American reporter says find stories that work

Schaeffer_1aBy David W. Bulla

ABU DHABI, U.A.E.—Jim Schaefer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter from the Detroit Free Press, told journalists on Jan. 27, 2015, to be creative when facing challenges with sourcing.

“I’m not a magician,” said Schaefer, who is the assistant editor for enterprise and investigations for the Free Press, one the 25 highest circulated newspapers in the United States, “and I am not a expert on how journalism is done. What I can say is that if a source or a superior tells you not to do something, then I say go find some aspect of the story you can do or find another stimulating story to do.”

Schaefer was speaking to journalists working in the United Arab Emirates in a symposium at Grand Millennium Hotel at Al Wahda in Abu Dhabi. The Emirates Journalists Association and the U.S. State Department sponsored his talk.

“I prefer documents to human sources because they don’t lie,” Schaefer continued, “but if I can’t find a document, then people are next on my list.”

The American journalist, along with colleague M.K. Elrick, won the Pulitzer Prize (the top American award for journalists) in 2009 for local reporting after a series of stories about corruption allegations against Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who ultimate resigned and is now serving 28 years in prison on federal charges.

Schaefer said he understood that reporters in the U.A.E. do not work in a very transparent atmosphere with limited freedom of the press. However, he said American journalists face their own challenges.

“If I am told not to do a story, then I go and find another aspect of the story to do,” he said. “ And I am not saying my job is harder than yours. Your job is more challenging than mine, and I cannot offer you a magic trick to fix your problems with sources. You have to find an outlet for your work, even if it is outside your country. I encourage you do what is important—what is important to you and to society.”

The Detroit reporter said that the key to the Kilpatrick story was taking advantage of the fact that the work text messages of a public employee was a matter of public record. The Free Press obtained nearly 14,000 text messages between the mayor and his chief of staff. Schaefer said the newspaper was fortunate to get the story out at all.

“We were asked to investigate a certain aspect of what Kilpatrick was doing, and after three weeks, our editor came to us and asked us what we had,” Schaefer said. “We didn’t have anything. However, we did know something that might be worth going into a little further, and that was the fact that he had an usually large security detail from the police force.”

The Free Press, owned by Gannett (USA Today), did that story about Kilpatrick’s security detail, and that led to other stories.

“Before that police story, we were not hearing much,” Schaefer said. “I did not think anything we wrote about Kilpatrick would stick. But after that, we started getting tips.”

Ultimately, Kilpatrick and his chief of staff both lied under oath about having a love affair, and the mayor had a coordinated, well-funded cover-up of his misdeeds.

When ask how he gets his sources to be comfortable enough to talk to him, Schaefar had simple advice.

“We don’t pay sources,” he stated, “but we do buy them lunch—and coffee.”

Schaefer said don’t go in thinking nobody will talk. Usually, someone will talk, although it is often off the record.

The American said that he got started in journalism as a student at Ohio State University. He worked on the student newspaper.

“I worked all the time in college,” he said. “My friends who didn’t work on the student paper started off at small newspapers. My first job was at the Free Press, as a copy editor (in 1988).”

Schaefer said that he writes about all kinds of things, not just crime and politics. He occasionally writes about sports and has  a human-interest story on a regular basis. He also does business stories.

“The sports story is usually some trend,” he said.

For example, he was curious why it took 10 years of waiting for people who wanted season tickets to University of Michigan football home games to actually get tickets. He was able to get the list of season ticket holders and found some companies had been on the list getting blocks of tickets since the 1960s.

“And some of those companies did not exist anymore,” he said. “Then the university decided to pare the list and open up some tickets for people who wanted them.”

Schaefer also spoke at Abu Dhabi Media and the Gulf News during his stay in the U.A.E.

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