Many readers, of course, will have little interest in getting this far into the weeds on a story. But even for them, the presence of such documents builds credibility, which is the most basic prerequisite for the successful investigative reporter. And the deeply engaged readers who are interested in looking at such documents will spend that much more time on the site, and be that much more likely to return.

Hang out and chat awhile

Another advantage the Web can offer for a major investigative package is a variety of different platforms to get the message out. Newspapers have made great strides in adopting video reports and slideshows as part of their toolbox—the Star, the Post-Dispatch, and the Register have each effectively used these techniques in their packages. But video and photographs are still conventional, old-media reporting formats migrated to the Web.

By contrast, online video, audio and text-based chats offer reporters the opportunity to communicate in a more relaxed, direct, and casual voice than they can within the time, space, cost constraints, and stylistic conventions of print and TV venues.

To be fair, that opportunity may fill some tradition-minded reporters with dread. But contemporary journalism demands that we communicate directly with readers, explain our work, and hear feedback. See, for instance, this live chat from last year conducted by Seattle Times investigative reporter Christine Willmsen regarding her series on indefinite detention of sex offenders. Willmsen had to know ahead of time that it could be a bumpy ride given the uncomfortable subject matter—and indeed, many of the questions in the one-hour session were antagonistic. But the honest exchange provided a valuable user experience in fleshing out the implications of the controversial story.

For a less stressful chat option, journalists looking to enhance their investigative series might consider Google Hangouts, which offer a low-cost, low-tech venue for video exchanges between reporters and their colleagues. My United States Project colleague Joel Campbell recently highlighted the Salt Lake Tribune’s use of Google Hangouts to supplement an investigative series on a scandal in the Utah attorney general’s office. Time magazine also hosted a Google Hangout in February with Steven Brill, in which he discussed the reaction to his “Bitter Pill” cover story on medical costs.

These free-form, unedited conversations won’t suit every taste, but many users may find them more accessible and less daunting than traditional news pieces. Plenty of Star, Register, and Post-Dispatch readers would surely appreciate the opportunity to hear ace reporters like Mike McGraw, Jason Clayworth, and Jesse Bogan discuss their work and its larger implications in a relaxed, unhurried format.

Make it pop

A final piece of the puzzle in assembling a special report—and one that can require some expertise—is to make it visually arresting. On the Web, this means not only creating appealing graphic images but endowing them with dynamism and interactivity.

See, for instance, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s interactive map identifying infant mortality statistics within the city by ZIP code—an invaluable supplement to the paper’s ongoing “Empty Cradles” series. This tool allowed users to select for various healthcare data in their own neighborhoods.

The Tampa Bay Times’ “Stand Your Ground” series offered another impressive interactive feature with its database of case files, which revealed that the Trayvon Martin case is only one among hundreds that have been affected by Florida’s controversial self-defense statute:





Users can sort cases by race, county, and gender; view a gallery of the accused in each case or the victim; and roll over each mug shot to see a detailed account of each case at the left side of the screen. And each mug links to a separate case file—the same files that provided most of the 12 links in the story I mentioned earlier.

The Post-Dispatch, to its credit, uses a similar feature to tell the stories of St. Louis-area soldiers who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the page architecture is a letdown. Reading the capsule bios of soldiers below the first few rows means scrolling down to a thumbnail picture, clicking on it, then scrolling back up to the top of the page for the info and links to related stories.

Of the three Midwestern papers singled out here, the Register stands out for its use of interactive graphics, with a clickable state map that allows users to see gun-permit statistics by county. We can only hope that features like this one point the way to more creative work from legacy news organizations in the region and beyond.

Deron Lee is CJR's correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent seven years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee.