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Effective accountability journalists find their own way and direct their own work

When discussing their work, these journalists did not talk a lot about “editors” or “assignments.” Rather we were struck by the degree to which they took their responsibilities and ran with them, charting their own way, directing their own work.

They are a group that’s unlikely to wait for marching orders. “Independence” is a journalist’s most valuable characteristic, one reporter said.

While newsrooms sometimes have limited guidance from overburdened bosses and a dearth of mentors, these journalists didn’t appear particularly troubled by it. They generally seemed highly confident in their abilities.

“I think all my ideas are good ideas and I’m surprised when they fail,” said Stephanie Arnold.

They are explorers, finding their own way, but with one eye on tradition and business necessity. “Feeding the beast” was the way some reporters described needing to fill the daily newspaper or evening broadcast. Stephanie Arnold called it “adulting.”

“You have to do what you have to do in order to do what you want to do,” she said.

And what they want to do is pursue original stories that deserve attention, rather than track the agendas and announcements of officials. For instance, Mary Ellen Klas decided that she didn’t “want to write about legislative agendas anymore” and instead opted to focus on “counterintuitive stories.” For example, “What are [the legislators] NOT talking about?”

They also are good at “managing up” in the organization, setting expectations before embarking on a new idea or project, and using their enterprising ideas to dissuade an editor from assigning what they consider less meaningful stories.

Why this characteristic is important in accountability journalism: The type of employee traditionally labeled as a “self-starter” is a key characteristic — possibly even a necessity — for today’s accountability journalists. The typical newsroom’s declining supply of editors and experienced mentors mean there’s less time spent guiding longer-term, deeply researched reporting projects. These journalists need to possess a high level of self-sufficiency.

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