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Students learn from investigative reporting pros

Derek Willis

Ken Ward

West Virginia University Reed College of Media students spent the fall semester taking a deep dive into West Virginia issues with the help of two investigative reporting pros, Derek Willis and Ken Ward.

Willis, a news application developer at ProPublica, and Ward (BSJ, 1990), an award-winning reporter at the Charleston Gazette-Mail, co-taught the upper level investigative reporting course, which introduced students to the techniques and tools of the trade.

“Everybody is an investigative reporter – or can be – or should be. It’s just reporting,” Willis said to the class of 11 students during the first meeting in August. “You have to be able to ask really good questions and figure out how to answer them.”

The hands-on course focused on generating story ideas, finding and interviewing human and document sources, building and using data to find and analyze patterns, navigating sensitive subjects and legal and ethical questions and organizing and managing information. Students were required to choose a topic of importance in West Virginia and began the semester pitching ideas to be vetted by Willis and Ward, who made sure the topics were both feasible and not already over-reported.

“You have to be a little obsessed with the subject matter,” said Ward, who is known for his coverage of heavy industry in West Virginia and its impact on the state’s environment, workers and communities. “If the story bores you, what are the chances that anyone reading, watching or listening will be interested?”

Zak Hawke (BSJ, 2014), a journalism master’s degree student, switched topics about midway through the semester.

“Some topics didn’t really turn up anything. Other avenues led to really well-published investigative work either from the Charleston Gazette or from the many national outlets that have covered it,” Hawke said. “But working with Ward and Willis was like working with professional editors and they helped me arrive at a topic that is going really well.”

While students were encouraged to pursue a story for possible publication, the focus of the course was on the investigative reporting process since it often takes longer than a 16-week semester to get all the information necessary for a publishable story. Each week, students were required to share reporting logs with details on what they did, what they tried and where they ended up so that Willis and Ward could provide feedback and suggestions for where to go next.

“They’re both really experienced investigative reporters which lends a lot of credibility to the feedback they’re giving us. You know it’s coming from real-world experience,” Hawke said. “Ken’s direct experience in the state has been really valuable. He knows where to go for answers to the questions.”

Ward has received numerous awards throughout his nearly three decades as a journalist. Last year, he received a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as the Genius Grant. He is a three-time winner of the Scripps Howard Foundation's Edward Jr. Meeman Award for Environmental Reporting, received an Alicia Patterson Fellowship, an Investigative Reporters and Editors Medal and the Livingston Award for Young Journalists. Ward has spent the last two years on long-term investigative reporting projects in collaboration with ProPublica, where Willis has worked for more than four years. 

Willis’s specialty is data-based investigative journalism and he focuses on politics and elections for ProPublica. Willis previously worked as a developer and reporter at The New York Times, a database editor at The Washington Post, and at the Center for Public Integrity and Congressional Quarterly. Willis is also a co-founder of OpenElections, a project to collect and publish election results from all 50 states.

Investigative journalism is an area of increasing importance at the College of Media. New curriculum in digital forensics and investigative reporting is being created and the College is hiring a full-time professional-in-residence faculty position to help develop and teach in this program.