reporter replied, relieving all of us of some of the tension attending our transition.
Our first efforts bordered on comedy. A reporter new to carrying a digital video camera shot what he thought was compelling video—until he realized the lens cap was still on. Great sound, but a very black picture greeted his return. A loud scream (and a few choice words) reverberated through the office on the day when videotapes of interviews with September 11th survivors got lost in the mail between AP departments. The tapes were a key part of an investigative project looking into government disaster loans that went to companies that weren't hurt by the September 11th attacks. Headlines we proposed to tease Web stories came back to us reading in ways we found nonsensical. And an important interview recorded for its ambient sound had to be redone when the microphone on the recorder wasn't fully plugged in.
Fortunately our growing pains were overshadowed by stories the team's reporters investigated and by the limitless possibilities these various formats provided us in presenting what we'd found in our reporting. It didn't take long for team members to rally around a concept that became our mission statement: "Don't just tell readers the news, let them experience it and interact with it."
Here are some ways in which our mission has translated into work:
When Ted Bridis obtained Pentagon memos showing a growing number of crashes caused by hot-dogging military pilots, he wasn't satisfied with just documenting the evidence. He wanted readers to be able to experience the consequences. So he persisted and eventually located video—shot from inside the cockpit of a helicopter—that showed a pilot ignoring the advice of his copilot as he tried to squeeze his Apache helicopter between two trees at a high speed. The rotors clipped the trees, the cockpit started shaking, and the copter crashed to the ground. Bridis's doggedness and ingenuity meant that our online and TV news consumers were introduced to what he'd uncovered from a seat inside that chopper.
Sharon Theimer and Larry Margasak sought to expose the ruse of congressional caucuses. Even with their official sounding names, they often turn out to be nothing more than social clubs that collect special interest money to fund recreational activities for lawmakers. The reporters used a camera to "catch" lawmakers shooting with lobbyists at a gun range and playing golf with them while Congress was in session and they were supposed to be doing the people's business. The video footage anchored the Web and video packages, and this reporting provided the lead anecdote for the print story.
Theimer and Margasak did video interviews with lawmakers running to catch planes at Reagan National Airport for the weekend to highlight another story that examined how lawmakers collected personal frequent flier miles on airline tickets paid for by taxpayers and special interest groups. In documenting how former Congressman Tom DeLay spent one million dollars he'd raised from donors to fund lavish trips to Caribbean cliff-top resorts, outings at PGA golf courses, and meals at five-star restaurants, the Web, TV and print audiences were taken inside some of DeLay's favorite destinations. Web viewers could look at the menu for one of these restaurants and see that the prize of appetizers started at $35.
Mishi Ebrahim, who joined AP from "60 Minutes," teamed with several colleagues to transport news consumers inside the Bush administration's briefing room on the day before Hurricane Katrina hit. Watching this scene, viewers saw how relaxed President Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff were—unsuspecting of the magnitude of the tragedy that would soon befall the Gulf Coast.
Ebrahim also found ways to tell the poignant story of two whistleblowers who were fired for exposing how their company stole September 11th relief supplies, only to become devastated when the company wasn't prosecuted. The reason: FBI agents had also stolen items related to September 11th.
Benefits to Traditional Print Media
One obvious question is whether we have left the traditional print media behind as we focus on making video, sound and Web widgets. The resounding answer is no. In fact, the pressure on the team's reporters to work with a 4-D vision serves to improve what we do in print.
Reporters go back to videotapes they shot to review details that make their print stories richer, livelier and deeper. Rita Beamish and Frank Bass spent days going through their video footage and digital pictures—and their notebooks—before crafting their exposé on how the march of human development has spoiled the great vistas of America's national parks. As a result, their print stories sang like few I've seen before. Likewise, in getting the videotape of the hot-dogging helicopter pilot—and watching what his reporting had suggested was happening—Bridis's print story also became exponentially richer.
This new approach to investigative reporting also prompted the AP to better leverage its geographic expanse and wide-ranging expertise. This, too, improved what we are able to do in print. Reporters in every state and country were activated to investigate and report issues that crossed borders and transcended regional interests. As a result, reporters and editors in the field who had great sources and insight on issues in their statehouses or cities began proposing investigative projects that far exceeded their local resources.
Two of the team's projects with the greatest impact started this way. Dirk Lammers, a newsman in South Dakota, first spotted a September 11th disaster loan going to a local country radio station and questioned whether the federal government was giving away money unnecessarily. After months of investigation involving dozens of reporters, AP had an award-winning project that appeared in hundreds of newspapers. Likewise, Chicago News Editor Niki Dizon first spotted a loophole in the No Child Left Behind law that allowed schools to ignore test scores of underperforming minority students. Before long, another nationwide investigative exposé was under way.
From the start, we'd expected this experiment to pay dividends in leveraging AP's global resources to change the genre of storytelling. But an intangible benefit surfaced once our efforts were underway. With the attention and feedback that our stories on the Web and television generated, the interest by newspapers in using our stories multiplied. Editors who had to make nighttime wire copy decisions would call me to say they'd heard about a story from bloggers or seen a clip on TV, and this was prompting them to consider using the AP story. Likewise, when AP obtained the videotape of Bush's final briefing before Hurricane Katrina, the footage received global play on TV newscasts within hours. This meant that morning newspapers were compelled to showcase the print story on their front pages. In other cases, some large newspapers have written editorials about subjects highlighted by AP investigative stories even when their paper has not run the original story in print. The reason: These stories had created such a buzz among bloggers that editorial writers felt compelled to weigh in.
Documents, Data and Transparency
We now have the ability to routinely offer readers access to multiple levels of reporting, including original documents, photographs and video, as we present our investigative work. This gives our reporting a new and welcomed transparency, and we believe it also expands its impact. Last year, we exposed that federal researchers had been using foster children to test experimental AIDS drugs with serious side effects. In most cases, the researchers had failed to get permission from parents or provide safeguards required by federal and state law. AP brought Web and TV viewers inside the foster homes where these children lived and let viewers see and hear from the children and the foster parents. Documents we unearthed were put online to illustrate how researchers promised protections to the children that they never provided. Within days, congressional, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and local investigators had downloaded AP's information from the Web and begun investigations that led to sweeping changes.
Readers now have a chance to interact with the news. When our reporting exposed bad decisions the Homeland Security Department made during Katrina, Margasak crafted a popular interactive quiz that let Web viewers play the role of homeland secretary. Six decision-making situations were presented, and they chose their option to each. After submitting their answers, they could see what Secretary Chertoff decided in the midst of the crisis and what the experts in the after-action reviews determined was the better course of action. Likewise, when we wrote about an obscure agency that has a four-letter acronym, Web readers got to play an "alphabet soup" game we created in which they tried to match federal agency acronyms with their missions. And when AP learned that the government was keeping secret the scores they had calculated for the health risks of the air Americans breathed in every neighborhood in the United States, we created an accessible database that was easy to use. Hundreds of thousands of readers each day punched in addresses and got risk scores that most likely led to some interesting conversations at dinner tables across the country.
The AP's member news outlets also benefited from our team's work by being able to report important stories in their local areas. On six major investigative projects we worked on during the past year, AP was able to obtain never-before released federal data that covered every city in the nation. AP's TV and newspaper members were given advanced access to the data and to our stories so they could highlight related stories in their communities to produce a local angle. For example, Bass and Lammers' award-winning project exposing how September 11th recovery loans went to companies that were not hurt by the terrorist attacks demonstrated the power of this approach. In Utah, member news organizations reported on the Salt Lake City dog boutique that received such a loan at the same time that Caribbean news organizations focused on a Virgin Islands perfume shop. Similar stories engaged reporters at hundreds of news outlets—based only on our original reporting of this story and the access to the data we made possible.
Likewise, Bass, Dizon and several colleagues across the country teamed together to expose how nearly two million mostly African-American students across the country were having their test scores excluded from being counted under the No Child Left Behind Act because of a loophole that was letting failing schools escape penalty. Every AP member in the United States had the opportunity to highlight children being "left behind" in their local schools. And parents could look up the record of their schools on the Web. Our story—and the chorus of local reporting prompted by it—produced outrage and forced the Bush administration to quickly close the loophole.
Interacting with readers. Localizing news. Experiencing the news. Influencing policy. These are the early byproducts of AP's experiment. And members of the multimedia investigative team feel liberated by their ability to tell their stories in multiple formats and by being able to reach and engage people who probably would not have seen similar investigative stories a few years ago. Our reporters continue to embody the journalistic values embedded in solid investigative reporting, even as they are emboldened to bring to their work more than just a pen and pad. In just a year, the digital video cameras, tripods and lavaliere microphones have become comfortable—dare I say nonexpendable—tools in their reporting arsenal.
John Solomon is the director of multimedia investigative reporting for The Associated Press.