Washington Post creates rapid-response investigations team

By Carly Price


Austin, Texas, United States


With ubiquitous, real-time breaking news and handheld computers in our pockets, audiences are developing an urgency — even an expectation — to dig deeper into any topic, instantly. Yet investigative journalism still takes time and thoughtful analysis.

While in-depth, investigative reporting can never match the instant-gratification pace of breaking news, The Washington Post is creating rapid-response investigations team that will explore new models to carry out investigative reporting at a faster clip, in response to developing news, with an emphasis on digital data mining, cross-team collaboration, and other methods.

INMA asked The Washington Post Investigations Editor Jeff Leen to share more details about this new team and its intent:

INMA: What prompted the formation of this rapid-response investigations team?

Leen: In feedback from readers, and especially comments from new subscribers, we’ve seen surging interest in investigative and accountability journalism. Readers were especially appreciative of what we did to vet the two leading U.S. presidential candidates [in 2016]. It made sense to expand our capacity to do this work — not just in politics, but across the full range of subjects we cover — and to do it in a way that is faster, more digital, and more responsive to the news of the moment.

INMA: What is the structure of the new team, and how do they collaborate with other reporters at The Washington Post?

Leen: The new team will consist of five reporters, a database reporter, a graphics reporter, and an editor. For at least the first year of its existence, the team will work closely with investigative/accountability reporters on our national staff covering national politics. But the team also will be available to jump in and help other teams with coverage where needed, as we have done in the past with the Bill Cosby story, the Enron scandal, and 9/11.

INMA: How does this team differ from the already existing investigative reporting unit? What are its specialised goals and objectives?

Leen: This will be a rapid-response team embedded within the existing Investigation Unit, which was set up by The Washington Post in the early 1980s for Bob Woodward to run. The new team will be focused on creating high-impact investigative and accountability journalism at digital speed, helping to drive the news and engage readers.

The Investigation Unit consists of an editor, a deputy editor, a database reporter, five full-time reporters, and three part-time reporters who teach at American University, George Washington University, and the University of Maryland and engage their students in some of our work.

The existing unit has been responsible for or made major contributions to work that has been honored with nine Pulitzer Prizes, including the recent national police shooting project, our Snowden coverage, and the Jack Abramoff scandal.

More recently, our reporters broke the story of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death while in the company of a secretive hunting society in Texas, and examined the DEA’s slowdown of its own enforcement cases at the height of the opioid crisis.  

INMA: What is new and unique about this approach?

Leen: This new team will consistently produce accountability journalism at a faster tempo, mining digital sources and social media, and add firepower where needed as the news dictates. We have scrambled before when the news called for it, and can move fast when needed, but the new team will be our first dedicated effort to institutionalise this approach.

The digital revolution speeds up every aspect of daily life, including the journalism we already produce, and this is our attempt to move more fully into the digital space with investigative and accountability reporting.

INMA: What role does technology play in this rapid-response initiative, and how is this different from the way it has been used previously?

Leen: We have used databases, digital sources, and social media before, but now we will be using it in a dedicated approach as early as possible to serve digital resources.

In the past, breaking news reporters would cover things as well as they could, and the investigative resources would usually move in later, as the dust cleared. Now we will be able to commit investigative resources at the earliest possible stage, and do that on a consistent basis.

INMA: What progress have you made thus far with building and launching the team?

Leen: We received more than 600 applications from journalists worldwide, and we are carefully vetting the applicants. We have identified finalists and will be making hiring decisions soon. The next step is to stand up the new team and get going. We will be learning as we go, making course corrections, and shifting strategy as needed.

About Carly Price

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