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From AJR,   August/September 2006  issue

Beyond the Byline   

Newsroom researchers are beginning to get the credit they deserve.


By Alia Malik
Malik (amalik@ajr.umd.edu) is a former AJR editorial assistant.     

When editors at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel first offered John Maines a position as a computer-assisted reporting specialist, he was reluctant to take the job. At the time, he was covering a growth and development beat at the paper, and he thought of a researcher as the stereotypical librarian – "a little old lady in a 'Far Side' cartoon in horn-rimmed glasses shushing everybody."

Eight years later with a Pulitzer nod to his credit, he says the work done by newsroom researchers is essential.

"I'm in the back of the airplane," he explains. "I'm the navigator, I'm the bombardier. I'm not the person who's flying the plane, but my job's extremely important, and they're relying on me to make sure we get where we're going and that we don't drop a bomb on a church."

Not that long ago, newsroom researchers received very little credit for their work. They had the thankless task of providing much of the information that ultimately ended up in award-winning stories, yet no one ever knew who they were or what they'd done.

That, however, is changing. Their names appear with increasing frequency in bylines or taglines, and some, like Maines and his counterparts at the San Diego Union-Tribune, are now part of teams that compete for and win Pulitzer Prizes.

Maines, along with reporters Sally Kestin and Megan O'Matz, was a Pulitzer finalist for an investigative series on the federal government's mismanagement of disaster relief funds.

He obtained records for everyone who had received relief money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 27 declared disasters. He broke down millions of records by ZIP code, then found the amount of money given to each area and projected the results on a color-coded map, allowing reporters to see that the money had often gone to places that had not been damaged by disasters.

The FEMA story is one of several major stories Maines has worked on since he took the computer-assisted reporting job. Others include the 2000 presidential election, the 2001 shark attacks in Florida, 9/11 and the anthrax scare.

At the Union-Tribune, researchers Erin Hobbs, Denise Davidson, Peter Uribe and Cecilia Iñiguez were key to the success of a Pulitzer Prize-winning series exposing the corruption scandal that ultimately led to the conviction of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.).

Iñiguez, 32, was suffering from myelodysplasia, a bone marrow disease, and died of pneumonia two days after the Pulitzers were announced. Friends told her that the series had won a Pulitzer, Hobbs says, but she wasn't conscious at the time.

The work of a researcher is not all about investigative reporting. In fact, as Hobbs can attest, it runs the gamut – major stories, minor stories, quick questions reporters don't have the time or the research savvy to answer themselves, and the inane.

Some requests are horrifying: "Upon delivering research results from three reliable encyclopedias (highly reputable sources), I was asked, 'Did you check Wikipedia?'" Hobbs wrote in an e-mail interview.

Some are crazy and a little gross: "How much gas could a brontosaurus create?" a columnist asked Columbus Dispatch Library Director Jim Hunter. "What is the force of the urinary stream in male horses?" is a question National Geographic librarian Ellie Briscoe remembers.

Some are virtually impossible: "Give me a picture of winter," an editor once asked researcher Anne Holcomb of the Kalamazoo Gazette. "He knew what he was looking for, but he couldn't articulate it, so I went around finding every picture of snow that I could," she says. "Which we have a lot of, because we're in Michigan."

Regardless of the task – whether it's an investigative piece or a routine research request – researchers aren't just poor man's reporters. In fact, with the amount of information on the Internet and the ability to analyze large quantities of data from a desktop computer, their job is more essential than ever.

"The library is more than the collection or the database, it's the brains in the librarian's head," says Briscoe. "And when you don't have a news library, you're missing the perception and the expertise and the organizational skills, and you're putting it on the reporters who may or may not have those skills."

Briscoe's first stint as a library director was at the Contra Costa Times in California in 1978, when all she had to work with were a few bound volumes of the paper and a five-year-old World Book encyclopedia. She recalls how one simple task – organizing the newspaper clippings – made a big difference. The newspaper's archives became much more accessible to reporters. "It was like tossing bread to a starving man," she says.

Today, with search engines and databases like Google and LexisNexis, the challenge for reporters is much more complex than sorting through the archives. Michael Panzer, library supervisor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, says one reporter spent so long cutting and pasting the information she needed from LexisNexis that her wrist started hurting. When she finally went to him, he showed her shortcuts that enabled her to get what she needed in an hour.

Panzer's contribution was just one of the many daily tasks performed by newsroom researchers. But there are times when a researcher's contribution is much more extensive, and editors and reporters fail to give them due credit.

"We're kind of used to it," says Denise Jones, a research manager at Raleigh's News & Observer. "It can be kind of annoying, because it's like they didn't appreciate what we did."

But recognition is crucial, she says, and not just for personal validation. "When the bean counters start looking for places to cut," she says, "they think, 'Gee, well everything's online now, why do we need a researcher?' [But] if they're looking at taglines, and they're seeing, 'News researcher so-and-so contributed to this story,' they're seeing someone other than the reporter with their name on it."

Still, Jones says she doesn't constantly feel slighted. "We do get bylines from time to time for contributions; we do get taglines a lot," she says. "For the most part, I like to think they appreciate what we do."