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Aug. 15, 2023, 11:59 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Journalism with a PhD: The Conversation is pairing up academics with reporters for big investigations

“It is elevating investigative reporting to a level where we are able to access … jewels lying on the beach in the research of the academic world.”

David Maimon, the director of the Evidence-Based Cybersecurity Research Group at Georgia State University, spends a lot of time on the dark web. In particular, he and his research team closely monitor “underground markets in which criminals sell all kinds of illicit commodities.”

Several months ago, Maimon’s research caught the attention of Kurt Eichenwald, The Conversation U.S.’s newly hired senior investigative editor, who was searching for the right story to tackle in partnership with a scholar for the publication’s first investigative reporting endeavor. The Conversation, a nonprofit news organization, was founded in Australia in 2011 to bring academic research to a general public audience. Under its publishing model, reporters edit articles written by academic experts, packaging their expertise on topics with public-interest value in an accessible explanatory journalism format. Since its launch over a decade ago, and the launch of The Conversation U.S. (TCUS) in 2014, the organization has expanded into a global association of news organizations about 140 journalists strong with editions based in Canada, France, Indonesia, and other countries and regions.

Maimon had written for The Conversation before. But Eichenwald, after looking into his broader research, saw the potential for an investigative story more sweeping than anything Maimon had published with them previously, and flew down to Georgia to learn more. In their first conversation, Maimon told him that the topic he saw as most ripe for a major investigation was the practice of using “drop accounts” to facilitate check fraud and theft on a stunning scale.

“He showed me the marketplaces, he showed me videos that were quite unbelievable in terms of what was being done, but also the brazenness of it,” Eichenwald told me.

In partnership with Maimon, Eichenwald plunged into reporting to document and expose the prevalence of these overlooked online thefts and the “financial underworld” that facilitates them. The resulting story, Heists Worth Billions, published in June after a four-month investigation, is The Conversation’s first foray into investigative reporting — an expansion the publication’s leadership believes is important at a time when opportunities to do that (often expensive) reporting, especially on the local level, are shrinking.

“The steep decline in investigative and local journalism drove our decision to make this a priority,” Beth Daley, executive editor and general manager of The Conversation U.S., told me in an email. Academics on the local and national level, she noted, are “focused on a wide range of topics that today’s smaller newsrooms are not staffed to cover and may not even be aware of,” but that have significant public-interest value. And while academics do not necessarily have expertise writing for a general audience, “investigative journalists know how to find a narrative from data, ethically talk to real people, and have the platform and editing ability to reach the public at large.”

The Conversation’s endeavor is among multiple other initiatives recently launched to bolster investigative reporting (including one announced by the Center for Public Integrity this month). But what makes The Conversation’s initiative different is its approach to the reporting itself: pairing academics like Maimon with investigative reporters like Eichenwald on the premise that deep academic expertise and investigative journalists’ narrative and reporting chops are an underutilized recipe for potent, impactful stories.

“It’s a collaborative effort, where the spine of the information is coming from academic research and academic knowledge, and then the readability meat is coming from an investigative reporter,” Eichenwald said. “To a large degree, it is elevating investigative reporting to a level where we are able to access … jewels lying on the beach in the research of the academic world.”

Eichenwald’s primary role in this initiative is editing, not reporting or writing. But since the first story was “proof of concept,” he “decided that I should be the reporter, because if it was going to fail … I wanted me to be the one to blame for the failure,” before bringing in other freelance investigative reporters.

A seasoned reporter with decades of investigative experience at publications including The New York Times, Eichenwald emphasized that this model is totally different from any investigative reporting structure he has ever worked with. It’s fairly new. The structural emphasis on academic research, and close collaborations with experts who can make sense of that research, “allows for stories that might otherwise never have emerged to come up.”

The unit is a few years in the making. The Conversation had the idea for this project more than two years before receiving $500,000 in funding from the philanthropy Arnold Ventures last year, Daley told me, and had tested the waters in smaller ways previously. The team was inspired by similar initiatives elsewhere, including experimentation and some deep dives by its sister publication, The Conversation U.K.; the Miami Herald’s award-winning condo collapse investigation in collaboration with a University of Washington researcher; and STAT’s work with MIT’s Statistics and Data Center. This year, The Conversation also intends to start working internationally on investigations, Daley added.

The investigative unit relies on freelancers instead of a reporting staff because, Eichenwald said, he wants to be able to work on a wide variety of stories and topics with many experts, rather than working with just a few generalists. What’s more, “the shrinking of investigative reporting in journalism, which is terrible, has created a world of specialists out there, who are freelancing or available to freelance,” he said.

The Conversation pays freelance investigative reporters by project (instead of by word), and provides libel insurance, Eichenwald noted. He is open to projects with varying scales and timeframes, from weeks to months-long endeavors.

Under its typical publishing model, The Conversation does not compensate academics, and doesn’t pay them for participating in these investigative collaborations for now. “As we ramp up the investigative effort, we are relying on academic work that is already completed but has not seen the public light of day [and] needs journalistic help to get it there,” Daley said. “However, as we grow, that will likely change as academics may need to do extra work beyond initial research — or in some cases, start a story from scratch with a journalist.”

Eichenwald said ideas for investigations can originate from an academic, a reporter, him, or a pre-formed team. This “opens up a lot more knowledge areas to allow for really smart stories to start,” he said. So far, some academic and reporter teams have approached him together with a pitch, while others have been paired after expressing interest, and he has reached out proactively to certain academics and reporters whose work he admires, as he did with Maimon.

Since publishing the first investigation, Eichenwald has received pitches and interest from several academics and reporters alike, but he’s heard from more academics than reporters so far, he said. “There’s an enormous excitement for these folks, because they are getting to put forward their life’s work, in some instances, in a format…and with a delivery that they’ve never had before,” he said. He hopes to publish about six stories in total this year, he added.

Among academics who have submitted cold pitches, there is a tendency “to recognize that they aren’t quite sure if their ideas fit as investigative pieces,” Eichenwald told me in a follow-up email. While the initial pitches often don’t, “about 50% of the time, I see there is an investigative thread in the pitch.” What’s more, “when I speak to them so we can tease out the investigative element, they tend to get excited because they seemed unaware they could dig in as deep as they can,” he added.

The first story exemplifies a case where an academic understood what would make a good investigative piece based on his scholarship. “When I went down to Georgia State, I didn’t know why I was going, and they had a million different things that they were doing,” Eichenwald recalled. “It was [Maimon] who said, ‘This is the story.'” Eichenwald then worked on adding “the connective tissue and also narrative elements of the story.” He wrote a draft, Maimon revised it, and they continued a close collaboration until publication. (Eichenwald noted that he tries to work with reporters who can write stories that are accessible and gripping to an extent that they “seduce readers into reading [them].”)

For Eichenwald, one revelation of this collaboration’s benefits came when, while revising their draft, Maimon marked up a paragraph Eichenwald had included based on quotes from Maimon. Maimon wrote “I have no idea what you’re talking about” in response to this paragraph based on his own words, and Eichenwald realized he had misunderstood the quotes in question. Eichenwald cut the paragraph.

“If I had just been doing traditional investigative reporting, that could have run, and something that was not true would have come out based on my misunderstanding,” Eichenwald said. While he might have caught this error in another round of editing, even in traditional investigative reporting, “it gives you an enormous level of confidence to know that your colleague is not another reporter, but a true expert in the field.”

Another key ingredient for successful projects working with this model, he emphasized, is a collaborative working relationship. “Everybody has to check their egos at the door,” he said. “There are [an] enormous number of areas that I know absolutely nothing about,” and while the academics typically bring unmatched expertise to the table, “the skill set I bring into this is a story structure, and presentation, and editing.”

Maimon, for his part, had some experience working with reporters from news organizations including Bloomberg. When undertaking the collaboration with Eichenwald, Maimon “didn’t have any reservations about working with an investigative reporter,” he told me in an email.

“I really like the thoroughness and attention to details in the process of writing the story,” he said. Maimon added that he appreciated the practice of asking the banks and organizations they wrote about for comment pre-publication.

In all of The Conversation’s work, reach is a priority. The publication already distributes its articles for free to a wide range of news organizations under a Creative Commons license. (Disclosure: Nieman Lab is among those — we sometimes republish stories from The Conversation.) TCUS, for instance, publishes approximately 9-12 articles a day, and estimates getting about 18 million reads a month when accounting for republication. Its investigations also fall under Creative Commons, but to get these longer stories in front of as many readers as possible, the publication is going a step further by experimenting with publishing different, sometimes shorter, versions on different platforms.

When Heists Worth Billions was published, for example, its iterations included the full 7,000-word investigation on a microsite with complex graphics, an identical Yahoo News version that ran a day earlier, a shorter ~1,000-word excerpted version following the format of a typical Conversation story (a format Eichenwald said they’re unlikely to repeat, as this was confusing for some readers), a ~1,000 word Creative Commons version they created in response to requests from partner publications, and an adapted version for a national publication that has not yet been published.

“It is sort of like a story that never ends, because you have to keep editing it and editing it and editing it,” Eichenwald quipped. But it also “gets the story to far more people than it otherwise would.” The Yahoo News collaboration alone got about 500,000 reads, he said, while the shorter Creative Commons version is more suitable for small newspapers unlikely to run 7,000-word stories. In the future, he’s looking to form additional publishing partnerships with some TV groups, radio programs and podcasts, and magazines, among others.

“It’s a model where it’s not just collaboration between the reporter and the scholar, but it’s collaboration between The Conversation and others who can get the story out far and wide,” he said.

Daley hopes The Conversation’s investigative unit can become “a scalable model for all news outlets,” she said.

“As the model attracts more attention, and hopefully attracts the interests of more foundations, we’ll be able to accomplish a lot more,” Eichenwald said. Though he thinks some publications would never consider this collaborative model involving academics, “I think that there is a role that can be played like this at any organization, and I think that we are just going to have to keep proving ourselves to maybe get that conversation started.”

Reporters and academics with ideas of interest can submit them to investigations@theconversation.com.

Photo of Kurt Eichenwald, left, and David Maimon, right, who collaborated on The Conversation’s investigative story Heists Worth Billions. Courtesy of The Conversation.

Sophie Culpepper is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sophie@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@s_peppered).
POSTED     Aug. 15, 2023, 11:59 a.m.
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