Tag: investigative reporting

When you are ready to start writing the story

Crafting a compelling long form story is difficult. Your goal is to compel readers into your story and keep them there until the last word. But in an attention deficit world that’s difficult. You don’t just need a compelling lead. You need compelling leads throughout your story.

Think about your story as if it were a book. Ever try reading a long book without chapters? Yikes!

Dividexit_sign_by_thelilphotographere your story up into “chapters” or mini-stories. Each mini-story will need its own compelling lead. You might think about these mini stories as inverted pyramids. The problem is that the end of each mini story gives readers an exit door out of the story.

31gurxn4l4l-_ac_ul246_sr190246_That’s where the Martini Glass style of story writing comes in. It is an inverted pyramid with a nice, juicy quote or  piece of information as your glass stem or kicker. So what you end up with is a string of martini glasses standing on top of each other. Right after the juicy ending quote of one section comes a compelling 31gurxn4l4l-_ac_ul246_sr190246_secondary lead drawing the reader back into the story.

Before you leave for the summer..

File some public records act requests.

If you file the now, you could get your hands on some interesting documents for your

foia sample

A sample Freedom of Information Act Request Letter

back to school issue in the fall.


This is a great time to start asking for documents it might take a while for the school to get. Most school administrations work all summer and summer is slow time for them. If your college is a public university, you should consider all records kept as public records. Now, administrators often cite FERPA, the Federal Education Education Rights and Privacy Act (which trumps public records laws) as a reason to withhold records from you.

But this is the end of the year and that gives you some time to educate your educators. 

You can’t get records on individual students but you can get records of large numbers of students if their identities can be redacted — that means taken out, covered up or masked in some way so that no one record can be traced to any individual student or any small group of students. Student records could be compiled into Excel (most are collected via forms and downloaded into Excel compatible databases to begin with). And with excel the school has the ability to replace names, student ID numbers or any other identifying tag with random numbers. That means it turns FERPA-protected info into a non-identifying public record, at least in a public university.

This comes into play with the grades students get in classes. It is a violation of FERPA for the school to tell you what grade student  Dennis Steadman got in Chemistry 103. But you are entitled to a list of all grades given out to the four hundred students  who took Chemistry 103 over the past two years, as long as from that information you can’t identify any particular students.

Or you could get a database of all student grades in Chemistry 103, without any names, but with the database broken into two categories: School athletes and non-athletes, again as long as you are asking for a big enough aggregate number so that when students are broken into those two groups you can’t identify anyone. You might not be able to get the athletes broken into teams for instance because with only 12 students the fencing team, for instance, that number might not be big enough–someone could arguable identify players through the data.

For more information check out the Student Press Law Center has a great letter generator that will give you a boiler plate public records request letter to copy and past into an email according to your state’s law.