Investigative journalism 'off the beaten path'

by Peter Benson

September 26, 2018

CNN senior investigative reporters Melanie Hicken ’09 and Blake Ellis visit Newhouse to talk about their new book and working as a team

Melanie Hicken '09 and Blake Ellis
Melanie Hicken '09 and Blake Ellis

Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken ’09 stopped in at Syracuse University on their way to a New York launch party for their new book, “A Deal With the Devil: The Dark and Twisted True Story of One of the Biggest Cons in History.” They discussed their work with students and other guests at the Newhouse School Sept. 18.

“As investigative reporters, we were typically drawn to corrupt politicians or dangerous criminals,” Hicken read from the book. “But it was this scam’s unbelievable power which allowed it to grow so massive and seemingly unstoppable that hooked us.”

While they started the talk with the book, Hicken and Ellis spent much of the talk talking about the dynamics of their working relationship as an investigative team at CNN.

“You need someone to gut check you sometimes,” Ellis said of having a writing partner.

Both writers said their award-winning work covering government debt collectors and nursing home rapes came from curiosity and a willingness to chase down the stories national media outlets weren’t telling.

“We try to be off the beaten path,” Hicken said. “We want to do our own story.”

Moderator Jodi Upton, the Knight Chair in Data and Exploratory Journalism at Newhouse, asked what led them to their positions at CNN Money, where they met.

Ellis attended Kenyon College as an international studies major but worked for both the college newspaper and for a paper in Jordan during a year studying abroad. Ellis said she always knew she wanted to work in journalism despite not choosing to formally train in the field.

She pursued an internship at Bloomberg covering nuclear reactors, an odd niche that ended up making her more employable.

“If I can care about nuclear reactors, I can write about bond markets and oil,” Ellis said.

Hicken, meanwhile, studied newspaper and online journalism at Newhouse. Her first job was at a local paper in Glendale, California, near her hometown of Los Angeles. She covered the city hall beat, which led her to her own niche covering finance.

“It was 2009,” Hicken said, “so every story was about money.” Her success in Glendale eventually led to the position with CNN Money. She and Ellis have been writing together since 2015, after Ellis asked Hicken to help input raw consumer compliance data into a spreadsheet so it could be analyzed. That investigation led to their story “The secret world of government debt collection,” which won the National Association of Consumer Advocates award in 2017.

“I don’t know if I could do this with anyone else,” Ellis said of Hicken.

Hicken said that after that first months-long investigation, they learned about Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporting team who started working together in 1971. They reached out to Barlett and Steele for advice on how to report as a team, and have been doing so ever since.

“We’re pretty much a package deal,” Hicken said.

While the setup is unusual, reporting teams are not unheard of; Hicken and Ellis said other outlets, like Vox, were also starting to run stories from teams, and they thought it may be the future of investigative journalism.

“It’s a growing thing again,” Hicken said. “Working in pairs.”

Peter Benson is a graduate student in the magazine, newspaper and online journalism program at the Newhouse School.