Blog: The Educated Reporter

‘How I Did the Story’: Award-Winning Higher Ed Reporters Share Their Skills

The University of Missouri-Kansas City campus. The Kansas City Star found a pattern of exaggerations and misstatements that polished the business school’s reputation as it sought to boost enrollment and open donors’ checkbooks. (Flickr/UMKC)

Four recipients of EWA’s National Awards for Education Writing reminded attendees of the 68th National Seminar that perseverance pays off and the best investigations often begin by chance.

For Larry Gordon, the story began with strawberries. Gordon, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who won a 2014 finalist award in the large-newsroom beat-reporting category, discovered a lawsuit brought against the University of California by the California Strawberry Commission. Intrigued, Gordon decided to investigate and uncovered a bitter battle over access to patented strawberry seed. 

Gordon’s article centers on a dispute that began with a long-time professor’s plan to retire and start a private company with the strawberries he bred during his tenure, a move that was perceived as a threat to the massive California strawberry industry. Over a two-month period, Gordon closely followed the legal battle that ensued. He advised reporters at EWA’s conference that the key to writing a successful, in-depth article is balancing time.

“You just have to have that ability to juggle,” he said. While his article took about ten days to research and write, Gordon spread that time over several weeks and worked on many other stories simultaneously. “You have to have the ability to save string,” he said, “and tell your editor it’s coming along.”

Mike Hendricks and Mará Rose Williams, reporters from The Kansas City Star who won a 2014 finalist award in the large-newsroom investigative-reporting category, made sure to get their editor in on their investigation right away. Hendricks and Williams’ award-winning article uncovered the scandal behind a suspiciously high ranking at the University of Missouri – Kansas City’s business school.

The ranking placed UMKC above Harvard, Stanford and MIT. Published in an academic paper in 2011, the ranking immediately raised eyebrows, even among UMKC professors. Despite the ranking’s questionable nature, Hendricks and Williams did not find enough evidence to launch an investigation until two years later, when a professor sent revealing documentation in an email. That documentation launched an investigation that revealed layers of misrepresentation.

Hendricks said he was fortunate to work on the UMKC investigation exclusively for about three months. “It’s a great luxury for a paper these days,” he said, but cautioned that even three months seemed short since there was so much information to review.

Williams, The Star’s beat reporter for higher education, said she felt significant pushback from the university as she worked on the investigation. She said she reduced the conflict by being exceptionally clear in her communications with the university.

Williams also noted that Freedom of Information requests were very useful in the investigation, and she found the key to a successful request was to cast a wide net. “A broad net catches lots of fish,” she said. “Be somewhat specific so that you get what you want, but also try to open it up.”

Through FOI requests, Hendricks and Williams obtained documents and emails and said the emails, although taxing to read, were incredibly informative. “You have to force yourself to stick with it,” Williams said. “You’re looking for a needle in a haystack.”

Brad Wolverton, a reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education who won first prize in the magazine investigative-reporting category, did not have quite as much difficulty finding key information for his article, which exposed extensive academic fraud that propelled hundreds of college athletes toward scholarships and helped them meet athletic eligibility requirements. Rather, Wolverton’s main source handed him much of his data, including cellphones and a pink steno note pad.

The cellphones and notepad were gold mines of information. Together, they helped Wolverton see inside of the fraudulent operation, and provided access to the names and contact information of college-aged athletes who paid to have Wolverton’s source take their online classes or provide answers to their tests and quizzes.

Wolverton’s source spoke on the condition of anonymity, as did many other athletes connected to his story. Accordingly, Wolverton was faced with difficult choices about which personal details to include in his article. Although Wolverton’s source generally thought the article was fair, he was slightly upset by Wolverton’s decision to mention that he had two kindergarteners and their desire to know what their father did for a living. Wolverton said he believed that detail humanized his source, and after making his case, his source began to agree.

Like Hendricks and Williams, Wolverton stressed the value he found in taking time to dig deep and directly tell sources what information he wanted.  After all, he said, you never know; your source just might hand you their cellphones and a pink steno note pad.