March 11, 2019

Award-winning AP editor Maud Beelman said new center will use cutting-edge technology to prepare budding investigative journalists

Investigative reporters tend to see the world in a different way.

“An investigative mindset, as I conceive it, is someone who looks at the world just slightly askew,” said Maud Beelman, founding executive editor of the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and a professor of practice at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. “It’s someone who’s willing to consider that the most outrageous, impossible, unthinkable thing that could happen might happen and feel the need to look into it.

“I think anything is possible, and I think history has shown us that the most outrageous things happen. … Truth is stranger than fiction.”

Beelman's talk, “Investigative Reporting and the New Howard Center,” on Monday evening was a continuation of the spring 2019 “Must See Mondays” lecture series at the Cronkite School on ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus.

“We are delighted (she) is teaching the next generation of investigative reporters the importance of producing stories that have a real public impact,” said Cronkite Dean Christopher Callahan. “Beelman’s experience and insight as a veteran journalist are qualities that make her an obvious choice to deliver this year's Paul Schatt Lecture.”

With moderator Walter V. Robinson, the Edith Kinney Gaylord Visiting Professor in Investigative Journalism, Beelman discussed her journalism career, the state of investigative reporting and the new Howard Center at Cronkite, which launched this year with a $3 million grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation in order to produce a new generation of investigative journalists.

Beelman said growing up in New Orleans served her well when she eventually became a journalist.

“It’s a city where the sea level is above your head, and you learn at an early age that things aren’t what they appear to be,” Beelman said. “I was a precocious child, and I was always asking the wrong question at the right time. Journalism seemed to be a natural fit.”

It certainly was.

Beelman excelled at every position and every post she was assigned to, including stints as a domestic and foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in her hometown of New Orleans and later working in Florida and Pennsylvania. She edited on AP’s international desk in New York before moving to Germany at the start of a six-year foreign assignment. During her overseas tour, Beelman covered German unification, the Kurdish refugee crisis in Iran and Iraq after the first Gulf War, and the wars in the former Yugoslavia.

In between, she studied and became fluent in German.

“When the Berlin Wall came down, I was the only editor in New York who spoke German, which just proves that timing makes winners, not necessarily (that) it’s only talent,” she said.

Before joining the Cronkite faculty in January, Beelman was the U.S. investigations editor for the Associated Press. She led a national team of reporters who produced long- and short-term projects, including investigations into sexual assault among children in public schools and on U.S. military bases, police misconduct and medical-device safety.

In 1997, she founded the international Consortium of Investigative Journalists and led the Washington-based group until 2004. During that time, she helped identify and recruit the world’s leading investigative reporters, oversaw and edited the group’s projects and built collaborations among investigative journalists worldwide. Under her leadership, the group won the first George Polk Award given for online journalism.

Her honors came at a time when investigative journalism as a whole was on the decline. To that end, she said there’s “still a gaping hole” to fill since 2008 in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

“What I think has been an unfortunate consequence has been a downsizing of the mainstream newsroom environment, in that with a few bright exceptions, investigative reporting units at midsize and definitely at small papers have been cut,” Beelman said, who added there has been a rise in nonprofit investigative operations to fill some of the breach.

“There’s still a lot of power structures that are not being watched,” Beelman added. “There are still some communities where the city council or school board meetings are not being covered.”

Beelman said she had just landed her dream job and moved into a new home when she got the call asking her to come teach at ASU. She said it was the Cronkite School’s talent and the idea of building the Howard Center from the ground up that ultimately lured her to the Valley.

“I’m sure you’re incredibly aware of how fortunate you are to have the faculty that you do here at ASU,” Beelman said, addressing the students. “There are people who teach here that I used to look at and be in awe of and still am. I’d see them at professional conferences and think, ‘Aw, I can’t go up and talk to them.’ There’s no place else in the country that has this lineup of investigative reporters and editors.”

She also likes the Cronkite School’s ambition, audacity and innovation.

“So they’re not big, right?” Beelman said, slightly tongue in cheek. “We’re just going to build the first master’s program in investigative reporting, and we’re going to use the Howard Center as the laboratory in which these students are going to produce multimedia, groundbreaking investigations using cutting-edge technology in which we are going to collaborate with the biggest media in the United States to get it published and broadcast. I don’t think that’s undoable.”

Beelman said the center will focus on high-impact, national issues using an interdisciplinary approach to reporting.

“What we’re going to do is tap into people who are experts in their fields who are scattered throughout the university system and get them to teach specially designed mini courses in some aspect that will help you as an investigative reporter,” she said. She added that could come in the form of an FBI member teaching interview techniques or an expert on how to interview trauma victims.

“The plan cooked in from the very beginning (is) to give you guys at least a head start on some of this crucial expertise that you will use in investigative reporting and that will put you a step ahead of anyone else,” Beelman said. “And hopefully, it will set a role model for the rest of the journalism/education community ahead.”

The first cohort at ASU’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism will begin in fall 2019. 

Top photo: Maud Beelman, the founding executive editor of the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the Cronkite School, hosts a lecture about the state of investigative journalism across the globe. Photo by Marcus Chormicle/ASU Now