Janice’s Review Blog

Journalist shares experiences with students

Posted on: April 25, 2010

Judy Galbraith’s magazine writing class at Paradise Valley Community College received a visit from guest speaker Sarah Fenske, Phoenix New Times staff writer.  With 10 years experience as a journalist and five-and-a-half years with the New Times, Fenske shared her experiences over the years, gave students journalism tips and answered questions. 

“For the last three years, I’ve been writing a weekly column about politics and chicanery and trying to bust the people who need to be busted,” said Fenske. “Our cover stories tend to be 5,000 to 6,000 words, so I still do maybe four or five of them a year, but that used to be what I pretty much did full-time.” 

Journalist Sarah Fenske speaks to Paradise Valley Community College magazine writing students.

Journalist Sarah Fenske speaks to Paradise Valley Community College magazine writing students.

Fenske presented six steps to write a long form story with the specific purpose of investigating something. 

“The first thing I think you are needing to do is figure out who to investigate,” she said, “what to investigate and why.” 

She says that she spends nine-tenths of her day trying to figure out what story to do and who to investigate. She advises students to look where no one else is looking. 

“The good stories aren’t going to be found when you’re in the pack,” said Fenske. “They’re not going to be found at a press conference. You’re never going to get an investigative piece out of a press conference.  You’re going to get it by having your own little idea and angling that something might be wrong.” 

Next Fenske stressed that pubic records are your best friend.  Before performing an interview, she knows everything about her subject by conducting a complete background check. Fenske uses public data bases to find this information instead of New Times paying $50 for it. 

“I think that anytime you’re going to be writing about someone where they’re going to be a target,” she says, “it’s important to come up with a complete time line of their life…. The more you can gather stuff about who they are and your reporting, you can figure out the right questions to ask; you can figure out the right approach; and you may even find something that ends up being a good smoking gun” 

She advises students to determine what public records they require and get their requests in as soon as possible since they take time to receive. 

Jeanna Brown, PVCC student and Puma Press travel editor, asks Fenske how to get an interview with a reluctant subject. 

This leads to her third point-don’t assume that your subject will talk to you. 

“I usually try to start with a phone call because I think it seems more friendly,” say Fenske, “and you don’t want to get confrontational right away.” 

She says if they turn you down, send them a strongly worded e-mail.  Tell them you’ve done an investigation, intend to go to press on this date, found these things in public records and suspect this, so it would be to their advantage to talk to you. 

“I would say never assume that people will talk to you,” says Fenske, “always bend over backwards to make sure they have a chance to do it. And I would say make a minimum of three very serious attempts and that means not sending some e-mails and not getting any answers.” 

Journalist Sarah Fenske answers PVCC students' questions.

Journalist Sarah Fenske answers PVCC students' questions.

“The job of the investigative reporter is to get to the bottom of it,” says Fenske. “To find out what is the truth.” 

In her fourth point she states,”Be up front.” 

She said when she was younger, she wanted people to like her, which was stupid. 

“It’s very important to be up front with people,” says Fenske. “If you do a hatchet job on them, they shouldn’t be surprised once they see the final product. They should know that it’s coming.” 

Fenske emphasizes that you should be polite to people, so that you can get the information you need, “but once it gets to the end, it’s only fair to be honest.” 

In her fifth point, Fenske talks about organization, heds, decks and writing the story. 

She says a hed usually means nothing, but “it’s just a way to trick people into picking up the paper.” 

It can take Fenske as long as two days to write a deck, longer than the time it takes to complete the entire story. 

“A deck is the hard part because you have to figure out how do I summarize this entire month of investigation into one sentence,” she says. “Once you can do that, you usually know what the story is.” 

To get to that point, Fenske tells students to go through everything that they’ve gathered and reread all of the information. Figure out how many blocks of information they want in their story and organize each block. Because the stories at the New Time run about 5,000 words, she breaks each block into 1,000 words and comes up with a great opening for each block. She also writes the thoughts she wants to go into each section on a paper, so that she can move the papers around. The better organized the material; the easier it is to start writing. 

Finally, Fenske says, “Be ready for the fall out.” 

Fenske worked a beat, and she worried about angering her prime source and that happened to her because of a story that she wrote about him. 

“And so the fallout when you do a piece like this is going to be, they get angry at you; you get angry phone calls; and your lawyer may get a strongly worded letter. All that kind of stuff,” she says, “but anybody who has ever hated that person and has a Google Alert is going to be immediately telephoning you, and this is cool. It gives you a great opportunity for a follow-up. 

“It’s just kind of interesting how people ultimately end up coming around and respecting you,” Fenske said. “So you really don’t have to be afraid, oh what the heck is this going to do to my career.  It’s not really the way it works. You get good at what you’re doing, and you’re respected, and if people don’t like you, they may have no choice but to stay with you.  And that can be a cool thing.”

Photos by Janice Semmel


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