Bulletin photos by Kareya Saleh

The panelists for the discussion on award-winning enterprise stories, from left: Doug Fraser, reporter, Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass.; Naomi Shalit, senior reporter, Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, Hallowell, Maine; Ella Nilsen, reporter, Concord (N.H.) Monitor; Chris Burrell, reporter, Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass.

Tips to turn long-form
reports into award winners

By Pranav Temburnikar
Bulletin Staff

Readers look for a face to help guide them through a complex enterprise story, and it’s a reporter’s duty to do whatever it takes to bring that face to the story, according to Chris Burrell.

Burrell, a reporter at The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, Mass., joined three other panelists for a discussion on the elements of managing large enterprise news projects, including how to identify a topic. About 35 people attended the workshop, titled “Inside Publick Occurrences” and held Friday, Feb. 19, at the New England Newspaper and Press Association’s winter convention.

The panelists were invited to lead the workshop because they all worked on reporting projects that won Publick Occurrences Awards last year.

The most important pursuit in an enterprise story is to keep digging into more facts to make it stronger, Burrell said.

“Keep asking yourself, ‘What is … next? What is the next document to get hold of? Who is the next person to reach out to?’” Burrell said.

Burrell wrote a story on health and safety violations in public housing in Quincy. He had been doing stories previously on housing issues as housing sale prices and rents began to increase in Boston and surrounding areas such as Quincy, Burrell said.

Burrell said he went to Quincy Housing Court and looked for eviction cases after he received a tip that people were getting evicted from their houses because of high rental costs.

Burrell said he eavesdropped on a couple talking to their lawyer about getting evicted from their house as he searched through other court cases. He partially heard them saying that they wanted to pursue a court case against the owner of their house for evicting them, but by the time Burrell reached out to the couple, they had left.

Burrell said he was fortunate to get a reply from the couple’s lawyer after he left a letter asking for details about the couple who had been evicted on the lawyer’s doorstep so that he could reach out to the lawyer quickly.

Burrell said he chose to include the couple in his story because they had been evicted from their home because they could not afford to pay increased rent. Their story would put faces on the story that would connect with readers. The defining moment for the story was when the couple agreed to tell their story in full for publication, Burrell said.

Burrell made sure to interview the couple in person. He said it is important to go to the scene of a story to gather details, which could make the story more interesting.

“Go to the spot always to get some kind of a natural detail to make a story sing,” he said.

Another panelist, Doug Fraser, a reporter for the Cape Cod Times of Hyannis, Mass., described a similar approach he took in a story about sea turtles. He kept track of the sea turtles as they were transported from Cape Cod, where they had been rescued, to Florida, where they were released back into the ocean. In his report, Fraser combined details of that journey with scientific facts.

During Fraser’s four months of reporting on the project, he spoke with scientists about what was causing the death of sea turtles and included graphics with his report on their findings, he said.

Fraser said he and his team were at the scene when the Coast Guard carried out their rescue efforts.

“We were doing it every day, and the big picture allowed us to put together why and what happened,” Fraser said.

For stories that require a lot of travel, reporters should craft their travel budget by researching less expensive car rentals and hotels, Fraser said. When pitching such stories, reporters have to justify to their editors the topic’s value as well as why they wish to pursue it by doing research and collecting facts.

“If it is a bigger story, you cannot just go to an editor and say I want to go to Mexico,” Fraser quipped.

As reporters work on a certain beat for a long time, that beat could give birth to an enterprise story such as one on the opioid epidemic by panelist Ella Nilsen, a Concord (N.H.) Monitor reporter.

Nilsen’s story began after she met a mother whose daughter died of a drug overdose. Nilsen said she reported on the mother’s filing a lawsuit to obtain her daughter’s medical records to determine the reason for her death.

Nilsen said she wrote drafts of her story and sent it to an editor as the story was unfolding.

“Having that feedback (from an editor) was important, and then I got focused and pushed forward,” Nilsen said.

Nilsen said she interviewed staff members of a clinic in New Hampshire to get details about the effects of over-prescription of methadone, an opioid, on patients. Nilsen said she got more interested in her story after she was asked to leave by a patient she approached in the clinic’s parking area.

“I think a lot of people are willing to tell stories,” Nilsen said. “Make that person feel that you want to listen to them. You have to make them feel connected.”

Sometimes enterprise stories lean on public records.

Panelist Naomi Shalit, senior reporter at the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, based in Hallowell, Maine, saw that legislative leaders went into a back room to talk during a legislative session in Augusta, Maine. That caused her to become suspicious, which she said led her to file a public records request to get email messages and other documents related to that session.

The session involved efforts by wind industry lobbyists and lawyers for the legislative leaders to change Maine’s wind energy laws that could result in the building of hundreds of wind turbines in rural Maine.

The public records revealed a lot of coordination between the wind industry lobbyists and the lawyers on efforts to change those laws, she said.

“I could not wait to go out and call my editor (after learning about the coordinated effort),” Shalit said.

Shalit said she files a lot of public record requests at the same time because they take time to get fulfilled.

POSTED 3/6/16


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