Washington Post reporters Dan Morgan, Gilbert M. Gaul and Sarah Cohen spent over a year investigating federal agriculture subsidies for the "Harvesting Cash" series. In an e-mail interview with Expos�© (edited responses below), Gil and Sarah discuss their contributions to the series on waste and abuse in the farm-subsidy program that became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2007.

302_gaul.jpgGIL GAUL: The personalities and talents of the Farm Team illustrate how an effort of this magnitude -- which is probably inscrutable to outsiders -- comes together. Dan was our policy wonk. He had written about agriculture for decades, authored one of the seminal books on agriculture commodities trading {Merchants of Grain (1979)}, and was a wonderful source of anecdotes, history and go-to experts. Sarah was our data expert, able to negotiate with bureaucrats to obtain the massive databases we parsed and parsed again to support many of our findings. We decided early on that we wanted to create our own data instead of relying on other groups, standing or falling on our own efforts. This is pure speculation on my part, but I suspect I was invited to the project because I have a long history of working on long, complicated stories, and some ability to synthesize large amounts of data and information.

EXPOSÃ?â?°: When you were originally assigned to the team, you were initially hesitant.  When did that change and when did you realize that you had a story?

GIL GAUL: In the summer of 2005, The Post's investigations editor Jeff Leen asked me to consider working on the then emerging farm project. I was hesitant at first because I was working on another project about waste and quality flaws in the federal Medicare program. I also was concerned that farm subsidies felt familiar. Everyone has heard about farm subsidies, so why would they bother to read a detailed series on the subject?
I continued to work on Medicare while also doing some preliminary research on subsidies. What I quickly learned was that while everyone may know a little about subsidies, no one had ever told the story in a clear, detailed way that explained how these billions of dollars often benefit those who don't need the money and hurt those who need it the most. A month or two of research suggested here was a wonderful challenge for a couple of enterprising, resilient reporters willing to pour over millions of records, learn an entire new vocabulary (at least in my case) and go out to far corners of the country to learn how subsidies really work at ground level. I was hooked and by year-end eagerly engaged as our reporting began.
EXPOSÃ?â?°: How did this story compare to other stories you have worked on as an investigative reporter?

GIL GAUL: The farm series was definitely one of the more challenging stories I have worked on in 33 years of reporting. The complexity of the individual subsidy programs is head-banging, and there were many days when I thought I would never understand them. Dan came up with a phrase "decoding the formula" and whenever we finally managed to wrestle something down, he and I would excitedly exchange e-mail announcing we had decoded it.

Most long projects are difficult to organize and write. This one was especially so because we not only had to simplify the subject for our readers but also find stories and people to engage them. We had a strong outline from the beginning, but it went through many iterations as we fine-tuned our thinking about how to approach each story. At one point, Day One was going to be an entirely different story focusing on farmers who receive multiple subsidies. But over time, we realized it would be a lot easier to focus on one subsidy. The question became which one? And where? Sarah and Dan identified Texas rice country as a good example of direct payments, and Dan and I went down for a week to interview farmers and USDA officials. With a little luck and some old-fashioned reporting, we discovered the phenomena called "Cowboy Starter Kits" -- old rice fields with newly constructed McMansions where the owners could collect a subsidy because rice had once been farmed there. It was a nice way to make our larger point about waste in the direct payment program.
EXPOSÃ?â?°: What do you think is the greatest misconception people have about what you do as an investigative reporter?

GIL GAUL: Generally, I think people associate investigative reporting with what they see on TV. They think of reporters banging on doors, barging into offices, demanding to know this and that. The reality is far, far different, at least for most of the work done at serious newspapers. Much of what I do before I go out to interview is weeks and months spent gathering and analyzing hundreds or thousands of pages of documents (histories, government reports, large databases, work done by university and non-profit researchers, archival materials, miscellaneous other materials). It is slow, hard work, and if you have a short attention span or need to see your byline in the paper on a frequent basis, it's going to be disappointing.


EXPOSÃ?â?°: How did your background as a government economist help you in this investigation?  And in general, how does it come into play in your reporting work?

302_cohen.jpgSARAH COHEN:  My first job out of college as an economist involved calling people up who didn't want to talk to me (and didn't have to talk with me) as part of a price survey. I'd ask them about business conditions, what they planned to do about them, and how they'd already reacted. It was great training for basic reporting, since people would avoid me, lie to me and, less frequently, tell me details that I couldn't get any other way.

I also learned the basics of computer programming. The analysis was completely different - there, we were working with our own data and survey design, and here, I am working with a huge variety of public records and documents that change with every part of a story. But it taught me how make a computer do what I want it to do and took away a lot of the mystery.

EXPOSÃ?â?°: What resources did you use to track the money in U.S. farm subsidies? How do you find the stories in these massive amounts of data?

SARAH COHEN: We made extensive use of the Freedom of Information Act. I also programmed computers to download all of the data from several Agriculture web sites when we couldn't get answers to some of the requests. The data sources were immense: millions of individual payments; every price in every county every day for every crop over several seasons; disaster declarations; weather records; crop insurance sales representatives; and later on, every grant and loan made for rural development assistance.

To the extent possible, I like to work from the ground up. That means the "reporting" side of computer-assisted reporting is the starting point. Once I hear of interesting cases or cases that might represent something newsworthy, I start looking for signs in the records that might help us determine if it's true, and how to document it more fully and find other examples. Very few of our findings or examples could be found using Internet resources - we needed better control over the data and the ability to mix and match sources.

For example, in the drought story, we heard of some people who might have gotten money because of the shuttle explosion - figuring out that they were only eligible under one kind of disaster declaration (not more than one) was the key to finding them. It was the same with documenting the cowboy starter kits. Once I saw how one of them looked in the database, I knew I could look for recipients who got the fixed payments for farming but never received any subsidies that they would have been entitled to if the grew (or tried to grow) some crops.

EXPOSÃ?â?°: Dan Morgan has described you as someone who "cracked codes." How do you describe what you do in computer-assisted reporting? 

SARAH COHEN: Cracking codes is what I hope to do.

I usually find and negotiate for the public records we need to document a tip or an idea. Very few are already on the Internet. Instead, I have to figure out who in government has written something down, how it's recorded in computer systems, and then file Freedom of Information Act requests for the portions that are available to the public. Once I get them (or IF I get them), I usually go back and forth between what I think of as field work and lab work, refining the way I look at the data or finding new or better records to avoid pitfalls and take advantage of what the data can tell us. Then I'll go back to the experts, like the Agriculture Department's chief economist, and have them vet our findings.

The idea is to lead the reporting toward good examples, check their accuracy, and then use them to analyze the data to make broader statements. I'll write the sections of the stories or sidebars that I've reported as well. I work a lot with our graphics department to summarize the data, and, more recently, with our online colleagues to make the graphics interactive.


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