Reflections on investigative journalism
I look back on 40 years of reporting and think about what stories and topics I'm most proud of. The most meaningful are the ones people sometimes describe as "investigative" ag journalism. Flatly, it's the only reason I wanted to be a reporter.
Lately, I've written about ...
• Hunter Hanson, the Devils Lake, N.D., grain marketer. At age 21, with little apparent marketing experience, education or financing, somehow Hanson seems to have gotten traction to do millions of dollars in grain trades. Hanson was shut down in a cease-and-desist action by the North Dakota Public Service Commission last fall and some $7.3 million in claims have been filed, among other legal actions.
• Jerry Hennessey, the Ashby, Minn., cooperative grain elevator manager somehow stole more than $5 million from his company over at least 15 years. He's pleaded guilty to using some of the money to enhance his lifestyle with worldwide big-game hunts and a remarkable taxidermy collection and buildings.
• Darrell Duane Smith, the northern Iowa biofuels fraudster who pleaded guilty to stealing millions from his insurance and investment clients. He came to Grafton, N.D., in March 2012 and our reporting helped alert some of his victims. He was convicted in 2018 and sentenced to 15 years in federal prison—a sentence he's appealing.
• Ron McMartin, the leader of a once 50,000-acre farm, McM Inc., at St. Thomas, N.D. The high-value crop farm careened to a Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation with $64 million in claims, including $43 million to a single lender—BMO Harris Bank—who has claimed in civil court that McMartin fraudulently misrepresented his financial situation.
I get numerous tips every week—sometimes several in a day. Some are from sources I've dealt with over my entire career. I can't always tell which are ones I want to pursue. Many of the things I look into are sensitive business-related issues.
Investigations can be thrilling, however, because they all have one thing in common—they involve a chase to reveal an unseen world, and somehow connect dots that someone in the story wishes that no one knew. Often, there is something unethical or illegal going on.
One distinguishing "badge" of an investigative story is that it probably involves the unglamorous process of reading legal and business documents. I've gotten better at discerning documents over the years, but what I'm particularly proud of is finding sources who can help me discern what facts are important and fair.
I think I have been pretty successful at getting people to talk to me on the record. Translating this to the video/AgweekTV world offers a new kind of challenge. My AgweekTV broadcast colleagues help in this area. I tell prospective interviewees that unless they're participating in something unethical or fraudulent, they should have nothing to fear. (I joke that their secrets are safe with me and the readers/viewers of Agweek.)
The stories sometimes typically run over a period of months or even years. I shy away from some sources where I can find no clear, larger societal lesson.
I think the best of investigative stories persuade someone to do something positive—voters and legislators to make changes in public policies, or readers and viewers to make better precautions in their private lives that improve their lives.
So, thank you for all of the tips. Keep them coming, fingerprints or no.