Second in a series of Q. and A.’s with former Nieman Fellows about watchdog reporting. Ken Armstrong, NF ’01, is a veteran investigative reporter now at The Seattle Times, having previously worked at the Chicago Tribune as well as newspapers in Alamosa, Colorado; Twin Falls, Idaho; Escondido, California; New York City; Anchorage, Alaska; and Newport News, Virginia. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for a series he co-wrote with Michael J. Berens on the State of Washington’s deadly decision to move vulnerable patients from safer pain-control medication to methadone to save money. He also won the John Chancellor Award from Columbia University in 2009 for lifetime achievement. His book with Nick Perry, “Scoreboard, Baby,” won the 2011 Edgar Award for nonfiction.
Seattle Times reporter Ken Armstrong is congratulated in the newsroom on the day the 2012 Pulitzers were announced. Photo by Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times.
Dan Froomkin: Please discuss one or two of your favorite recent examples of successful watchdog journalism. What made each stand out to you?
Ken Armstrong: Not to be difficult or anything, but I’ll give you three.
1.) I have a soft spot for great work by small papers. At small papers it takes guts to write tough stories about local law enforcement. The risks can be greater, the threats more immediate and real. In small towns you bump into people regularly—and things can get ugly, fast. So I especially appreciated the investigative work done by a young reporter—and I do mean young, the guy was all of 20—at the Times-Tribune, in Corbin, Kentucky. Reporter Adam Sulfridge and his editor, Samantha Swindler, investigated a tip that the Whitley County sheriff was stealing guns and drugs. (See the Spring 2011 Nieman Reports.)
Faced with threats, both journalists armed themselves with guns. Sulfridge even had occasion to pull his. But in the end their work helped lead to criminal convictions for the sheriff and 15 of his associates. The “60 Minutes” piece on this, which aired in May, is a must for any journalist in need of a pick-me-up. What I liked most: Sulfridge’s passion for his hometown; Swindler’s passion for small-town newspapering; and the refusal of either to back down. Here’s the “60 Minutes” segment.
2.) There’s nothing quite like watching a pro at work. And with the right book you can do just that, thanks to the source notes. Source notes provide readers with a road map, allowing them to retrace the reporter’s steps. Check out Steve Coll’s “Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power,” published last year by Penguin Press. Coll spent four years investigating ExxonMobil and its global footprint, and his book takes readers from the United States to Indonesia, Chad, Qatar, Nigeria and Iraq (this is an abbreviated list). “Private Empire” clocks in at a whopping 685 pages—and 30 of them are source notes, rich with detail about Coll’s paper chase: State Department cables; NTSB transcripts; SEC filings; FEC records; archival documents; PowerPoint slides. You can learn a lot from reading source notes. I know I do. What I liked most: Coll’s sense of fairness. He doesn’t shy from nuance and gives ExxonMobil credit when credit is due.
3.) The past year has been an outstanding one for investigative projects, with top-notch work appearing all over the place. One of my favorites—for sheer doggedness, as much as anything—has been “Broken Shield” by California Watch. The ongoing investigation has exposed the shoddy work of the in-house police at California’s five institutions for the developmentally disabled. (“Shoddy” is being charitable. “Unconscionable” may be more like it.) California Watch has been pounding away on this since the first story was published in February, producing an array of stories, videos, explainers and infographics. Denied access to records, California Watch sued. The project, fought on behalf of our most vulnerable, has had emotional resonance and impact. A new law, signed in September, requires that outside police be alerted to suspicious deaths inside the institutions. What I like most: A classic crusade, waged with sophisticated tools.
What are some of your favorite sources for information and inspiration in this area?
For roundups of investigative work I turn to Investigative Reporters and Editors’s Extra Extra and ProPublica’s MuckReads. I get the IRE Journal and Nieman Reports (of course!), and check in on ProPublica and California Watch, in part because they’re so innovative in finding cool ways to spread the word about their work, be it through musical numbers, coloring books, or mobile apps.
I follow Longreads on Twitter, because I’m eager to learn new ways to apply long-form narrative to investigative work. I scan Steve Weinberg’s annual wrap-up of investigative books. I try to keep up with Kindle Singles and the like. (I was blown away by Jon Krakauer’s “Three Cups of Deceit,” published by Byliner.) For inspiration on how storytelling can be enhanced by merging words with multimedia, I go to the Atavist. (Seven bucks will get you a three-month subscription. Check out “Agent Zapata,” an investigative story with brooding music, narrative, pull-up maps, a rogues’ gallery and striking artwork worthy of a graphic novel.)
And, if you’ll pardon the plug, I highly recommend my colleague Mike Berens’s website, which is full of tips for investigative reporters.
What are the most important lessons you have learned during the course of your career that might be helpful to other journalists pursuing watchdog journalism? Tell us a war story or two.
Lesson 1: Go big or go deep. When Steve Mills and I investigated the death penalty in Illinois, we went big, analyzing all 285 capital cases since the death penalty’s reinstatement. Going big allowed us to document fault lines. We attached hard numbers to what had gone wrong, and the governor recited those numbers while declaring a moratorium on executions and emptying Death Row. Patterns hold more power than anecdotes.
That said, an anecdote can be telling if you go deep. Several years ago Nick Perry and I wrote about Jerramy Stevens, a former University of Washington football player (now married to U.S. soccer Olympic champion Hope Solo) who received a raft of second chances over run-ins with the law. The narrative ran 190 inches; by stringing together one detailed example after another, the story generated a cumulative power that hit home with readers.
Lesson 2: When interviewing someone, ask short questions—then shut up and listen. I once interviewed a former prosecutor who had been accused of misconduct. The interview lasted four hours. I thought it went great. But when I transcribed the interview, the voice I kept hearing was my own. The words I kept typing were my own. I was so eager to show off and joust with the guy that I stepped all over his words, killing great quotes mid-sentence. Listening to that interview—my God, will I ever shut up?—was a mortifying experience. There’s a novelty shop in Seattle, Archie McPhee, with the motto: “Less Talk, More Monkey.” A reporter’s motto should be: “Less Talk, More Listen.”
Lesson 3: If an editor wants to send you to a massage parlor—to see if said parlor offers more than massages—just say no.
What is your biggest frustration about watchdog journalism? How can it be addressed?
Too often we present things as black and white, avoiding shades of gray. Nuance? We don’t need no stinking nuance. We write about people at their lowest moment, reconstructing the worst thing they’ve ever done. I’ve come to prefer stories about people in full. So I guess another motto could be: Less villainizing, more humanizing.
Another frustration deals with writing. Sometimes we spend months on reporting—doing work that is bold, creative, smart—and then, when it comes time to write, default to formula, writing stories so dense and dull they dare anyone to read them. That always strikes me as a lost opportunity, taking important work that should be read—that needs to be read—and consigning it to the fate of an instruction manual. (“Well, I know I should read that, but …”) With readers, we need to hook them and hold them, especially when we’re writing long.
What can or should be changed about the culture of modern news organizations to encourage more watchdog journalism?
Watchdog reporting can’t be treated as a luxury, an indulgence when we’re flush (remember those days?) and a discard item when we’re not. Watchdog reporting will help us survive. It distinguishes us, and most readers understand and appreciate that. The Jerramy Stevens story I mentioned earlier—the one that took 6,000 words to tell—had more hits than just about any in our website’s history. (One exception: a local bestiality-fatality story—man, horse, man dies. And hell yes, I read it.) We can’t be afraid of writing long. We can’t shy away from subjects because they’re complicated. We should be quick to incorporate new tools into our storytelling. And when our work makes a difference, we should let readers know. I’m all for humility—but in this instance, humility could take us to the grave.
What’s one watchdog story anyone can do?
That anyone can do? Got me. But here’s one I would love to see more people try: Go to your courthouse. Find out what civil suits have been sealed. (Sometimes, this is easier said than done.) Research the rules on sealing. See if the courts are following them. If the courts aren’t, fight to have the records opened. The more we band together to fight secrecy, the better our chances at a culture of transparency.
Dan Froomkin writes about accountability reporting for Nieman Reports.