My report to readers

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted all sorts of changes and challenges for Investigative Post. Mostly for the good.
Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life as we know it. That includes Investigative Post.

Like most everyone, we began working remotely in the middle of March. It’s gone reasonably well. Suffice to say, I make a lot of phone calls to my reporters. A lot of phone calls, period.

Our reporters have had to deal with sources and other news makers remotely, as well, which means lots of phone calls and emails and little to no personal interaction. 

“My basement is my office now,” Geoff Kelly, my senior reporter, said. “I conduct interviews from there. I watch government meetings on a computer sitting on my pool table.

“I did one interview with a Channel 2 reporter — me in my basement shooting myself on my phone, him sitting in the back of a car in a parking lot four blocks away. We both had technical difficulties, but we got the interview done and got the story — about hospital finances — on the air.”

Editing stories has not been a problem, as we use software that enables us to jointly work on stories in real time. I prefer the dynamics of face-to-face interactions, editing and otherwise, but again, we’ve found an effective way of working remotely, as have many other news organizations and other businesses.

The pandemic has also altered the dynamics of our relationship with WGRZ, our main partner. Simply put, we’ve assumed more responsibility for production of what you see on air. And working together through these challenging times has strengthened the already solid working relationship between our two news organizations.

The station’s news team is also working remotely, doing fewer face-to-face interviews, and editing out of their homes and cars. The changes to production at the station have required us to scrap the way we’ve worked together for eight years. In the past, our reporters worked directly with Channel 2 camera people to shoot interviews, stand-ups and supporting video, known as “b-roll,” and later to review stories once they’ve been edited. That “elbow-to-elbow” work, which typically produced three-to-four-minute stories, is gone.

Instead, for the most part, we’ve produced shorter stories that usually run in the neighborhood of a minute-and-a-half, fronted by Ali Ingersoll. She’s the one journalist on our staff adept at shooting and editing video, and as a TV veteran, she’s a much smoother talker in front of a camera than the rest of us ink stained wretches. 

We produce a script, approved by the WGRZ news director, and Ali shoots herself reading it. Depending on the story, either she or someone at WGRZ overlays video over a portion of her standup. Her skills have been invaluable.

“It’s nice being back on air and turning stories for TV more regularly,” Ingersoll said. “It’s been slightly challenging figuring out the logistics of doing remote on-camera interviews but, in general, I think what we’ve produced has turned out well and the stories we’re telling are really important.” 

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The pandemic has also changed what we do for radio. For the time being, we’ve swapped producing stories for WBFO in favor of doing interviews on our reporting. Starting in April we started granting interviews to NewsRadio 930 WBEN, as well. That new partnership is developing nicely.

I’ve been very happy with the quantity and quality of stories we’ve produced since the start of the pandemic. In fact, I’ve never been prouder of our work.

We’ve been very busy; from the first of the year until the middle of March, when we published/broadcast our first pandemic story, we produced 20 pieces of content. Since then, we’ve generated some 50 pieces, mostly stories, but also radio interviews.

Among the highlights:

I managed to kick in a few stories here and there, including a report on a lawsuit filed by an Amherst attorney that challenges Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s use of executive powers during the pandemic, and my analysis of developments at The Buffalo News in the wake of its sale to an out-of-town chain. My favorite was an interview I gave on WBFO in which I chastised Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz for being such a jerk to reporters as they labored under trying conditions to cover the pandemic.

Our increased output helps explain why our website traffic has more than tripled since the start of the pandemic. We hope to maintain that momentum going forward.

One more thing involving the website: Several weeks ago we dropped comments at the end of stories — not that we were getting many — to speed loading times. You can still comment on our Facebook page.

Finally, in the spirit of transparency, I want to report that Investigative Post received some $43,000 through the Payroll Protection Program, part of the federal stimulus package aimed at helping small businesses and nonprofits keep their doors open and their staffs employed during the pandemic. 

The money came with no strings attached in terms of editorial independence, so I was comfortable accepting it. The funds enabled us to avoid furloughs, layoffs or pay cuts, which would have been likely had we not received the funding. That’s no small consideration, given that we’re a small operation dealing with a big story.

We’ve also received more modest funding from Google and Facebook, which is a nice endorsement for what we’re doing. Those two tech giants are starting to make funds available to news nonprofits.

So, that’s my report to you readers. We’ve not just survived but thrived during the pandemic, and, with the continued financial support of the community, are poised for even bigger and better things in the days ahead.

Among other things, we intend to devote more resources to covering the economic fallout of the pandemic. It’s a story that will demand reporting for at least the next several years, and probably longer. 

In fact, the pandemic will have a ripple effect on many of the topics we cover and we are in the process of rethinking how we cover our beats. There’s a lot of great reporting to be done.

I find myself thinking of the possibilities and frequently muttering to myself: “I need to hire more reporters.”

I’ve got a great team. I need a bigger one.

Want to help me hire those reporters? You can donate here.