HOW
I work as an investigative reporter, the subject of such riveting movies as All the President's Men and Spotlight. I work at a place called The Marshall Project, which sounds like a mysterious enterprise in a Robert Ludlum novel. And I'm constantly digging for secrets.
 
My days ought to be exciting.

And yet ...
 
At the Seattle Times, we went in search of illegally sealed court files. Fellow reporter Justin Mayo identified codes in the electronic dockets of civil suits that served as hints that a case might be hidden away. The state's administrative office of the courts agreed to search its mainframe for those hints -- overnight, so as not to crash the system -- and got thousands of hits. I then took the list of hits to the courthouse in downtown Seattle, sat down at a computer terminal, and began typing.
 
And typing.
 
And typing.
 
For hours, which became days, which became weeks, I typed nine-digit identifiers -- for example, 03-2-27609-0 -- for thousands of cases into the court's retrieval system, to see what would happen. If I got into the case, the file was open. If a pop-up box told me to go away, the file was sealed.
 
This approach worked for newer files -- but not for older ones, which had yet to be electronically scanned. For the old cases, the clerk's office let me go behind the front desk and look for yellow slipsheets used to designate a sealed lawsuit -- a task that required thumbing every folder on every shelf in the aisles of files that seemed to have no end.
 
So when I wasn't plugging tens of thousands of numbers into a computer, I was trapped in a manila-folder maze -- for hours, which became days, which ought to have been exciting, but were not.
 
(But worth it? Yes; 03-2-27609-0 was among hundreds cases that proved to be sealed. When we sued and got it opened, here's what we found .) 

WHO
WHAT
WHY
At the Chicago Tribune I did a series with Maurice Possley on wayward prosecutors. Wanting to find the worst kinds of misconduct in the most serious of cases, I turned to Lexis, a database that includes appellate opinions from around the country.

Because Lexis taps into millions of cases, you have to winnow. So I crafted searches, like this:

Date aft 1962 and (homicide or murder! or manslaughter) and (brady pre/3 maryland) or lexcite (373 U.S. 83) or ((napue pre/3 illinois) or lexcite (360 U.S. 264) or (giglio pre/3 united states) or lexcite (405 U.S. 150)) or ((use! /3 perjur! or false) or (correct! /3 perjur! or false) or (uncorrect! /3 perjur! or false)).

To you, that is gibberish. To me, that is art.

This is sad, I know.
A day in the life: I'm in Grant County, in the middle of Washington, researching a public defender . I ask for the file in a three-strikes rape case, and a clerk wheels out three banker's boxes on a dolly. I dig in, only to discover that many of the records are simply fill-in-the-blank forms. I want to sprint through them, because they're forms, and forms are boring. But do that and there's a chance, however small, of missing something. So I settle in and read the damn forms.

After several hours, I am rewarded. Using a fill-in-the-blank motion, this public defender asked for the trial date to be pushed back. His reason? Let's go to the form:
If you don't get the absurdity of this, then you, too, should not be the defense attorney in a rape case.
If you ask Mike Berens about the research for our MRSA series (parts 1 , 2, 3 ), he says:
If you ask me about the research for that series, I say: Ask Mike.
It is good to work with smart people.
If you can't get enough of public records and the craft of investigative reporting -- FOIA has nine exemptions, you say? Please, tell me more -- then here are some tip sheets I prepared for Investigative Reporters and Editors:

Writing the Investigative Story
Darting Down the Records Trail
Beyond Words: Storytelling at the Intersection of Cool & Creative
Chasing Paper
Shapeshifting: Letting a Project Evolve, from Conception to Delivery
Writing about Misconduct by Prosecutors
Abby Mann , a movie producer and Academy Award-winning screenwriter, flirted with making a movie about the work that Steve Mills and I did in Chicago on the death penalty. He invited us to a fancy hotel suite, turned on a tape recorder and said: Tell me how you did it.

I told him: We pulled all of these records, file after file; we filled in all of these boxes on a hand-drawn spreadsheet, box after box; we tallied up all our findings ,
number after number. Mann's eyes glazed over. His mind drifted away. I swear, I could see it, it drifted out the window, to Michigan Avenue, to the expressway, to the airport, it hopped on a flight and got off in a place where reporters do gloriously cinematic things, like hold clandestine meetings with code-named sources in shadowy parking garages.

That film never got made -- sparing us all from the movie masterpiece, "Spreadsheet."