An excellent adventure in reporting, Part II

Valerie Lapinski fell in love with Studs Terkel’s work a few years ago when she was preparing a radio series about jobs in a small southeast Alaska town. Little did she dream then that the death last year of the renowned chronicler of working people would start a process that ended with her own powerful scoop of how the FBI kept a dossier on Terkel for 45 years.

But that’s getting ahead of our story, which includes Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, the arrival of 147 redacted pages from the FBI, an intense weekend of pulling together a piece with the help of professors/editors Andy Lehren and Jere Hester, and the utter satisfaction of beating major media players to the finish line and watching them pick up her dust.

Valerie was inspired to take Lehren’s Investigative Reporting course when ’08 alum Cristina Alesci obtained the FBI file on the late, great David Halberstam. Valerie couldn’t wait to get her hands on documents the public had never seen, and it didn’t take long for Lehren to give her that chance. As a warmup assignment for Lehren’s fall course, Valerie last summer asked for Terkel’s FBI file, which, under law, the agency had to relinquish once a subject had died. The FBI sent a reply that it was working on it. In September, having heard nothing, Valerie filed a follow-up letter to the FBI. In the crush of school work, Valerie nearly forgot about her request until the envelope arrived Nov. 13.

With a 147-page, mini-phonebook of a file in hand, Valerie walked around town, completely intimidated. “What was inside, and how on earth was I going to know what to do with it?” she thought.

Lehren to the rescue. He lit a fire under Valerie to get started ASAP in case other media had received a copy of the same file. He reminded her to look for the initials, the stamps, the little checked boxes, mostly to see if the file had reached the upper echelons of the FBI. She also took care with the FBI’s exact wording and list of informants (which are blocked out, or redacted, in the documents). She brushed up on Terkel’s life, the political tenor of the times, and researched each of the personalities mentioned, such as actor Paul Robeson. All day Sunday, for 12 bleary-eyed hours, she cranked out a story with the help of Lehren and Hester. Finally, she had a complete piece up on the News Service, plus the documents.

With a nudge from Hester to journalism colleagues in Chicago, where Terkel is still a local hero, it didn’t take long for the AP, the Chicago Tribune and several blogs to pick up the story and give it the distribution it deserved.

The lessons? There are many but here’s a great summary from Jere:

* Every moment that passes puts you one moment closer to being scooped. Valerie could have said to herself, “Ah, I’ll just wait until Monday.” But she dove into it, and turned around a strong piece in short order.

* Do your research. Studs Terkel lived a very eventful 96 years. Valerie needed to know quite a bit about him to separate the wheat from the chaff in the file, to discern what was new and significant, to give the story context. In a story like this, that’s half the battle.

* Don’t hesitate to promote your own story. Once the story is posted/published, the reporter’s job isn’t done. Use your network — Facebook, Twitter, journalism contacts — to get the word out. Never be afraid to ask your editors or other trusted veteran journalists for help.

Terkel, who knew the FBI had tailed him for much of his career, would’ve been proud of Valerie for exposing to the public what the agency had done.

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