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How to Become an Investigative Reporter

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Investigative journalists typically get their big breakthrough stories while working on much less exciting beats. Covering city hall or the overnight crime beat, for example, often leads to tips about other stories that require more in-depth investigation. Once you get on the staff of a newspaper or an online news outlet, watch for opportunities that could move you into the role of investigative reporter, giving you all the time and resources you need to dig deep into a story.

Get Your Foot in the Door

The role of investigative journalist usually comes after long hours reporting less exciting news or covering a beat that seems mundane and monotonous. At the same time, you have to prepare to dig into records and follow up on leads as they appear -- a process that requires patience and diligence. While working your first beat, listen to sources you interview to find buried secrets. Recognize when a source is not answering your questions directly. In short, once you have your foot in the door, be astute and watch for stories that require further investigation.

Find a Mentor

Many investigative reporters follow the advice of a mentor at the paper or online news outlet -- a seasoned veteran reporter or editor who sees that you have a curious mind and a willingness to dig deeper than the surface to find good stories worth investigating. Reporters seem to be born with a curiosity gene that needs to be focused and trained, according to veteran investigative reporter Lyra McKee. As a rule, you won’t get the guidance and motivation in journalism school that you need to build a reputation as a good investigative journalist.

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In addition to tapping into the experience of a fellow reporter, take advantage of training courses, workshops and conferences dedicated to investigative journalism. The nonprofit organization Investigative Reporters and Editors, for example, offers a number of online tutorials, bootcamps and conferences that provide you with everything from tips on investigative techniques to how to mine databases, and also programs featuring the experiences of investigative journalists.

Learn to Work the System

News outlets are not always eager to spend the resources needed to support in-depth investigations, so you may need to learn how to find the deeper stories while completing other assignments. Call potential sources and prepare questions that will lead you to answers. When an important source for a story tells you “no,” keep calling. When you finally wear down the source, your editor may become much more supportive of you following up on your investigation. Read the news with an eye toward the unanswered questions, and poke around through public records, company filing documents and your own sources. When you finally approach your editor with a story idea, you’ll have more to give her than just a hunch -- and in return, you'll get a better chance of getting the green light to continue.

About the Author

Linda Ray is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years reporting experience. She's covered business for newspapers and magazines, including the "Greenville News," "Success Magazine" and "American City Business Journals." Ray holds a journalism degree and teaches writing, career development and an FDIC course called "Money Smart."

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