Saturday, June 04, 2011

What works (and doesn't work) in creating award-winning articles

Tom Zind shares what worked and didn't work in his award-winning article from EC&M magazine, "A Killer in the Ranks."

What worked, what didn’t, in EC&M story on Iraq
  • Social media: Tapped into social media – electrical contracting industry blogs and online forums – to get a sense of the industry buzz about the issue. One blogger turned out to be a key source in the story within inside information, though she had a bone to pick (something that had to be taken into account), as she had seen the situation firsthand working as an electrician for the primary military contractor in Iraq fingered as the main source of the problem.
  • Personal stories: Ability to weave in a sidebar on two U.S. electricians who signed up to go to Iraq as part of a military contractor contingent charged with cataloging and correcting widespread faulty electrical work.
  • Humanizing: Crafting a lead that immediately humanized and personalized the story – the deaths of two soldiers tragically electrocuted in-theater – drew readers in. It helped with a story that eventually had to touch on lot of technical detail and government speak. Leading with those elements posed problems.
  • Military cooperation: The ease of getting a phone interview set up with high-ranking military personnel on the ground in Iraq, intimately knowledgeable about the story and in the chain of command addressing the issue, proved the importance of following up any lead on a possible source, no matter how unlikely it may seem. Working through a military public-affairs person and supplying a good overview of the story and specific questions helped grease the wheels. The information provided yielded several good quotes and some essential context.
  • Extensive backgrounding: Internet search engines yielded a trove of stories on the topic from the consumer, trade and even military press. The story was mostly “out of the bag” when we took it up, so there was plenty of solid reporting, most notably in The New York Times. Our challenge was to find a new angle with relevance to the electrical contracting industry.
  • Government documents: Openly available (though a bit challenging to obtain) government documents relating to investigations of the electrocutions and the electrical work in Iraq proved immensely helpful. Those documents, which included pages of verbatim Congressional testimony, provided essential and detailed background on the matter.
  •  The “so-what” element: The story would have benefited from a bit stronger emphasis on exploring its broader meaning and implications for the electrical contracting industry. A sidebar did touch on the challenges of military contracting, relevant to many electrical contractors. A general statement from the industry’s trade group was offered, but not used; it probably should have been incorporated, though it offered marginal perspective. But offering readers some idea of how the industry’s voice could help head off repeats of the same problems, or more detail on contractor liability issues when working on government jobs, could have made the story more relevant.
  • Broader industry input: We attempted to interview electrical code experts, some of whom were directly involved in working to address the problems. But confidentiality issues prevented them from talking. A stronger attempt to reach companies involved in military and government contracting, to get their take, as well as other electrical safety and code experts, might have yielded some additional useful information.
  • KBR input: The lead military contractor, KBR, repeatedly refused to offer anything but a short written statement. Because they were implicated so strongly as the main culprit, the story certainly would have benefited from their participation. Perhaps making more calls and trying to do an end run around the public relations department might have produced an interview.

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