The Boston Globe’s coverage of the FAA’s long record of lax oversight and poor management has become a national story. The two-part series, Secrets in the Sky and Flight plan for Failure,looked at the ways in which planes were registered in ways to hide their origins and how pilots with dangerous track records were given free reign over the skies.
The Spotlight 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.
Jaimi Dowdell, who previously worked as the senior training director for Investigative Reporters and Editors, was one of the journalists working on this project. She explained in a follow-up piece in the Globe how she and co-author Kelly Carr ended up spending two years of their lives on this piece. She also served as a “pro” for the Reporting book and shared info on how to see if a “big story” is worth it. On Tuesday, she was nice enough to give me an interview for the blog, where we talked about the genesis of stories, how she got into this, what matters most in terms of sticking with a story and the advice she had for students. Our Q and A (edited for typos and clarity, most of which were mine) is below:
Q: You mentioned that you developed this “strange hobby” of collecting information on the registration numbers, but I didn’t catch exactly HOW you came to this hobby or what made you think it might make a good story. What piqued your interest for this as a story topic?
A: When I was a trainer for IRE, one of the most common questions I’d get was: How do you find story ideas? My answer was typically something like, “If you aren’t bumping into story ideas left and right, you might be in the wrong business.” It’s a little harsh, but I believe it is true. When reporters open their eyes and operate out of curiosity, I promise they’ll find ideas are everywhere. This project is just one example of how that can pan out.
In the fall of 2015, Kelly and I were poking around a state business registry database looking for information on a couple of companies completely unrelated to this project. While I was analyzing that database we stumbled upon something called an aircraft trust. Kelly’s business reporting background helped us out a lot here and she instantly started doing research on what, exactly, was an aircraft trust.
In the meantime, I downloaded the FAA’s aircraft registry database to see if we could learn anything there. That’s when we discovered that the number one city for aircraft registrations was in Delaware. Strange. Even more confusing was the fact that a Texas town with 2,500 people and no airport was in the top 15 with more than 1,000 aircraft registered. We soon realized that Onalaska was connected to that initial trust we discovered and we wanted to know more. This is what led us to our late-night and weekend searches of airplane registration numbers. Really, it was all about curiosity. No one asked us to do this, we weren’t getting paid, we just needed to understand more about what we were finding.
That’s when we started uncovering examples of U.S. airplanes connected to shady things. It became a bit of an obsession to find more companies and planes.
Q: You said this was a two-year project in your write up about the stories. Is this common for the stories you have done that were long-form or investigative pieces or was this an anomaly? Could you walk me through the timeline a little bit in terms of what elements took up what amounts of time and how you worked through this process?
A: One of the reasons this project took two years is because we had other jobs and responsibilities. Had we been able to focus solely on the project I think it would have gone faster. Then again, I think this is how a lot of good projects develop. At first, we had no idea if it would even be one story, but we kept digging and digging and it grew. We picked away and gathered little pieces until we could string together something that was meaty.
I think the key to some of these longer-term projects is to just tackle little things each day or each week. That way if it doesn’t pan out you aren’t out on a ton of time. Just give yourself 10 minutes a day to check in on records requests or make the necessary phone call to move things forward. Sadly, sometimes you’ll have to do it on your free time. If you’re passionate about what you do that won’t be such a big deal. These projects are a gamble and sometimes you need to put in that extra work to show others that the gamble will pay off. It’s also important to always have something to work on that makes you happy. If your long-term project doesn’t make you happy in some way then find another long-term project.
Q: In story you both wrote that explained how you came to create this story, you talked about the “obsession” you and Kelly shared about this topic. I often tell students who work on larger pieces that they have to really love the topic and feel strongly attached to it… How important was that element of desire you both had to get to the bottom of this and your overall love of the topic in making this story come to fruition?
A: You’re right. This story never would have happened if we wouldn’t have developed a desire to know more. Aviation is not a hobby of mine and it isn’t something I ever thought I would have dedicated years of my life to covering. But as we kept digging, we kept finding more that alarmed us.
There were many times that we thought about quitting or wished we’d never searched those first N-Numbers. But we knew there was a good chance that if we took a pass on telling this story, it might remain untold. After learning about how the issues we uncovered had impacted people, quitting just wasn’t an option.
Q: What were some of the bigger “road blocks” you hit along the way and what made them problematic? How did you work around them or how did the inability to get past them impact the story?
A: Some of the examples in the story took a long time to run down. We may have spent a month trying to get documents and back-up information that would eventually become one sentence. In addition, we were dealing with multiple countries so that added a layer of complexity for us.
We did so much research that the sheer amount of information we were dealing with became one of the biggest roadblocks. Figuring out how to manage all the documents, data and interviews was tough on its own. But then we had to figure out how to organize all our various examples without losing the readers in print.
To tackle this, we created a lot of timelines and wrote a lot of memos leading up to the actual drafts. We also had some difficult conversations about which examples and facts really moved the story forward and which ones had to be left out. We cut just about as much as we included which was tough but necessary. Our editor deserves a lot of credit for taking our initial copy and working with us to make it something we could all be proud of.
Another major roadblock was getting information from the Federal Aviation Administration. We worked hard to establish a dialogue with them, but they took a long time to respond to most of our questions. In the extreme, it took the agency 11 months to answer a specific question we’d asked in 2016. In addition, there were a couple of times that their online FOIA system simply “lost” our requests. These types of delays were common and we just learned to work through them. While this made things more difficult, it strengthened our resolve to find information. Persistence is important.
Q: The media has really latched onto this topic after you published the series. What has been the general reaction to the piece and what has been your take on how it might influence policy etc. going forward?
A: The reaction to the series has generally been positive. We’ve gotten some interesting tips that we’re following. In addition, Rep. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts introduced the Aircraft Ownership Transparency Act of 2017 earlier this year after we shared our findings with him. That bill is co-sponsored by Peter King and Carolyn Maloney.
Another Massachusetts congressman entered our report as part of the record in a recent subcommittee meeting and asked a representative from the Transportation Safety Administration about the gaps we uncovered in FAA information.
Q: What’s next for you (and Kelly if you’re still tag teaming it)? Any big projects on the horizon?
A: What’s next is a great question and I bet I’m like many your students who are currently asking themselves, “What will I do when I grow up?” Right now, I see my goal as finding ways to support what I’ve come to call my journalism habit. In the meantime, I’m following this story and am excited about whatever is next.
Kelly and I are both thankful to the Spotlight Fellowship and The Boston Globe for providing the opportunity and forum for us to share our work. Really good investigative work doesn’t just happen. It’s important that newsrooms and outside organizations like Participant Media, one of the funders of the fellowship, continue to provide the necessary support for reporters to do their jobs the right way.
Q: What advice do you have for student journalists who are working on bigger projects that require tenacity and often include roadblocks from administrators or other record keepers? Any thoughts on keeping them motivated and preventing them from giving up?
A: The advice I have for student journalists is simple: You are the only thing stopping you from doing great work. You don’t need to be backed by a powerful newsroom or have some lengthy resume to tackle important issues. Some of the best stories I’ve done began at home after work (or after class in college) when I was just curious about something.
Don’t get me wrong, there will be roadblocks – a ton of them. This kind of work isn’t easy, but easy isn’t much fun. Follow your instincts and don’t think you must do it alone. Talk to mentors and professors you trust for guidance. And two is always better than one: Get a partner. While Kelly and I were both nutty enough to follow this through, what made our partnership great was our complementary skills. The combination of both of our strengths allowed us to see the whole picture more fully.
At the end of the day, hard work and resilience is key.