How to build a career as an investigative reporter

Today, there are many more opportunities for journalism professionals than ever before. While it’s true that fewer newspapers and magazines are being printed and sold, many of them are shifting to an online presence. Many television news, while still retaining strong traditional viewership, have also been moving to web-based journalism for the past several years where stories aren’t hampered by time constraints. And online news outlets, from The Huffington Post on the left to Breitbart on the right, paved the way for a countless number of new media opportunities, which range from citizen journalism to seasoned veterans now plying their trade online.

What hasn’t changed is the need for solid investigative journalists, professionals who provide in-depth coverage of all manner of news. These are the people who most often break stories, uncover corruption, ask difficult questions, and put it all together to give the reader or viewer an unbiased, complete picture of what’s happening and how these situations are potentially affecting their daily lives.

Being an investigative reporter isn’t easy. It’s hard work. If you’re considering building a career in investigative journalism, you’ll want to know these five things.

There’s no nine-to-five.

News happens round-the-clock, and nearly all news outlets operate on a 24-hour schedule. So the life of a reporter is often unpredictable, requiring you to work long hours on many days and have the ability to change plans on a moment’s notice. In fact, you might be in the middle of writing a story or sending a tweet when you receive a call or email telling you that an important source or subject can meet with you for 10 minutes, but you have to be ready in a half-hour. A reporter’s life is busy, often exciting and always fast-paced.

You need to be a thorough researcher.

Much of a reporter’s day can be spent going through lots of online information or boxes of files in the library or at city hall. In this life, you never know where important details are going to show up until you look for them and find them. Canadians who watched television news back in the 1970s through 1990s will recall the details provided by award-winning journalist and broadcaster Eric Malling, whose tenacity was evident in the level of work he did to piece together one of his many reports, exposes and documentaries. He dug deep, found the facts, identified the people who could answer his pointed questions, and often brought his audiences reports that contained an unparalleled level of specific information.

Solid interviewing skills are a must.

The ability to be a good interviewer is part of every journalist’s job description. This means a few different things. First, once you’ve done the necessary research, you need to be able to ask the right questions. In many cases this means getting specific answers to your specific questions, knowing full well that many people, including public figures, have cultivated their own ability to not answer directly, or to talk around you questions and give you non-answers. But it’s not just asking questions, though. A good journalist must also be a good listener, able to pick up on words, phrases and facts that appear in answers on which additional questions can be built. In other words, know the answers you want, ask the questions and listen closely to all responses.

Storytelling is a necessary art and science that must be mastered.

When you’re delivering a story, it must be done in a way that engages your audience. And even beyond that, so much the better if it evokes a visceral response among viewers or readers. There are storytelling techniques that will only help you as you build your career in journalism. Everyone knows the who, what, when, where, and whys of conveying information, but the ability to structure and communicate a story dynamically and memorably is what separates the professionals from the newbies. You not only want your audience to be informed and/or moved by your reportage today, you also want them to continue following your work to stay informed.

If investigative journalism is your calling, and many in the industry do view it as such, you’ll need to accept the above points as part of your education and allow them to guide your work.