“Is a big story worth it?” Spotlight Fellow Jaimi Dowdell explains how you can tell

Investigative journalist Jaimi Dowdell recently published a two-part series with co-author Kelly Carr that examined the Federal Aviation Administration’s lax oversight that has allowed drug dealers, corrupt officials and people linked to terrorism to take to the skies with impunity. The journalists dug through thousands of pages of documents, revealing how planes were registered in ways that concealed the identity of the owners and how licensing of pilots provides almost no guarantee that these people are who they say they are.


Dowdell, who previously worked as the senior training director for Investigative Reporters and Editors, published the stories in the Boston Globe, where she was working as a “Spotlight Fellow.” The project grew out of the movie “Spotlight, which chronicled the paper’s work to expose the child sexual abuse scandal associated with clergy in the arch diocese. Participant Media, Open Road Films and First Look Media created the Spotlight Investigative Journalism Fellowship, which provides recipients the ability to do their own investigative work at the Globe alongside the Spotlight crew.


Dowdell, who along with Carr spent more than a year investigating, researching, interviewing and writing these pieces, is one of the featured journalists in the upcoming “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing” book providing “A View from a Pro” and more. In the book, she offers this advice for students who are trying to figure out if the “big story” is worth the time and energy necessary to tell it:

  • Does this story answer a question? The best investigations and data stories answer a question. Stay away from noun stories. Don’t do a story on “crime” or “salaries” because it just won’t be that good. Seek to answer a question or explain a phenomenon and you’ll be in better shape.

  • Does the story break new ground? Look and see what has been done on the topic. Just because a story was done in the past doesn’t mean it can’t be done again, but how can you move it forward? What is different? Why is this important now or to your community?

  • Does the story have potential for impact? We want people to care about your work. Why should they care about this? Is there room for change?

  • Are there victims or does this affect people? Again, you want people to care about your work and this helps.

  • Does this have a point to it? Keep making yourself write down a sentence or two explaining the story. What is the story? What is the news? If you can’t do it in a couple of sentences you need to go back to work. Keep asking yourself, “Is this a story?” Get feedback from other people. Be honest with yourself because your time is limited.

In closing, she made a key point that is true of all good stories:

“At the end of the day, you need to have a passion for the story and a desire to stick with it. Otherwise, no matter how good the story or how deep the pool of resources you have, the story will fail.”

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