What can an investigative reporter teach you about building partnerships?
A friend recently told me that his sister is an investigative reporter who covers the ultra-wealthy. I knew immediately that she must hold gems of wisdom about partnerships from a universe far from technology.
And I was right.
As you'll find below, this investigative reporter (who needed to remain anonymous) shares tactics on the craft of building partnerships. Earning trust. Collecting useful intel. Storytelling.
Examining the world through an unfamiliar lens provides a new perspective.
I hope that this conversation brings a useful perspective to the partnerships you’re building at work.
Could you describe your job and what is required to do it well?
I am an investigative journalist at [global news publication], where I’ve been there for over a decade. I report on the ultra-wealthy, which is a big story that has only gotten bigger during the decade or so that I’ve been covering this beat. I write on the biographies and backgrounds, the business, political and philanthropic deals of the ultra-wealthy. I report on their power, is how I describe it.
To do this work well, you have to have a good story sense. You have to talk to a lot of people. And being trustworthy is so important. These people I cover are very paranoid. Discretion is everything. Proving your discretion and your trustworthiness is really important.
How do you go about building trust with a source so that they share privileged information with you?
Listening first and listening more than talking.
You want to come in plain vanilla with easy, broad questions so that they can start talking and you can start listening. You have to show that you are interested in what they say. To show that you think they are a source worth talking to. And that you are there to listen.
You don't want to betray any of your own thoughts on a situation that you’re covering. You might have an idea of the story. But maybe this person you’re talking to has the opposite view of things.
If listening and showing interest is the foundation of building trust how do you go about extending that and actually asking for privilege and information? How do you take that step towards information that is worthy of publishing or being considered “news”?
One thing that is useful is showing your confidence. Showing them stories you’ve written where you’ve handled details. And telling them "hey, I have written about the ultra-wealthy for a long time, I come across this all the time. What you're telling me, this isn’t the first time I've heard such a thing.”
Also, being willing to dish a little. My sources have a good sense of the competition and of their rivals. It’s not about gossiping necessarily, but being vague and showing that you know this universe. That you know some of the same people. And that you have knowledge but are able to be discrete with the information you have.
I imagine you come across people who aren't motivated to share information with you, they only see the downside to speaking with you. How do you motivate that person? How do you highlight the benefits they get out of sharing information with you?
Well, reporters like to use this tactic a lot they say “I'm hearing this from other people. We want to make sure what we publish to be accurate. Can you help us? Can you steer us in the right direction and tell us if this is accurate?”
We’re following a tip but we need multiple independent people to confirm it to ensure it’s true.
Because journalists have standards. We need at least two or three individuals to directly verify information before we go to print. Oftentimes letting someone know that you have this information – that it’s going to be made public sooner or later – will motivate them to speak to us, they may want to frame it from their perspective or rebut aspects of the information that they don’t think are accurate, for example. So we use that process with sources.
It is also about playing the long game. If this time [a source] won’t speak to you about that story, let them know you understand the position they are in.
Because in many cases they are in a tough position. They are under NDA. They could be fired. It is important to be understanding of that. Then offer to meet for coffee next week and chat about other topics.
Is there a story you can share about a source you cultivated for some time and had to just demonstrate a long commitment to and that ultimately paid off?
Yeah, I wrote a lot about the Middle East and Saudi Arabia in particular, which is a real challenge. They are incredibly private. And this story actually touched on the Royal Family, a high-profile person within the royal family. I was fortunate to have uncovered this story almost coincidentally, it was the culmination of years of reporting that I had done, going back seven or eight years.
When I was living abroad I met a guy who used to work for the Royal Family. He was Lebanese. He was living in London at the time and so was I. He had his own business and we would meet up every three or four months. He had good instincts and insights to share with me but it didn’t really lead to any stories that I published. I quoted him a couple times in stories I wrote on topics related to his business, so he got to see his name in print, which he really liked.
And then, years after I met him, as this story I was working on came into focus I was able to turn to him. By this point, he knew me. He trusted me. And he was willing to share the names of individuals around the Royal Saudi Family who could confirm my story. That was extremely helpful. The story I published would not have been possible without his help.
Any other stories from your work in the field that highlight lessons you think might apply beyond the world of journalism?
I sometimes go into an interview with the story in mind and it turns out after talking to the person, the story is completely different. Maybe it is related to the topic that we went into chat about but what comes out is something 180 degrees away from what I thought I was going to learn from this source.
There was a story I wrote about the Olympics and really wealthy people. I met this guy who was an investor. I always found him interesting. I stayed in touch with him. Now I’m working on a totally different story, it’s actually a profile of him based on what I’ve learned about him over the years.
Reporting on the ultra-wealthy I’m sure you deal with sources across the world. How do you adapt your approach to and calibrate to different countries and cultural norms?
First, you have to do your research. You need to understand what topics are out of bounds in certain cultures.
In my experience in the Middle East, for example, it’s important not to ask for anything in the first meeting. That first meeting is just a chat, a chance to get to know each other, to share your background and hear about theirs. That first meeting is to explain your background and ask about theirs. It is seen as unseemly to dive right into business.
This interview was edited and condensed for length and clarity.
For another perspective on partnerships far from the world of technology, checkout one of This for That’s first posts - an interview with a CIA officer.