From Watergate to the Panama Papers, investigative journalism has been instrumental in uncovering corruption and facilitating justice for decades, if not centuries. In recent years, a new avenue for long-form investigations has risen in popularity, in the form of podcasting, and both established organisations and enthusiastic amateurs have used podcasts as a vehicle to explore mysteries, scandals and crimes.
Among the more successful is Jamie Bartlett, host of The Missing Cryptoqueen and Believe In Magic, who has turned his experience as an investigative reporter to creating captivating audio journalism. We spoke to Bartlett about the amount of effort and research that goes into uncovering these stories, as well as how podcasting is reinvigorating the practice of investigative journalism, and how podcasters can apply best practices to their own investigations.
Focus on the structure first
“This is why I think podcasting at the moment is an exciting genre to be in because there isn't an agreed approach,” said Bartlett. There isn't an agreed standard, you feel that you can always experiment and try and work things out. The number one thing when you're doing the investigative stuff is of course, you've got to get the story right. Everything else is meaningless. You can try and develop characters. But if the story is wrong, or you haven't got it or figured it out or done all the proper research and journalism behind it, you've got nothing. So that is always the central and first question.”
“A structure is everything. People think writing is mostly about nice words strung together - and that is the last thing you do. It’s a pattern of logic. X follows from Y. And when we learn about Y it takes us to Z, and then we've learned something with Z, so now we're at A again. You have to work out what the logic is. And people often spend too long writing the words and not enough time working out the logical structure. Because people drift off and get bored, not because when they think the words are boring, but because when things stop making sense, or following a logical pattern, working out a structure, a logical, coherent structure as to why am I moving on to this bit now, and now this bit, is the key. I spend so long trying to figure that out.”
You can’t fake genuine suspense
“You must have heard all the American podcasts that come out, all the biggies, all the famous ones and they're all like cliffhangers at the end of each episode. But usually they've all been made months ago. The story's already done. The Cryptoqueen was not, we were literally making it up week by week. We didn't know how it was going to end. We did not know; it was so nerve racking.”
“We'd done a couple of the episodes but episode four goes out, episode five is not finished. We’ve got to make one in a week. We don't quite know where it's gonna take us. That was high risk, but it was worth the risk, because I don't think you can fake that level of suspense, I think it was obvious that we didn't know what the hell we were doing or where we were going. People really liked that.”
Get some motion in your conversations
“A tip that I learned from another journalist a long time ago, I was making a TV show. And he said, try to avoid doing sit down interviews with people, because it's obvious it's an interview,” Bartlett said. “Go for a walk and interview them on a walk, go and play golf, and interview them on the golf course, because they will relax and open up and it will be natural.”
“There was one time when I was doing a sit down interview… and he's sort of whispering, and he's sort of like, let's go for a walk, carry this on. So we somehow managed to do it. So we sort of went for a little walk; I said can we have a tour of the office and did most of the interview touring around an office. It was way better. So that's a little tip, if you can, get some motion and some movement.”