I signed up for another year of Hearst's investigative fellowship last June. I'm infinitely glad I did, and not just because I got to report to my former editor David McCumber (whom I loved working for) for another year. Putting more time into this fellowship taught me about the life cycle of a hard-hitting enterprise story--and it raised questions about how I can be a great investigative reporter as a 24 year-old journalist.
I didn't realize then what I know now: these things take time. The impact does not come immediately. It goes more like this:
- Your "raising questions" story that reveals suspicious connections publishes, sometimes with a thud. The people who care about it share it and maybe a few file ethics complaints or call the Justice Department. But you don't go on TV, your number of Twitter followers doesn't immediately spike. People read, say "huh, look at that," and move on.
- You get deep into the weeds on another story, and then another, over the course of months. News about your first report trickle out: there's an OCE investigation and report. Then comes an Ethics Committee investigation. Then come subpoenas. Each time, you recycle boilerplate from your first story and explain to readers, again and again, why they should care.
- And then...well, I don't know. This is where I stand on my two big investigative projects, even after two years. From here, it looks like more of the same until a source tips us off or the Justice Department indicts somebody.
Point is: you can't expect a story that someone wants hidden or out of the news to resolve itself with a neat ending in a year. Not even two. A seasoned investigative reporter would read this and say, "Well, duh." Not me. I'm 24. I had no damn idea how this really worked a year ago. Now I have a better picture.
What does it mean? it means investigative reporting might not be for those journalists who want to be internet famous. You won't find instant gratification here. A one-year stint as an investigative reporter may not be any way to do it.
And for me, personally, it means I need to invest time in this kind of reporting, especially since I'm young. But that presents a problem: that's not how journalism seems to work for young people. We simply switch jobs too often. Two years, to us, is a long time in the same position, and "building a career" means stringing together several two- or three-year stints at different outlets.
So how to reconcile and pick the next career move? More on that TK, I guess.