Journalist Q&A: Christine Willmsen, The Seattle Times

When Christine Willmsen is working on a story, chances are it's not a puff piece.

When Christine Willmsen is working on a story, chances are it's not a puff piece.

The Seattle Times' investigative reporter is a three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist. She also won an award in 2002 from the nonprofit Investigative Reporters and Editors for her work on "The Foreign Game," about the brokering of foreign athletes into America's amateur athletic programs. Her exposés have even changed laws. She spoke to PRWeek about her investigative methods.

PRWeek: Have you always done investigative reporting, or were you on different beats before you were assigned to the investigative team?

Christine Willmsen: I have covered a variety of beats. I've been in the business about 12 years, graduated from college in '93, so I started by working beat jobs: education, county government, the police beat, a variety of things. Probably about eight years ago I started doing more investigative reporting and projects and enterprise.

PRWeek: What paper were you at when you first started doing more enterprise reporting?

Willmsen: I first started that when I was on the police beat in Waterloo, Iowa. And that was a small daily. And then in Dayton, I did some police beat work and then went to investigative reporting full time at the Dayton Daily News, and then here in Seattle.

PRWeek: Investigative reporting takes a lot more time, and you have bigger projects. Does it ever get to be too much work for you?

Christine Willmsen: No, I kind of thrive on it, actually. Each type of reporter has attributes that lend themselves to different styles of writing and reporting.

Some are great feature writers or deadline writers. I thrive in an environment where I can continue to dig, investigate, and really pick apart a subject or work on an investigation and fully open it up.

PRWeek: We've read about the bigger projects you've worked on. Which was the most rewarding?

Willmsen: "Coaches Who Prey" [about sexual predators] was rewarding because there were some changes in the law to better protect children athletes in the state of Washington. That one, I think, resonated with a lot of the public.

PRWeek: We noticed some of your work is about athletics. Is that a side interest for you, or did you end up covering it by coincidence?

Willmsen: Well, I kind of covered that by coincidence. It is interesting that some of my higher-profile or more successful investigative stories have been about athletics.

[One of] the larger investigative stories I did [as a Dayton Daily News reporter] was called "The Foreign Game" about foreign athletes from places like Central Africa Republic, Bosnia, Yugoslavia, and places all over the world coming to the US to play sports at the high-school level, and tracking them through brokers and agents. I worked on that with a couple of other reporters for about 18 months.

PRWeek: What do you do when you gather information on something, and you go to the source and they just stonewall you? What is your next step?

Willmsen:  It depends on the kind of person that is stonewalling you. Are they concerned about their name in the paper? I always try to find what their concern is and why they don't want to cooperate and see if I can alleviate their fears or their concerns. I would say it's different for someone who's being investigated than for someone who is speaking about someone else. There are probably to different approaches.

PRWeek: We know your job is more enterprise, but in dealing with PR pros, do you have any advice on how to connect with you successfully?

Willmsen: Obviously, there is a concern when you get a call from an investigative reporter: "What do they want, what do they have?" I would just try to be open and as accommodating as possible.

It really helps to have that person understand our field, as well as put us in touch with the actual people we want to talk with. That is one of the most important things - to facilitate that connection between the reporter and the president of the company, or the VP, or the person we're looking to talk with, versus just having a spokesperson or the voice coming through the PR specialist.

PRWeek: How do you get your ideas for projects?

Willmsen: It can come through a variety of ways. We can get a tip on any type of situation, and maybe someone calls our editor. It can come through our editor via a complaint, a concern, something that might need to be looked in to. It can also come through the beat reporters themselves when they may not have time and they see something they want to dig in to deeper. Sometimes they want to pair up with an investigative reporter and look into something that seems like it needs further investigation or more time. Another one is just our curiosity as journalists. There are times when I just ponder and think of different stories that might be of interest to readers.

Publication: The Seattle Times

Title: Investigative reporter

Preferred contact method: cwillmsen@seattletimes.com

Web site: seattletimes.nwsource.com

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