Q&A with Roddy Boyd of the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation

Roddy Boyd is president and editor of the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation, a nonprofit news organization based in Wilmington, North Carolina. Boyd has been a reporter at Fortune magazine and at The New York Post. In this interview, conducted by email, Boyd discusses SIRF’s mission, its process for editing and a recent collaboration with student journalists at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Q. What is SIRF? What is the site trying to achieve?

A. The Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation is seeking to use investigative reporting to stand in the gap left by a pair of woeful developments: the diminished capacity of mainstream media’s business watchdog and accountability roles, and the Pontius Pilate-like federal regulatory refusal to engage with corporate fraud.

SIRF was constructed and launched on the view that using documents and deep-dive research, combined with shoe-leather reporting, would enable us to tell good stories and expose wrongdoing. In many cases, sadly, I find we are the only actor willing to illuminate self-serving activity and questionable dealings.

As business investigative reporting goes, SIRF’s lot isn’t easy. Every subject seems to be arrayed with multiple teams of lawyers and flaks; mistakes, even the slightest oversight, create the risk of litigation.

Our work has achieved much in the few years we’ve been alive. We’ve been the primary reason two hedge fund managers were indicted and sentenced to prison, we helped stop an initial public offering of an abusive multi-level marketing company and we identified a network of undisclosed promoters trying to inflate the shares of a so-called cloud computing company (it would fail and the shares collapsed under a series of investor lawsuits.) SIRF even managed to get a pair of billionaire brothers to acknowledge (implicitly) that their private foundations were being used to gather millions in dubious tax breaks while keeping control of the company in family hands.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that SIRF identified a veritable buffet of governance and disclosure abuses at a for-profit medical marijuana company; despite a series of legal threats, our two stories were the catalyst for concurrent Department of Justice and Securities and Exchange Commission investigations.

There’s a lot more, but that’s a good taste.

Fret not: This success won’t go to my head — I’ll be grateful to grow SIRF to where there are two months of paychecks lined up.

Q. What is your role at the site? How are story editing and headline writing handled?

A. I am the editor and president. Developing a close working relationship with copy and story editing staff has been an imperative for me throughout my career as an investigative reporter, especially one who makes frequent use of arcane legal and financial documents.

This kind of editing requires one to be on the lookout for A) rabbit holes and B) useless data distractions and convoluted arguments. Both copy editors and story editors have saved me repeatedly without compromising the reporting.

Moreover, the easiest way to diminish the power of good, original reporting is through poorly framed arguments that don’t flow, spelling and grammar errors, pointless hyperlinks; actually, now that I think about it, there are about a dozen ways to hurt a good piece when a copy editor isn’t around.

So SIRF has good copy editors that we pay fairly and listen to. It matters, a great deal, to the board and myself that the copy flows.

The headlines are my work, and I won’t lie: I think they attract the reader. I do, however, look forward to a day where my NY Post Biz desk refined headline skills are put out to pasture because we have a full-time staff of story editors and copy editors.

One day, perhaps.

Q. You recently worked with a team of student journalists on a story called “Who Owns Our Water?” How did that story come about, and what was it like to collaborate with students?

A. I had been aware of the story for some time and prior to the semester’s start, I think I spent a few days looking into the availability of documents and whether, to be frank, anyone had done a large piece on it. The piece wasn’t without its risks:

It seemed like a lot to bite off, and there were many points I wondered if we shouldn’t have done just a series of pieces, maybe two or three. But we got a 4,200-word effort off the ground, got some evocative photos, and I think it made sense.

Next year, I think the effort will be sharply more targeted so that we have an unmistakable “drop,” or angle on a story. It will force students to read documents more closely and report harder, every single week. Again, I wonder if we don’t do two pieces, so that deadlines are staggered.

The students were great and, fortunately for me, everyone had some collegiate journalism and work/internship experience. Our reporting unit worked best when the students were pushed to study financial documents they didn’t understand, sit in a courtroom and listen to ponder lawyers and rewrite copy that was good, but perhaps not specific enough.

If they got anything out of my class, it was hopefully to develop a keen appreciation of document-seeking. I wouldn’t shut up about it and likely never shall. People lie, documents illustrate. Whether you think “Who Owns Our Water?” is good or milquetoast, we sure had the documents that supported some of our more compelling claims.

A final note: UNC-Chapel Hill can do a lot more to help young journalists avoid getting sucked into the giant collapsing journalism clickbait machine. Self-servingly, at least having the rudiments of investigative reporting won’t hurt, even if they wind up anchoring the evening news.

But the JOMC administration fearlessly took big steps and placed a lot of faith in me and what I hold dear. Look around: There aren’t many other J-schools willing to do this. Chris Roush and Susan King deserve one hell of a round of applause.

Q. Investigative journalism is expensive and time-consuming. How can it be sustained in an increasingly difficult economic environment for the media? What does the future hold?

It is indeed expensive and time-consuming. The value proposition, even more unfortunately, for this work is defined by imagining its absence as much as its presence: asking people to imagine a world without investigative reporting is not quite like asking them to imagine a world with segregation still in place or without clean drinking water.

But much of the equity, accountability and honesty in our nation exists because reporters, editors and sources risked much to inform fellow citizens about abusive conditions in factories and mental hospitals, political graft, corporate dishonesty and governmental waste. It is the only check on entrenched institutional power, whether governmental, cultural or corporate, that cannot be readily bought off or silenced.

In the for-profit realm of legacy media, investigative reporting will always exist, but it will become even more rare and as such, great stories will stack up, unreported for want of staff.

Nor should we forget that in many corners of the earth, like China, Russia and the Mideast, performing this reporting will be to flirt with instant incarceration or death.

The only bright spot is nonprofit, independent news outfits, like SIRF, ProPublica and dozens of others, from coast to coast. The challenge here is money. For now, the shear volume of operations will guarantee a steady stream of stories. My guess is that a thinly funded, yet journalistically vibrant independent media cohort will motor along until a series of benefactors set up foundations with deep funding streams to ensure these operations can obtain grants.

I have in mind something akin to what occurred on the right wing in the 1970s, when foundations like Olin and Bradley funded magazines like National Review and think tanks like the Heritage Foundation to ensure these views remained widely available.

That being said, a recent example of a benefactor taking an interest in journalism is disappointing. First Look Media, with its purportedly deep pockets, is apparently content to use its assets to frame opinion, rather than dig and gather hard news.

In the short term, opinion always sells, and lord knows it’s easier to write and present.

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