Shop Notes

New tools help as writers take a second look at the decline of working America

Posted: June 26, 2012 | Tags: IRE

Reporting has undergone a revolution since Donald Barlett and James Steele published their series, “America: What Went Wrong,” two decades ago in the Philadelphia Inquirer. New tools and datasets have reconstructed the techniques reporters have always used to investigate stories.

“This is the golden age of reporting, in many ways,” Steele said during a panel discussion at the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) national conference last week in Boston. “The ease with which you can do these things now is astonishing.”


Photo by Samantha Sunne, Investigative Reporting Workshop

From left, Rose Ciotta, Kat Aaron, Jim Steele and Chuck Lewis talk about the "What Went Wrong" project at IRE.

The panel, moderated by Charles Lewis, executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop, introduced Barlett and Steele’s project, “What Went Wrong: The Betrayal of the American Dream,” a series of stories published in the last year by the Workshop and the Inquirer. Barlett and Steele have been researching 40 years’ worth of the data and the policies behind America’s deteriorating economic conditions, a subject that fascinated thousands in the original series and subsequent best-selling book.

Their new book, “The Betrayal of the American Dream,” will be released later this summer.

Rose Ciotta, the Inquirer’s senior editor for digital/print projects, said the Inquirer was excited to revisit a series that sparked so much excitement 20 years ago and has continued to generate new readers, this time around through interactivity as well, as both authors also have done several live chats with readers.

Steele said he and Barlett had received emails the past few years from people asking them to look again at the story as new readers came across the previous reporting that documented the decline of the middle class.

Practices like the deregulation of banking and other industries and unfair tax laws still plague the American economy, they said. This time, Barlett and Steele, who also write for Vanity Fair magazine, wanted to see how recent laws and public policies are affecting the American dream. During the panel, Kat Aaron, the Workshop’s project editor for this new iteration of “What Went Wrong,” talked about using documents, social media and other tools to find sources.

“Some of these interviews were absolutely heart-wrenching,” Steele said. And as much as journalism has changed, he said, talking to people still gets to the heart of issues.

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