Enlisting an Academic Gatekeeper to Unlock a Story

Any good reporter, regardless of his beat, will consult as wide a range of sources as possible to get an accurate picture of his subject. But sometimes there’s a single source who seems to know almost everything—an expert who’s the ‘gatekeeper’ to a castle of information and contacts on the business or deal the reporter is investigating. Enlisting the help of this person can unlock access to dozens of key sources and documents all at once.

This happened to be the case when I was reporting my master’s thesis for Columbia Journalism School about China’s rise in the Democratic Republic of Congo, now an eBook. I was investigating a $6.5 billion “infrastructure for minerals” deal in which the Chinese state-owned companies partnered with Congo’s state mining agency to mine an incredible 6.8 million tons of copper and 427,000 tons of cobalt over the subsequent 25 years. In exchange for the minerals, the Chinese companies would spend $3 billion to build roads, hospitals and universities throughout Congo. That investment was not structured as a gift, but a loan: every dollar spent will eventually be paid back in copper revenues.

The more I reported, the more the name Johanna Janssoncame up: It seemed like every journalist, academic and business insider I spoke with about the deal would refer me back to her. Jansson is a Swedish PhD candidate who has spent years researching the specific megadeal I was reporting on, called Sicomines, for her dissertation at a University in Denmark. In January 2013, I approached her in Kinshasa to ask for help understanding the deal—and for her contacts to some of the most powerful and knowledgeable stakeholders in Congo. My eBook, supported by the Pulitzer Center, would not have been possible without the information and contacts she provided me.

But what motivated her—an academic expert and a business insider—to open up to me—a journalism school student and someone with relatively little knowledge of the subject? What inspired her to hand off to me information that she had spent years gathering?

Nearly two years later I called her to discuss what a journalist can do to gain the trust and help of an expert– and what that expert often expects from the journalist in return. Read the full interview at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Covering Business page.

New York Review of Books reviews CHINA’S CONGO PLAN

The Chinese Invade Africa

By Ian Johnson – SEPTEMBER 25, 2014 ISSUE

“Kushner is fair-minded and has invested much time and effort in figuring out the interplay between the new superpower and a poor but strategically important African country.”

“The Chinese approach guarantees that something will get done. As one Congo official told Kushner: ‘It’s been 50 years that we’ve cooperated with the IMF, the World Bank. And for 50 years we’ve had the same problem. There aren’t roads. There aren’t schools. There aren’t universities.'”

“This way of doing business also leaves Chinese companies exposed. A Chinese manager named Robin told Kushner that the Chinese talked with a Congolese official who promised to help them do it. They began courting him with kind words, and later, with gifts. ‘We gave him a car, a house, and a lot of furniture,’ says Robin. ‘He had been to China to meet with our (company) president. He said ‘No problem, I promise you, you can buy a mine in Congo.’ But it was so complicated.’ The mine never materialized.”

“Some Westerners might shake their heads, but the West pioneered not only colonialism in Africa, but the worst practices in dealing with newly independent countries. For thirty years after Congo’s independence, Western countries supported Mobutu Sese Seko, one of Africa’s most corrupt dictators, supplying him with aid and weapons.”
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Read the full review at the New York Review of Books. Download the eBook for iPad / IPhone or from Amazon.

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