Since Thursday afternoon, was off the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Phoenix, a pretty impressive event headlined by Seymour Hersh and Dana Priest. Among the panelists I saw in action was Miami Herald investigative editor Michael Sallah, who oversaw last year's Pulitzer Prize-winning Debbie Cenziper series "House Of Lies."
He was up there with James Neff of the Seattle Times and the Houston Chronicle's Jacquee Petchel and the topic was "Writing the Investigation." Neff went over the formula for writing an investigative report. My initial thought: Just what reporters need, more formulas to kill any chance of their writing something original. But it's instructive to break down what we do, to look at traditional story forms (which, Neff tells us, includes "problem-solution," "case study -- an example tells all," "journey or quest," and "life story/redemption"). Sallah, in his talk, was focused on the dreaded pre-writing outline. Some snippets:
-- "It's in the delivery where it either wins or fails." -- Said typically, the Herald's investigative reports take six months to eight months and that he calls the writing period, "The days of pain." -- He called the outlining process "very anal, very boring, very tedious," but said you use it to create a "mosaic" that will help get rid of the "heebie jeebies" and help "avoid repitition and overstating things you've already covered." The process "decompresses" the material. "It can actually calm you down and help you focus." -- Said investigative stuff is "the hardest writing in journalism there is." -- Advised the reporters in the room to "pick the hours you're going to write" and said it was a good idea to get out of the newsrooom to do it. "Our writers write from our homes, I don't think that's a bad idea." -- Said of "House of Lies," that it was mostly edited by himself and Metro Editor Manny Garcia (who was also at the conference, along with Heralders Oscar Corral, Alphonso Chardy, and soon-to-be Washington Postie Cenziper). It got "some influence" from the executive editor and managing editor but there was never any attempt to "derail" from any higher-ups.
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There you go. And you didn't have to fly 2000 miles to hear it.