Signal Group 05 Feb 2019 // 7:16AM GMT
By Eric Bovim
Managing Director, Signal Group
Few reporters can stoke as much fear with a single phone call than Brody Mullins. For more than a decade, he has been an investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal based in the Washington, D.C. bureau where he covers the nexus between business, lobbying and campaign finance.
Mullins writes only a handful of times every year, but, when he does write, his front-page pieces pack a devastating punch. His last three articles have exposed Amazon’s political rise to power, how ego and greed led to the downfall of one of Washington's biggest Democratic lobbyists, and how big business has lobbied against Trump’s tariffs.
Over lunch recently in Washington, I sat down with Mullins for a wide-ranging discussion on investigative journalism, the Trump administration, and the future of media. This is part one of that conversation, stay tuned for part two.
Eric Bovim: What sort of stories and topics are you interested in?
Brody Mullins: I try to focus my reporting on influence in Washington, businesses, corporations, unions. What they're looking for out of Washington and how they try to get it. Unfortunately, I think, so many public officials now are afraid of meeting face to face because they worried about being ambushed or caught off guard or quoted out of context.
How many pieces do you publish a year?
I would like to publish six to eight really good, deeply-reported, well-written investigative stories a year, each between 2,000 and 3,000 words. I end up falling short of that goal each year. My goal is fewer stories of a higher quality rather than many shorter stories. I have many colleagues in the industry who need to write three, four times a day. I would much rather have three, four great stories a year than 500 stories in a year.
How has technology changed your job in the last five years?
Technology, I would say, brings about huge changes. One example is that many people who I want to talk to on the Hill or in the administration, now want to communicate over email rather than in person or over the phone. I find it much easier, more productive, fruitful to talk to people in person because you get a sense of who they are; they're more likely to give you a little more information when they're in front of you and see you and can touch you and see that you are a real person.
Unfortunately, I think, so many public officials now are afraid of meeting face to face because they worried about being ambushed or caught off guard or quoted out of context. So, government officials and press secretaries – particularly young ones – want to communicate over email where you tend to get more staid, one-line responses or responses that stick to the company line, or certainly never vary at all from what they're supposed to say, which, from my point of view, is much less productive and insightful.
Do you find people are afraid to talk to you?
Yes. Sometimes they're afraid to talk because they think I'm going to write a bad story about them or their boss. However, I am usually calling or emailing to get some help or information about somebody else who I am trying to write about. Unfortunately, sometimes when I call people are afraid because they think I'm trying to write about them. In fact, I'm often trying to create a relationship or partnership to help me research one other people or companies.
What would you make of the future of long form journalism?
I think the public perception is that the future is bad. I disagree with that. I think that while it's true that journalism is moving to shorter and shorter stories and clips and news stories and people are consuming information on their phone rather than even on their computer or certainly the actual newspaper, I know there is still a thirst and an appetite among many people for longer, deeper and more insightful stories that people can read on the weekends or at night. Or maybe something that you must know to do your job or a story that you're interested in. The shorter news stories tend to be what's going on right now, or in the last few minutes. But I think that many people have an interest in deeper, more richly-reported stories that are fun to read.
So, what would be the ideal role that a PR professional plays when they deal with you?
From my point of view, it's great when people come to me and say, "Hey, I have a great story about person X" and this PR person may represent company Y or person Y, but they're recommending a story about a competitor or an opponent. Something I haven't thought of or they have some examples of why some company's doing something wrong. Or some company's doing something that the public should know about. I think public relations people too often look to protect their clients. I'm always interested in talking to people about the opponents of their clients. I rarely get calls from folks along those lines, but that would be interesting to me. Or, you should come meet my client or create a relationship with my client. Or, here's something really interesting that my client's doing that you might want to know about.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this conversation.