When Is a Story Ready to Publish?

Recently, we asked ProPublica Illinois readers what they wanted to know about how we do our work. Questions have been rolling in ever since, and we’ve been answering them in an occasional series of short columns. In this column, ProPublica Illinois reporter Melissa Sanchez answers an inquiry about how deadlines affect our investigations.

How do you balance the need to thoroughly investigate a story and the need to get it published while it's still news? Or, do you generally work on the story until it's done without giving much worry to deadlines? —Harold Williams

Great question.

One of the best things about working for a nonprofit investigative news organization like ProPublica Illinois is that we get the luxury of time. What’s most important is getting the story right, even if that means you have to take an extra few weeks or longer to report it out, get records or conduct heavy data analysis.

For the most part, we’re not trying to break news like a traditional daily newspaper or TV station. Of course, sometimes we can’t help ourselves, especially when our earlier reporting has put the issue on the map. Like when my colleague Jason Grotto followed up on his property tax assessment series or when Jodi Cohen checked back on a troublesome cop she’d written about earlier.

Though having a “news peg” is helpful, strong investigations about issues that affect people’s lives will be important no matter when they’re published.

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We still want to remain relevant and timely, of course, both as an organization and as individual reporters. We want our website to have fresh stories, so readers have a reason to return. That’s why deadlines and production schedules are so important.

This can make for a tricky balance.

Take the story I’ve been working on for the past several months, which will be published ... soon. It’s taken me a while to master the subject and figure out what the story is. There were moments where we could have published a good story, but we wanted to do better. We worried about getting to the heart of the issue and hitting the right tone. And we thought about what questions we should leave for subsequent pieces.

My editors set deadlines for drafts, which was important because it forced me to stop and write what I had at the time — and see where there were holes. As I kept reporting and other editors weighed in, the story changed directions and I was given more time and new deadlines.

The more we dug, the more we learned and wanted to include. Some of it, such as data we analyzed, went into the actual story, while other pieces became stand-alone visuals to complement the story, including an extra series of portraits and a video. All of this took more time.

Chip Scanlan, a former faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism education organization, wrote about the need to think of story deadlines as a plural back in 2003, arguing a single story should involve multiple deadlines for each stage in the process: reporting, writing, editing, collaboration (figuring out the visuals).

“As anyone who has ever written a story knows,” he wrote, “the process is not a mad unbroken sprint to a finish line. Meeting the demands of journalism — from the exigencies of production to the need for stories that are accurate, fair and compelling — means jumping a series of hurdles, each of which presents its own challenges and time demands.”

There’s no easy formula for this. Each story will be different. It’s a balancing act we’ll always be performing.

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