5 Websites for Sleuthing Out Story Information


Ed. Note: Last week, Stephanie shared her tips on getting sources (or in the case of PI work, targets) to open up. Now she’s sharing some of the online resources that PIs, reporters, and just about anyone else can use to track down important information. 

Licensed private investigators pay substantial fees to subscribe to a range of information databases including IRB and Merlin.

Unfortunately, access to IRB is restricted to PIs, members of law enforcement, and certain government entities. But the majority of the data comes from records that have been designated as public records in recent years, making them accessible to journalists as well as the general public … if only you know where to look.

Living in Florida, I’m spoiled by some of the nation’s most liberal public records accessibility laws. In most cases, I can spend one hour online and learn most of the information available in a restricted IRB report. Not only can I see who owns a particular business anywhere in Florida, but I can get a list of the company’s owners and officers and view the actual documents and signatures filed with the state.

If you’re ready to take your first step into the minefield of public records, let me first plant four red flags:

  1. Public records are big business, with many companies reaping profits by selling information that individuals can access on their home computers for free, if only they do their homework. These opportunistic corporations have become sophisticated at marketing, listing themselves high up in your search engine results so that you may not even see that the government-sponsored website appears farther down the list, making the job of a research technical writer that much harder.
  2. There is a frustrating lack of consistency in the URLs of public records databases from state to state. Case in point: if you’re a consumer reporter researching a business in your state, it makes sense to go to the Secretary of State website to find the business name, physical and mailing address, and the names and contact information for the top executives.In most states, a basic free search should confirm whether a business is licensed to operate in your state, the legal structure of the business, and whether there are any liens or judgments filed. So, if you’re in Florida, you go to www.sunbiz.com. In New York, the web address is http://www.dos.state.ny.us/. The Arizona Secretary of State’s web address is http://www.azsos.gov. Utah, Hawaii, and Alaska don’t even have a Secretary of State.
  3. Public records sites contain human errors, so it’s wise to confirm your data by visiting the courthouse in person, or at least calling the clerk of court to verify that your information is correct. If you publish incorrect information, you could face a professionally embarrassing correction in your publication or even legal action.
  4. A critically important exception to open records for reporters and investigators to understand is the federally-protected privacy of each individual’s personal health and medical records, including data reporting bill payments, which are protected under the Privacy Rule of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA.)

Reporters who publish protected information are subject to severe penalties. You can find a detailed explanation of the HIPAA restrictions by clicking on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website.

Now that I’ve shared my cautions, here are a few of the most helpful websites I’ve used, and they’re all cleared for use by journalists as well as members of the public. There are exceptions, but generally speaking, I’ve found websites with .gov or .edu in their URLs to provide the most reliable information.

  1. Law and Legal Information
    This is the place to go to look up whether an individual or a business is involved in any current or previous lawsuits at the federal level. Special sections on criminal and family law offer background, and a lawyer directory helps you locate legal specialists to interview.
  2. Class action lawsuit database
    Justia.com reports on pending class action lawsuits and on settlements for completed cases, including settlements from the Bank of America’s overdraft fee action, the Sprint telephone solicitation lawsuit, and the Apple iTunes card case. This site is searchable by company name or state.
  3. Find federal prison inmates
    Here you can enter the name of a criminal convicted in a federal case and find out where he/she is incarcerated. You’ll also find the contact information for federal prisons and how to approach the administration and inmate to request an interview.
  4. Search for sex offenders
    This site, coordinated by the U.S. Department of Justice, is the nearest we have to a national sex offender database, although this is strictly a portal for sex offender sites maintained by all 50 states, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories, and participating tribes. The site advises users to check their state’s internet sites to verify the information provided here.
  5. Track election contributions
    This page allows you to type in an individual’s name to retrieve information on his/her campaign contributions. With the next national election less than a year away, this is a good one to bookmark.

The information I’ve shared from my experience as a Florida licensed private investigator intern has been critically important as I research my articles and equally crucial in my personal life. I’ve saved myself from renting to deadbeats and dating drunks, and I’ve tipped off my friends with children about the location of registered sex offenders in their part of town. I’m hoping this information will help you become a better journalist and a safer individual as well.

Image courtesy of posterize / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Gothamist Seeks Pitches for Long-Form Journalism


With the growing popularity of tweets and blog posts and 30-second webisodes, many journalists have lamented the shrinking demand for long-form journalism. You know, those meaty, 8,000-word features that give a reporter the rare to chance to really craft a narrative, immersing the reader in carefully chosen, meticulously researched details.

Well, dear readers, now’s your chance to sink your teeth into a juicy assignment.

Now through Monday, October 31, Gothamist is accepting pitches for long-form, nonfiction features that will run between 5,000 and 10,000 words. The initial payment for the feature is $3,500, but according to their call for submissions, the profit split is 50/50 once they recoup initial costs. The call for submissions also says they’ll review pitches on any subject, but they believe stories involving crime or other mysteries especially lend themselves to this format.

Gothamist released its first feature as an ebook last month, a 13,000-word insider’s account of a rape trial written by juror Patrick Kirkland. Kirkland’s feature, Confessions of a “Rape Cop” Juror, is $1.99 and available for download in several platforms: Kindle, iBooks, ePub, and PDF.

Kirkland says he was fortunate that the timing of Gothamist’s first call for submissions coincided with the completion of the controversial trial. “I had a story sitting in my hands and I already knew I wanted to tell it and that I could probably do it in an interesting way,” he explains. (Kirkland had a full-time copywriting job at the time, so he’d write and research between 5 and 7:30 am each morning.)

Using his memory of the trial (jurors were not allowed to take their notes), the memories other jurors, and courtroom transcripts, Kirkland sliced together what he describes as a three-act story, cutting from the jury room to the courtroom noir-style. “I wanted to pitch it as a story, not somebody trying to clear their conscience,” he adds. That approach apparently worked, and Kirkland believes his pitch was chosen because of his focus on storytelling versus commentary.

Although Kirkland was fortunate to have a front row seat to a compelling courtroom drama, he encourages other writers to pitch stories of their own. “I strongly encourage anybody who thinks they possibly have an interesting story, even if there’s just a nugget, to piece it together and pitch,” he says. “It’s great to get that kind of space for a story. And on top of that, their network is huge. I’ve gotten a lot of conversations that I don’t know if I would have had otherwise.”

For more information, check out Gothamist’s call for submissions.

Image courtesy of graur codrin / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Why You Need a Writing Mentor and Where to Find One


No matter where you are in your freelancing career, everyone needs a little help sometime. Finding a mentor can be a good way to break you out of your regular working routine and electrify your mind with new ideas and inspiration. Laura Spencer recently wrote a great post for Freelance Folder, which addresses the best ways to find a writing mentor, and why mentors matter in the first place.



Check out a handful of her mentoring tips:

Get industry-specific tips. If your mentor works in the same freelancing profession as you do, they may be able to help you identify specific tools and techniques that work well in your field and steer you away from those that are bad ideas.

Learn from secondhand experience. It’s great to learn from your mistakes, but it’s even better to avoid making the mistakes in the first place. In a nutshell, this is often what having a mentor can do for you. Your mentor can tip you off to methods and processes that really don’t work well.

Benefit from expanded network connections. Your mentor likely has a broader base of connections since they have been in business longer. For that reason, your mentor can introduce you to or point you towards individuals and fellow article writers who can really help you grow your business.

And Laura offered a few tips on how to find a mentor too:

Past employer/colleague. For those freelancers who have held a traditional job before becoming a freelancer, their past workplace may be the ideal place to find someone experienced in their field.

Professional association. You can also find experienced freelancers (and potential mentors) in professional associations and business networking groups.

Paid coach. Many experienced freelancers offer paid coaching or mentoring services. If you want to find a mentor who works in your specific niche, this may be the best way to do it.

For the rest of Laura’s great tips, check out her Freelance Folder post Finding a Mentor–A Freelancer’s Simple Success Secret.

Where did you find your mentor? How has your mentor helped you in your own freelancing career? Let us know in the Comments

How Freelance Journalists Can Use Facebook’s New ‘Subscribe’ Button


When it comes to breaking news, Facebook has got nothin’ on Twitter. Twitter’s rapid fire interface, and news ticker feel makes it the perfect place to get up to the second updates on what’s happening in your world and beyond. But today, Facebook has launched their new “Subscribe” feature, which seems to merge the content control of Google+ with the fast pace updates of Twitter. The gauntlet has been thrown down. But will Facebook be a more effective tool for journalists?

From the Facebook overlords:

Facebook users can now visit another user’s profile and subscribe to receive the person’s public updates in their news feed, without being “friends.” The feature lets Facebook users broadcast public messages to subscribers, like Twitter does, while also keeping their private network of friends separate.

With the Subscribe button, we’re making it easier to do both. In the next few days, you’ll start seeing this button on friends’ and others’ profiles. You can use it to:

  1. Choose what you see from people in News Feed
  2. Hear from people, even if you’re not friends
  3. Let people hear from you, even if you’re not friends

Still wondering how this would work for journalists? Jeff Sonderman at the Poynter Institute provided 5 things journalists need to know about new Facebook subscription feature.
Here are a few highlights of Sonderman’s piece:

1. First, you have to opt-in. You must visit this Facebook page to enable subscriptions to your account. Only then can other Facebook users visit your profile and subscribe.

2. Many journalists may find they no longer need a separate Facebook Page. Pages had two primary advantages over profiles: People could subscribe to page updates (by liking them) without being your Facebook friend, and there was no limit to the number of fans you could have.

…There are two possible reasons you might want to keep your Facebook Page: You already have such a strong following there you don’t want to disrupt it, or you need to use the apps and extra tabs that Pages allow you to add.

3. Facebook continues to encourage publicness. By creating a distinct audience for public updates, Facebook is motivating users to share more things publicly.

People who have a lot of subscribers may feel pressure to share most things publicly, and just keep a few personal updates private for friends and family. If that happens, Facebook Search will become a more useful tool for journalists and others who want to search public posts like they do on Twitter.

4. Each subscriber controls how much they see from you. This could be a good thing or a bad thing for journalists and web content writers. But each person can choose to see all of your updates, most of your updates or only the “most important” as determined by Facebook.

5. Facebook is positioning itself as the social network for everything and everyone, by incorporating the most distinctive features of Twitter and Google+.

Now Facebook takes on Twitter with the new Subscribe button (there’s also a feature to send all your public Facebook posts to Twitter). And earlier this week Facebook announced new ways to build and share with lists of friends, similar to how Google+ circles work.



What do you think? Will you be using Facebook’s new subscribe button? Do you think it will help journalists? Let us know in the comments!

Ebyline’s Database of Journalist Associations and Freelance Writer Resources


All freelance journalists need a little help sometimes. Maybe you’re searching for that right source, or perhaps you’re looking for some professional development? As a benefit to freelance journalists and copywriting services, Ebyline has compiled a database of journalist associations; resources and tools; centers, think-tanks and institutes; and government agencies. We hope you can find resources for professional development and organizations that can help you take your career to the next level.

We will be updating the list constantly so make sure to keep checking back as our database grows.

Check out Ebyline’s Journalist Resource Database and don’t forget to bookmark it!