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The Post's Unsung Sleuths

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, July 2, 2006

The reporting that appears in The Post is supported by an infrastructure of research that readers do not see, except as credited in the occasional tag line at the end of a story.

Those tag lines don't begin to acknowledge the work done for reporters and readers by the News Research Center. The musty newspaper morgue of lore, brimming with crumbling clippings in tidy little envelopes, is now full of computers and researchers that Post journalists can't live without. Yes, there's still paper -- about 7,500 books, 30 periodicals a month and 15 daily newspapers.

Center director Bridget Roeber said the researchers are "news junkies, who see themselves not just as librarians but journalists finding and analyzing original documents, tracking people down, finding leads, using obscure databases."

Researchers are specialists in politics, business and finance, terrorism, or foreign news. Researcher Julie Tate is vital to the coverage of terrorism. "She knows names, dates and events everyone else has forgotten or never knew. And if she doesn't know it, she can find it," said Leonard Bernstein, a deputy national editor.

Dana L. Priest, who reports on defense and intelligence, said that Tate is a "a walking library who has the attitude: If they won't tell us, we're going to find it out anyway." Tate keeps the Post terrorism database and one on Guantanamo detainees. She starts every day combing through more than 50 newspapers and periodicals online and searching for "little snippets on news services that may be larger than they seem," Tate said.

"There are a thousand bits of information that are disconnected. She sees one new piece and can link it to something else. It's a gift and indispensable to what we do," Priest said. "When I run up against a brick wall, she's the sledgehammer who knocks out a little door in the wall that I can crawl through to keep on going. She has done this over and over again . . . in 90 percent of the stories that I have worked on. She can find people anywhere in the world."

Investigations Editor Lawrence Roberts has the same admiration for Alice Crites, the investigative staff researcher, who is often working on three projects at once. "She often finds the key to the story."

Her motto: "You can't hide from Alice." On the afternoon of June 16, here's what she did: "I added up some campaign contributions from a defense contractor. Found an old employee of a firm from 20 years ago and found a current number for him. Found some clips describing the history of a lobbying firm and its current involvement in earmark controversies. Looked up a lobbyist with the same name as a congressman to see if they are related. Checked clips and wires for most current stories on congressional corruption. Ran four reports from people-tracking databases."

The Foreign Desk not only has its own researcher, Robert E. Thomason, but also has researchers in almost every foreign bureau who do database research in other languages and are experts on their country or region.

Derek Willis, the research database editor, has put together a browseable database on congressional votes that is available on washingtonpost.com. Willis scanned in more than 500 financial disclosure statements from members of Congress and the database includes a link to those forms. Another database, of soldiers who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq -- "Faces of the Fallen" -- is kept by researcher Madonna Lebling.

Bobbye Pratt, who recently retired, was legendary on the Metro Desk for her ability to find addresses and telephone numbers of "obscure people below the radar." She did a background check to be sure that the sweet little old lady whom one reporter was interviewing wasn't a murderer; in fact, she was. Woe to those who didn't commission background checks from Pratt. One sorrowful example: A reporter wrote a story about a kindly old man helpful to children. Pratt pointed out after the story was in the paper that he was a convicted pedophile.

Research Editor Lucy Shackelford, who supervises the researchers assigned to each section, draws raves from the National Desk. National reporter Charles Babington said, "She works really long hours and seems incapable of telling people: 'I don't have time to do that for you.' Sometimes reporters are lined up three-deep at her desk, making requests for all kinds of research. She calmly writes each request on a notepad, and then works her databases for hours to knock them out, one by one." Last week Shackelford was named to succeed Roeber, who is retiring, as director of information resources.

Metro reporter Michael E. Ruane said, "These are the wacko kinds of questions these guys help us with all the time. Julie once helped me thusly: I knew the weight of a bullet that had killed someone in the sniper case, and wanted to know some other objects that weighed about the same. She came up with: a wedding ring. A dynamite detail. It wound up on the first page of the sniper book we did."

Not all requests are so serious.

Television writer Lisa de Moraes was writing a column on deadline about the Federal Communications Commission's fine after Janet Jackson's Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction." DeMoraes asked researcher Meg Smith "to help me find out if, ounce for ounce, the FCC fine had made Janet Jackson's breast the most costly thing on Earth. Meg was brilliant, and I could not have written that column without her. Turns out emeralds are still more expensive than Janet's silicone."

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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