Globe and Mail reporters Robyn Doolittle and Greg McArthur discussed the steps in writing an investigative story with a gathering of students in Humber’s new Lakeshore campus newsroom on Nov. 11.
Doolittle worked as a Toronto Star police beat reporter for about two years, which helped her get to know how police service works, before moving her practice to city hall reporting, where she made her name as lead reporter on the unfolding Rob Ford scandals.
She told students about the steps she took when writing her book Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story, which traces the turning points of Ford’s political career and personal life.
Doolittle also talked about her March 26, 2013, article “Rob Ford: ‘Intoxicated’ Toronto mayor asked to leave military ball,” and how the story came together.
“It was about a year into Rob Ford’s term that I started noticing he wasn’t at work all the time… I started hearing reports that there was something more going on behind the scenes in the mayor’s life,” Doolittle said.
Multiple events occurred where Ford ran afoul of the law, some scenarios more bizarre than others. He had allegedly been snorting cocaine in the back of the downtown club called Bier Markt. (sic)
“We needed a catalyst for the story, like a news hook, and that came around a year after the Bier Markt, almost to the day, with the Garrison Ball,” Doolittle said.
The Garrison Ball is an event that celebrates the Canadian armed forces, raising money for the Wounded Warriors charity.
After speaking with sources involved in the organizing committee, Doolittle learned that Ford had shown up impaired and was asked to leave.
“The Garrison Ball story is the story that I am most proud of in my career… (It) was the combination of this one incident, but it was really about this investigation I’d been doing for a year into the mayor’s personal life,” she said.
Doolittle reviewed the difference between writing daily stories and a long-term investigative story.
“I think it’s always exciting to be able to spend time on a story. Often if you’re doing a daily beat, you have at the end of the day this ticking time bomb called a deadline that kind of prevents you from exploring certain areas more,” Doolittle said.
Adam Jonsson, a fourth-year Humber journalism student at the Lakeshore campus, said it was remarkable to hear about Doolittle’s work. He and his classmates attended the event because McArthur, their Investigative Reporting teacher, promoted it to his students.
Johanna Tucker, a second-year Humber journalism student at Lakeshore, said Doolittle has interesting ways of getting information.
“She uses a lot of social media to get information and to get tips,” noted Tucker of Doolittle’s working methods. “That’s something that I haven’t really thought that much about. She looks through twitter feeds and tries to find people’s information and tries to get phone numbers that way. It helps her get those little bits of information that will eventually lead to a bigger story.”
Doolittle offered advice for aspiring journalists who want to succeed in the industry. She said that she was working 50-60 hours a week when she was in university.
“It sounds like a cliché and obvious but you have to work really hard, and once you have a job, just work really hard there,” Doolittle said.
Looking back, Doolittle wished she learned photography and French in university.
“You have to be able to do everything now. That is the modern news room,” she said.