Quantifying the I-Team opportunity gap

How having a yearlong fellowship helped me understand what it looks like when people want your story to succeed. Here’s a breakdown — and some hard numbers — on the cost of an investigation.
A headshot of the author, Lam Thuy Vo.

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A lot of stories die when an editor says “no.” But I’ve learned over the years — from my own experience and from having had discussions with journalists from underrepresented backgrounds — more often they may die a slow and painful death of neglect. 

In investigative journalism, it’s resources, time, and the confidence instilled in the reporter that matters when bringing a story from a kernel of an idea to a full-fledged investigation. And it’s no secret that more often than not, this kind of backing is not given to journalists of color

Until last year, I had been employed with national news organizations for roughly 14 years. And while I’ve had one or two editors who truly pushed for my success, I did not know what it felt like to have the support of an entire team behind you until I left my job and became a Type Investigations Ida B. Wells Fellow

A data journalist at heart, I wanted to tally the types of resources and care I received while spending the last year working on a story, hoping that enumerating it can help others understand what to ask for. Sometimes it’s seeing the price tag or naming a resource you weren’t given to understand what kind of help a story could use to succeed. 

Time and money  

Being paid to work on long-form investigations is a luxury in an industry that already struggles to pay for any type of reporting, let alone stories that take multiple months. Having a whole year for a story was an experience I wanted to buy myself when I left my job. While I earned the largest chunk of my income through a part-time teaching position at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, Type paid me a stipend of $20,000 so I could invest the other half of my week into my story — time that I would have otherwise had to use to chase freelance gigs. 

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There were smaller costs I didn’t know would arise, too. I filed 24 public records requests for this project, amounting to $556.20. In addition to that, Type provided a travel budget for up to $2,500 and I used $1,104.20 for one reporting trip, which included a car rental, flights, and parking fees. The costs for this trip were cut down because I had received free accommodation to speak at the NICAR conference in the mornings while running off to report in the late afternoon and evenings. Without the support to speak at the conference, I probably would have spent another $750 to $1,000 on lodging. 

Add to that miscellaneous things like access to LexisNexis for a day (let’s peg this at about $50) or reporters notebooks ($29 for 10) and you have yourself a hefty price tag: $21,739.40. 

Human resources 

One part that felt particularly new was that there was a team of people working with me towards the success of my story. While I’ve certainly worked with helpful editors before, the amount of time and care the folks at Type put into my story allowed me to realize what it feels like when you have institutional and not just individual support. 

I had weekly check-ins with a full-time editor. A researcher helped me receive information from public records on sources I was hoping to speak to during my reporting trip. I had a second story editor who helped with the structure and line-edits of the story. A patient fact-checker went back and forth with me on the copy for two weeks. And a public relations manager created a plan for outreach for the story to reach the most journalists and lawmakers regionally and nationally. That’s five folks helping one reporter with one story over the course of 12 months, not counting any staffers at the Guardian, our partner publication for this story. 

A confidence boost 

Perhaps the biggest difference the fellowship made for me was to give me confidence. 

For more than a decade, I had been receiving the message that I was not deserving of the kinds of resources that other reporters had, especially the ones who did investigations. This manifested itself in a number of professional experiences: once, I was offered a data editor job for $40,000 less than the white man who took it after I turned it down. I was told multiple times at various institutions that if I wanted to do reporting, I had to do it after office hours and on weekends. One editor who worked at the same company as me asked me to post a job in a network for diverse journalists and then told me in another conversation that they did not read my application for an investigative reporter position on their team. Every little thing gnaws at your belief in yourself bit by bit until you end up working with a confidence deficit.

My experiences mirror those that many other journalists of color have told me about. Often, being part of an underrepresented group means you tend to get stuck with the “office housework” and seldom get to do the “glamor work,” as Alan Henry put it in his book Seen, Heard, and Paid: The New Work Rules for the Marginalized.  

But for once, I was able to focus on the story for an entire year and not have to fight for its existence every week or beg for resources to get it done. I felt heard. To have this experience with people from all corners of an institution cheering you on, challenging you, and helping your story come to life was not just magical but also formative. It allowed me to re-experience the process of reporting from a vantage point that I and many other journalists of color have been denied for years. 

Resources

Lam Thuy Vo is a journalist who marries data analysis with on-the-ground reporting to examine how systems and policies affect individuals. She is currently a Soros Justice Fellow, an AI Accountability Fellow for the Pulitzer Center, and a data-journalist-in-residence at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. Previously, she worked at BuzzFeed News, The Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera America and NPR’s Planet Money. 

This piece was edited by Gabe Schneider.

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