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How to use your email to challenge and invigorate your own reporting

How to use your email to challenge and invigorate your own reporting

Picture of William Heisel
How to use your email to challenge and invigorate your own reporting
(Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Investigative journalists often develop dialogues with sources that last months and eventually years. You may start your career with a handful of go-to sources on a beat and then, over time, build up hundreds of sources in dozens of specific areas of interest. You often have many stories in development at the same time but one main story that you are pursuing. 

All the while, your inbox is filling up with tips and queries from people wanting you to get back to them. You should periodically try to make sense of all that email clutter to challenge yourself. What stories are you ignoring? What stories may be occupying too much of your time? Are you spending too much time with one particular source?

For years, I put the address at the bottom of my posts for this site. I corresponded with people there. I asked people to send me ideas there. Surprisingly, I received very little in the way of spam. It was largely content that I wanted to read and people I wanted to hear from.

I decided to review my history of correspondence and find patterns. What I found surprised me.

First, I signed up for a service formerly offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called Immersion. This was a project that grew out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. It was created by three intellectually curious  experts: physicist César Hidalgo, the head of MIT’s Collective Learning Group; data architect Deepak Jagdish; and software engineer Daniel Smilkov, who now works at Google. They all have since moved on and no longer support the technology. But you can find other services that offer the same thing. You can do a free trial, for example, of Email Analytics, a program that takes your email account, synthesizes the information inside it, and presents it to you in simple lists and graphs. It updates as you go, if you want to check it daily.

By doing this type of analysis, you can see very clearly the people with whom you have been in contact the most and whether they are connected to others who are also your contacts. By putting this information into a network visualization — not unlike the one that Hoaxy creates to track the social media rumor mill — you can see the sources with whom you have the most correspondence. You can see connections between the people you have emailed and who have emailed you. And you can see how long it is taking you to respond to people. Here are three interesting things I found out and what I’m doing as a result:

  1. A tight knit group. I may be relying too much on just a few sources. Granted, this is one of many email addresses I have used over the years. But I was still surprised to see that the overwhelming bulk of email correspondence happened with just a small group of people. I have always prided myself on casting a wide net when it comes to gathering information. But it was clear to me when looking at my email data that I have corresponded intensely with a relatively small subset of sources to the possible exclusion of others. 

Why does this matter? Well, if you were to look at your own patterns, you might find that you are heavily reliant on certain sources and potentially neglecting important sources that could provide new insights or even counterbalancing views for your stories. I now plan on reaching out to some of the sources with whom I had been in touch less frequently to find out of there is anything I should be pursuing. (I’ll let you know.)

  1. New connections. Some of my sources are connected to people in a way I hadn’t fully appreciated before. When you receive an email from someone, you usually look at the body of the message first, maybe checking the “cc:” line at some point. Then you go back and forth with them, likely dropping everyone who was cc’d, depending on the type of correspondence. But when you see your emails visualized in network form, you become aware of all the connections between people that you may not have seen quite so clearly. It provides you with much needed context for the people with whom you are dealing. But it also can help you plan better for the ways in which your story will play out after you publish. Who is trying to influence whom? Who will be talking to whom? If you are writing about something that could lead to regulatory reform, for example, you may discover that the people in a position to push for that regulatory reform are already connected to you and have been for some time. I am now going to go into other email accounts I have used and see if these same — or even more interesting — patterns emerge.

  2. Dropped calls. My most embarrassing revelation, and one that I am going to remedy, is how many email conversations were started and then dropped. As many of you have likely experienced, when you get going on a particular investigation, your mind can become laser focused. That’s no excuse for being rude, though. So, for those of you who corresponded with me via Antidote over the years and suddenly found yourself ghosted, prepare to be haunted. I’ll be sending you an email in the coming weeks to ask for forgiveness (and maybe tips, too).

Speaking of emails, please try an email analytics program and let me know what you find. Send me your ideas on Twitter @wheisel. I promise to write back!


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I have been looking for an attorney for over a year now and writing this letter to each and everyone. Those whom has corresponded have said they cannot help me and they have not given me any advice on who to look for. A total of almost a hundred attorneys. I would like to know who it is that does help people like me if any if not I will give up but I'm asking you to please at least give me a Avenue to go down or tell me a waste of my time please at least do that thank you Loretta Sweet To whom it may concern:
" A Letter about "what happened last summer"
My name is Loretta Sweet and I cannot find any lawyer to help me my legal rights have been slammed in the ground and I am seeking out a lawyer to help me as Yuba Sutter rural legal assistance cannot help me against Sutter County and Yuba City and Sutter County Sheriff and Yuba City Police. All my tickets were issued by Sutter county sheriff and no tickets by Yuba City police. But It was the police that towed the motorhome. It has to do with the camping ordinance that I got a ticket for and they had my motorhome towed. To begin with I am the mechanic on my motorhome. I am on a fixed income so I have to be. The last two years it has failed smog 3 times. And I have paid my tags. But with failing the smog test I have no tags and no place to park it. I am homeless with no family in the area to help me. I am mentally disabled and it was my only place to live. I had gotten 2 citations and went to court. They gave me until Aug 30th. This was in June 2018. And I had gotten 2 more registration tickets after I went to court and a no camping ticket. (There is and was a restraining order on the no camping ordnance. And they were not to touch our stuff. Also I should not gotten 2 more tag tickets as I had gone gone to the court house and got an extension until August 30th 2018. That was handed down by a federal judge in San Francisco.) I had a friend helping me to get it to pass smog I was parked on the street. Well to make a long story short two days before they towed it they came and I had told them what was going on. They put me in handcuffs they said I was being combative and they were going to tow it right then. Yes I was upset but not combative. A friend got someone to tow me to a church around the corner. 3 days later 5 police cars and code enforcement came. Two policemen for every car Plus Code enforcement. for all them to be there with no probable cause, no I was not a criminal. I was homeless in a broke down motorhome trying to get it fixed the cheapest way I knew how my friends helping me but here in Yuba City they have treated the homeless like trash and criminals. They made me come out of the motorhome and wouldn't let me go back in. A policeman had to go with me and only gave me 3 to 5 mins to get what I needed. I was made to come out without all of my meds and only 1 shoe, no wallet, no money, no I D, and no place to go. In the middle of July and 110 outside. After I came out 3 policeman went to go in my motorhome (why I don't know ) there is and was no probable cause I told them they could not search my motorhome and they told me they could and they did anyways. And yes they knew what meds I was on. I had told them I could not be out in the heat. They towed the motorhome. I got no citation, no paperwork no nothing of where they took the motorhome no ticket for any reason for where I was parked only that the church had called them because they had given me only 2 days. But from what I was told the police contacted the church. They left me standing in a parking lot with half my medications no money nowhere to go no shoes nothing. I slept in a field for a week. I had a heat stroke. I went to Rural legal assistance. I lived in a shopping cart for a month with friends helping me out with Motel. Then a deputy from the sheriff's Department called me 2 times and asked me to sign a release and they were drop all charges against me. What charges? I told them no as my lawyer Laura at rural legal assistance told me to. Rural legal assistance was the attorney for the class action lawsuit for the homeless at this time. But as far as representing me for the camping ordinance she could not she told me to get a private attorney. She was in contact with Sutter County lawyer 2 get my motorhome back free of charge Sutter County sheriff or Sutter County paid to get it out of impound and paid to have it towed back to me if it was off the street so my friends Steve and Melody Hannagan let me put it there driveway. Still I had no paperwork, no citation, no nothing. IT is kicking me for months to even try to find a lawyer because my mind is just racing. Where are all the attorneys that are supposed to stick up for my rights when I need them because of all this and my medications are off because I was without them for a month I do not think that this not right. think they took my rights away. the judge in San Francisco put a restraining order on the camping ordnance before this. It was put in place when all of this took place rural legal assistance wants me to find a lawyer and I cannot find one that will help me my civil rights 4th amendment and the fourteenth has been miss used please help me I don't know where to go. I would like to have any attorney of any sort. please could someone please talk to me I have been disabled since 2000 have been on SSI and SSA I am clinically diagnosed with ADHD bipolar personality disorder PTSD and to top things off I have narcolepsy I need someone to help me because now I can't even get things done my mind is so distraught please help me because of all this I would like someone to please help me get in touch with me there's more to the story than what I put on here. Can anyone please help me or just talk to me thank you loretta 9167302253

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