When Students Become the Investigators

By Fred Vallance-Jones

About the author

Fred Vallance-Jones is an Assistant Professor of Journalism at University of King’s College.

6350 Coburg Rd, Halifax NS, B3M 3H4.


902-422-1271 x 147

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Investigative journalism plays an important role in keeping the government and the private sector accountable but is threatened by cost pressures that are forcing newsrooms to cut back on staff.

While non-profit investigate centres have been established in the United States, growth of alternative funding models has been much slower in Canada. University schools of journalism, with motivated students and significant resources, can play an important role in strengthening investigative journalism. For the past two years, students at the University of King’s College in Halifax have worked as a team to produce large investigative projects that are published in a local paper and online.  The results have been encouraging, and the model could be adapted to the specific conditions in other schools and communities.



Investigative reporting, which has been defined as “in-depth reporting that discloses something that someone wants to keep secret,” (Cribb, Jobb, McKie, Vallance-Jones, 2006, p. 3) helps inform and educate the public while keeping businesses and governments accountable for their actions (Houston, 2009, p. 3). It acts as a counterweight to those who seek to control the flow of information (Cribb et al, 2006, p. 3). In May 2010, in its judgment in R. v. National Post—best known as a case about confidential sources—the Supreme Court of Canada endorsed the importance of this work:

The role of investigative journalism has expanded over the years to help fill what has been described as a democratic deficit in the transparency and accountability of our public institutions. There is a demonstrated need, as well, to shine the light of public scrutiny on the dark corners of some private institutions (R. v. National Post, 2010).

But investigative reporting is expensive. And that makes it difficult for news managers to justify it, especially in difficult times such as these. Committing a reporter to a story for more than a day or two may be seen as a luxury (Rosner, 2008, p. 217). There are only a handful of long-lived investigative-reporting units in Canada, most notably at the CBC and Toronto Star. Other units have been formed, only to be disbanded later. For example, an effort to establish an investigative unit at the Halifax Chronicle Herald foundered after criticism by management the unit wasn’t producing enough material (Lester, 2005). Beyond dedicated units, investigative reporting is often pursued by motivated reporters who see it almost as a mission (Houston, 2010, p. 47) and a number of Canadian newspapers are known for investigative work done by individual reporters. Many news outlets do little or any investigative work.

Add to this economically driven reluctance the very real problem of the declining fortunes of newspapers, and waning public interest in “the news”, and “governments and other powerful entities [are] freer to evade accountability . . . the long-term effects of such wholesale abandonment pose threats to democracy itself” (Ruvinsky, 2008, p. xix).

Alternative funding models

But there are alternative ways of paying for and doing investigative journalism that may find a place in a time when profits at traditional media are shrinking and disappearing. Some of the most promising have appeared in the United States, where enterprising journalism has experienced significant setbacks: “Even those with the best intentions have been unable to maintain investigative reporting at previous levels, papers have closed, declared bankruptcy, or slashed staffs to stay in business” (Houston, 2010, p. 45). Advertisers have abandoned newspapers and magazines [for the Internet], resulting in much lower profits, and expensive investigative journalists have often been the first to go (Feldstein, 2009). A 2007 survey of staff at 20 larger papers found more than half the papers had “eliminated or sharply cut” investigative teams (Houston, 2010, p. 47). Partly in response, non-profit investigative centres have appeared at universities, as well as independently, the most prominent of which is ProPublica, which has a staff of 20 and a $10 million annual budget (Houston, 2010, pp. 47, 52). In 2009, a number of these non-profits banded together to form a new investigative news network to provide a central place to see, hear and read the best investigative work (Lewis, 2009).

Canada has not been immune from these pressures, with ongoing declines in paid circulation and advertising revenues for daily newspapers (Canadian Media Research Consortium, 2009), a number of high-profile layoffs at CBC, Sun Media, Canwest, Torstar, and others (Ray, 2008), and the closure or near closure of some local television outlets. Nonetheless, alternative models for investigative work have been slower to gain a footing here. The only investigative centre of any note is the fledgling Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting (see http://www.canadiancentreinvestigates.org/).

In this environment, universities, and in particular schools of journalism, have an opportunity to play a significant role, just as they have done in the United States. Tom Fielder, dean of the College of Communications at Boston University, notes that journalism schools have some inherent advantages, including motivated students, experienced faculty, many experts and other resources within the university environment, access to funding from foundations, infrastructure such as office space and legal assistance, and the ability to use the university’s good reputation to forge relationships with media partners and gain the trust of sources (Houston, 2010, p. 50). Add to this the fact that good investigative journalism demands trained specialists, a critical/analytical approach, and (because of the stakes and potential harms), a high ethical standard, and it is clear that universities have the potential to foster a new generation of investigative journalists while contributing to the growth of investigative work at the community level.

For the past two years, the investigative workshop at the University of King’s College in Halifax has explored such possibilities, although the approach was as much a response to practical problems as it was an exploration of a new way of doing journalism.

Birth of an approach

King’s has had an investigative workshop for many years—in fact, several schools of journalism in Canada offer investigative journalism training—and until the 2007-2008 academic year it was run on a one-student, one-story model. This model had real advantages, especially in that each student was able to pursue a story of his or her own interest, and succeeded or failed partly on the strength of his or her initiative and effort. The biggest challenge to the model was time. Investigative journalism consumes a lot of it and even in a six-week workshop, once one or two weeks of instruction were completed, there wasn’t much time for one student to do extensive research, hunt down elusive sources, or chase new leads. The student needed to be focused on getting the essential elements for the story within the period allowed. Some stories ended up being of near publication quality, while others fell well short of that mark. There was a resulting need to keep the projects narrow in scope in order to give the students a decent opportunity to complete them.

These challenges, as well as an unexpected change in the media landscape in Halifax and a fortuitous trip to a conference in Miami, all contributed to the decision to try the one-project model. The newspaper that had published a number of the individual stories in previous years, the Daily News, was closed by its owner Transcontinental in February 2008, just before the 2008 workshop was to begin. While a last-minute arrangement was worked out with the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, most students weren’t able to have their stories published that year. Against this backdrop, the author attended a U.S. meeting that discussed group projects that had been done there. This became the immediate spark for the idea to do the same at King’s. The author approached the Coast, a local weekly that had published some individual stories previously, and proposed a partnership that would see the paper involved in a single project from the beginning. The Coast has an edgy style, favours investigator work, and aims for a younger demographic in its audience. The Coast agreed to publish the students’ work, as well as link to a student-built website with further stories and multimedia features.

The single-project model offered a solution to the time problem inherent in the one-student, one-story model. Some aspects of investigative work can’t be accelerated, such as how quickly governments respond to freedom of information requests, but what a team can greatly improve upon is the volume of material that can be researched, the number of interviews that can be done, and the speed with which one can respond to developments such as new story leads. With many minds contributing to the effort there is also a greater diversity of approaches and styles, all of which can contribute to a successful project. The new model was particularly feasible at King’s because of the workshop system that sees students committed to the workshop all day, every day for the full five or six weeks. A team working full-time in this manner, if led effectively, can engage with a significant subject and do work that rivals that of major news organizations. In getting there, students can learn specific investigative techniques and gain experience of what it is like to be part of a piece of high-stakes journalism.


In adopting the single project model, the author wanted to ensure three things:

  • That the new workshop model would be an effective learning experience for the students;
  • That the students would be central to the work and not merely low-cost research assistants; and
  • That the story chosen would be significantly important to the community and contain elements allowing for effective teaching of investigative techniques.

Steps were taken to achieve each of these goals.

  1. An effective learning experience

In order to produce the most effective learning experience possible, the workshop was structured to allow the students to take on all of the tasks that would engage a professional investigative reporter. This required a great deal of planning, organization and follow-through. It became demanding for everyone, not least the instructor who must be at times teacher and editor, mentor and sergeant-major.  The strongest students have to be given the opportunity to do their best work, while weaker or less motivated students can work to their own best potentials.

To maximize use of the workshop time, a student assistant was hired to conduct initial research, particularly documenting previous coverage from news databases, finding contextual material from other places, searching for and cataloguing documents and other resources, building a chronology of past events in Excel, and so on.  Besides creating a baseline of knowledge about the proposed story, this practice gives a third-year student the opportunity to do in-depth research that complements the school’s research methods course.

For the workshop itself, a certain amount of general instruction is required, and in order to maximize the time for the actual project, this is concentrated in the first week of the workshop. The classes cover basic principles, the process of an investigation, use of public records, and fundamentals of investigative writing, all over four mornings. The students, meantime, start reviewing the material collected by the student assistant. For the 2010 workshop, that meant reading documents, previous news stories and old debates from the legislative assembly. Along with the general instruction, there were also smaller classes with subgroups of students, and sometimes one student at a time, to teach more specialized skills such as data analysis or mapping.

The workshop itself was set up along a newsroom model, with students taking on key editorial roles, including a deputy editor, an assignment editor, a photographer/visuals editor, and a web editor. The remainder of the students were divided into reporting teams, each team taking responsibility for one aspect of the story.  The idea behind the latter arrangement was to prevent anyone from having to work in too large a group, to give the students ownership of part of the story, and to encourage group cohesion.

Formal story meetings were held on Friday mornings and in both years ad-hoc meetings were held as required in order to deal with specific issues as they came up.  There were also guest lectures, as required, and in 2010, full-class briefings from subject-matter experts.

Keeping track of all of the material being unearthed by such a large team requires a system. Each reporting team was required to write a memo on its daily work, briefly outlining tasks completed and information unearthed. These were then available for review by the editors and other reporters. The students were also required to transcribe their interviews word-for-word to ensure everyone had access to all of the important material and to provide authoritative access to all of the interviews at the writing stage. The important interviews were all recorded and the sound files saved on a central King’s server.

Everything collected went into a big pool available to everyone on the project. In 2010, a Google Documents account was used to store all documents, including paper documents that were scanned and posted, and spreadsheets of summary information. Google documents allows up to a gigabyte of storage for documents of any file type. The documents can be organized into folders and unless they are images, are fully searchable. The most sensitive information was not stored on the Google Docs site but on a King’s server to protect against a security breach and expose the material to the world. This measure meant the material was not searchable, but it offered greater assurance that security would not be breached. Finally, a Google Group was used to post memos and as a group mailing list, allowing anyone to email the whole group by sending a message to the group address.

  1. Keeping students central to the work

In order for a project of this size, involving 10 to 15 students, to provide the best possible learning opportunity, including the opportunity to learn how not to perform certain tasks, students need to perform all roles related to the investigation. Some have suggested students act as researchers for professional journalists who would then do the actual stories (Rosner, 2009). That model is likely to be attractive to some schools, but a different direction was chosen for this workshop because employing students as unpaid researchers would deprive them of the experience of bringing a project to fruition and because the extent of the students’ accomplishment would be invisible to the audience and to potential employers. A key guiding principle is that this is a learning exercise as much as a professional exercise.

  1. Choosing the right story

The choice of story is crucial.  Ideally, it should be something of significant public importance and interest. One of the goals of the workshop is to do public-service journalism for the entire Nova Scotia community, so the author seeks stories that affect significant numbers of people, have people at their core and raise important issues of accountability. These are the same kinds of story selection criteria that anyone doing a serious investigative project would apply. The instructor also looks for projects that will benefit from the large-team approach, stories that have many elements or aspects and that merit a deep and expansive look. The value of the story as a teaching tool is also crucial: by researching the story, students gain experience with key aspects of investigative reporting, including searching for and using public documents, doing in-depth personal interviews, obtaining good art, employing computer-assisted reporting techniques, and compiling and organizing the results. Therefore, stories that are process oriented, dominated by people talking in official capacities or totally interview-driven are avoided. The key is to find a balance between the story and the learning experience.

Even though the workshop doesn’t begin until late February, meetings of students are held in the fall, to start looking for project ideas. For the first year, in 2009, it was one of the student ideas that became the preferred choice of the group. One of the students had attended a protest rally on an unrelated issue and heard about pollution problems at Boat Harbour near Pictou, Nova Scotia. From this germ developed the Boat Harbour Story, a tale of pollution and official mendacity, and a toxic legacy that lives on without solution today. The story for this year’s workshop emerged when the author received an email from a public relations person with the Nova Scotia Gaming Foundation, an organization funded by a small percentage of video lottery revenues to provide information to the public about problem gambling. In a later telephone conversation, the public relations person provided numbers on problem gambling that were so compelling that the students endorsed the story with enthusiasm. Both of these stories had significant histories, a tremendous amount of potential documentation, and real potential for gritty, human interviews.

Assessment model

The assessment model for this workshop has been a work in progress. The goal has been to find a balance between assessing the students as a group, and assessing the efforts of individuals. Three-fifths of the individual mark is a traditional assessment of individual performance that takes into account individual effort, contribution to the project, quality of work and so on. The other two-fifths is based on reflections that the students write weekly about the experience, what they are learning, the challenges they face and what they have accomplished.  The main purpose of these reflections is to get the students thinking about what they are doing and how they might do it better next time. They also help the instructor see the project from the students’ point of view and this can help in refining the workshop for future years.


Given that we were trying something completely new, these two projects have been immensely successful, showing that the model of completing a single, significant story for publication can be a successful way of both teaching investigative journalism and contributing investigative journalism to the community.

Boat Harbour is a huge problem, an environmental catastrophe spawned in another time when nobody paid much attention to the effects of development. The students book-ended the story, revealing for the first time the closed-door meetings and decision-making that resulted in an enormous re-engineering of the environment in the 1960s, while demonstrating forcefully that the provincial government had misled the public for years, saying a clean-up was well underway when in fact it had been quietly abandoned as unworkable.  (For more see http://boatharbour.kingsjournalism.com.)

The VLT gambling story had similar themes. The provincial government and its gaming corporation position themselves as leaders in what is called “responsible gambling.” Government finds itself in a tough spot, providing ubiquitous gambling opportunities that lead some people to deep financial difficulties and personal trauma. Rather than act decisively to prevent these effects, it promotes responsible gambling, putting the onus on people who are drawn to the government’s gambling machines to know when to stop so as to avoid problems.  But after five years promoting this strategy, VLTs seem to be causing as many problems as ever in Nova Scotia.  The government PR machine presents a benign public image that is belied by the stories of personal ruin and by the government’s own research. The students also uncovered an enormous growth in First Nations VLTs that not only undermines the government’s strategy but has caused misery and addictions in the native communities themselves. There has been ongoing coverage in mainstream media since the King’s stories were published. The Herald ran a lead editorial based on one of the students’ stories. For 2010, CBC also broadcast stories based on the students’ work, while giving the students full credit. (For more see http://gambling.kingsjournalism.com.)

Student experience

First and foremost, the workshop is for the students. For many, it is a highlight of their time in journalism school. They work on a major investigative project and experience everything that comes with that: the intensive tedium of reading long, technical documents, the challenge of tracking down elusive sources and the elation of securing interviews with them, the pressure of having to nail key elements of the story with time winding down, and the excitement of seeing the story come together. The students acquire new discipline, refine their research skills, and learn to be interdependent as well as independent. They have gained experience mining a wide range of public documents, including archival records, bankruptcy filings, land titles records, and company and government annual reports and business plans, naming just a few. They have done interviews with sources ranging from vulnerable victims to the premier. Those interested have learned specialized skills in computer-assisted reporting and web development. Less- motivated students have found the process difficult as they rely more on receiving direction. This matter is addressed in the next section.

Main lessons so far

Based on two completed workshops, some conclusions can be drawn that may be of assistance to others attempting a similar model:

  • It can work. A group of students can pull together to produce a thorough piece of investigative journalism.  The two workshops so far have confirmed that having many people working on the story means much ground can be covered in a short period of time and you have people available to do basic shoe-leather work such as searching for businesses on reserves with video lottery terminals. In the gambling story, the students were exposed to a wide range of experiences, including tense and emotional interviews and last-minute accountability interviews conducted at the provincial legislature.

  • The media partner should be involved from the beginning. Getting early and continued buy-in for the story from your media partner(s) is extremely important. For the past two years the author met with the editorial team at the Coast before the project began, and the Coast’s news editor came to some of our story meetings, offering suggestions and support. The goal here is to avoid surprises at the end of the project that could lessen the commitment of your partner(s) to the project.

  • Strong leadership is essential. It is absolutely important to have someone at the centre of the project who sees the larger picture and has a clear view of how the story is developing. He or she needs to be ready to step in and offer clear direction to keep the project moving. The students need enough freedom to be able to work independently and take ownership of the story, but at the same time, their collective interest in the broader project needs to be preserved, and that’s the job of the project leaders.  It is also important that the lines of authority be clear. For many good reasons, including possible legal liability, the final word has to go to the instructor. He or she also needs to set the overall daily agenda.  Students don’t generally have highly developed skills in synthesizing large amounts of information, seeing the patterns and making judgment calls under pressure. There is a real opportunity, however, to have a student work closely with the instructor as a kind of apprentice editor. It goes without saying that the project leader needs to be an expert in doing this kind of work.

  • Team building is equally important. Regular team-building elements are built into the design of the workshop, including a movie night and a social evening at the end of the workshop. During the workshop, certificates are awarded to students making the week’s most important breakthroughs.

  • Regular review and reassessment is necessary to keep a project this big from veering off course, especially when you are dealing with a fixed deadline to complete most of the work.  Leads have to be followed and “brick walls” scaled. The most effective approach at King’s was to call ad-hoc meetings of the reporting groups to brainstorm specific problems. Large, overall group meetings were less effective because students tended to treat them as classes and those not directly involved in an issue tended to sit back.

  • Keeping track of information is crucial, as is impressing upon the students the need to do so.  During the second project, this year, Google Docs service worked extremely well as a place to store documents and was especially valuable at the writing stage because everything was in one place, and searchable.  This was really useful for extracting key facts and numbers when students were working with the final copy.  Memos may be less useful. Getting all of the students to prepare them faithfully and thoroughly was a challenge and maybe more trouble than it was worth. The students didn’t like having to write or read them. Another approach, such as a single memo added to each day, may work more effectively. This would not only help students contextualize their daily progress, but would avoid the tedium of having to open and read memo after memo.

  • It is important to find ways for everyone to play a role in the project. For the most motivated of students, this may simply be a case of identifying the problem and saying “go!” For others, more frequent direction will be required, and some may need daily intervention to stay on track.  Sometimes, a student may simply be unable to accomplish a task, and in these instances one must consider whether the student simply needs some encouragement and direction, or whether that student needs to be given other work to do and the task reassigned. In this way, you try to match the students’ different capabilities and levels of motivation with the work that needs to be done and the education you are trying to deliver.

  • Perhaps the biggest challenge was getting the writing started. In both of the initial projects, editing and publishing of copy occurred after the workshop was officially over, partly because of delays in the writing process and partly because in classic investigative project style, some of the most important information emerged near the end.  Journalists who are used to amassing large amounts of evidence develop skill in “zoning in” on the important material and setting the rest aside, but this is much more difficult for novice writers. The need to marshal evidence for every point made, to have a story that builds that evidence to a conclusion driven by the facts, and to combine this discipline with narrative story-telling, makes investigative writing challenging. The author’s conclusion after doing this twice is that the  most effective way to teach the writing is in a small workshop environment with the instructor or other experienced investigative writer regularly sitting down with the project writers to provide guidance and supervision. Otherwise the students can be overwhelmed by the sheer mass of information. There should also be several drafts starting quite early in the project to give the writers the opportunity to see how copy improves with rewriting.

  • Fact checking is important. Despite their best efforts, students will make mistakes in fact, misidentify sources, and make unsupported statements in copy. A fact-checking step needs to be built into the process and the instructor needs to guide this process.

  • It is important to find the right balance between group and individual performance in the assessment scheme. The final mark distribution needs to reflect individual performance while giving the students appropriate credit for their collective effort.

  • Finally, it is really important to get feedback from the students. In something as dynamic as this, each project will be a little different. But student comments can be very useful in assessing the effectiveness of various structures and workflows.

Discussion and conclusion

Journalism in North America is facing unprecedented challenges, from a shrinking advertising and circulation base for newspapers to pressures for ever speedier, superficial content on the Internet. Investigative journalism is often seen as an expensive endeavour with uncertain results. It can be hard to justify and may be nearly non-existent in smaller communities. Yet it serves an important role in democratic society, and can help differentiate professional journalism from reporting done by citizens.

The experiment with community investigative journalism at the University of King’s College demonstrates that students can play a role in maintaining and strengthening investigative journalism in their communities. With effective guidance, they can learn about investigative journalism while practising it in a realistic and challenging setting.  With local modification and access to experienced investigators to lead the effort, this is a model that could work elsewhere.

Consideration, however, would have to be given to local conditions. Issues might include the availability of suitable media partners and their willingness to co-operate, the degree to which the university administration is willing to have the school’s name attached to journalism that can be controversial and may result in negative feedback from institutions and individuals that become the focus of coverage, the suitability of the particular student body as participants in such a project, and considerations specific to the institution and its faculty. Another key consideration is the structure of individual programs. The King’s workshop model is ideally suited to such a project. An instructor running a course that meets once or twice a week while students take other courses would have to adapt the model to account for the reduced availability of the students to work on a project as well as for the interruption in students’ focus on the material. The Kings’ project, however, has shown that students can take on a large investigative project, and if led effectively, can succeed. There is no question that student work of this kind can be one part of the answer to the question of what happens to investigative journalism in the current changing media environment.


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