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.

Tarnished: The True Cost of Gold (eBook)

Tarnished: The True Cost of Gold tells the stories of those who mine gold—the lustrous, coveted symbol of wealth. Eleven journalists traveled to 10 countries to tell these stories. Their work combines first-rate reporting, vivid imagery and video, previously published by the Pulitzer Center, an innovative non-profit that supports international journalism.

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In Chapter Four, Jacob Kushner investigates the future of mining in Haiti, a land ravaged by an earthquake in 2010. Gold remains its hidden treasure, one of the country’s few unexploited natural resources. Kushner asks where the wealth will go when—and if—tons of precious metals are unearthed. (A version of this chapter was originally published by Guernica Magazine).Download the eBook for iPad, iBooks for Mac or Kindle.

eBook: China’s Congo Plan, now available

 

 

 

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What does China see in the world’s poorest nation? An opportunity for big business. Congo is known for poverty and conflict, but it is home to an enormous wealth of buried minerals such as copper, whose value is rising on the world market. Already, tens of thousands of Chinese men and women have left their families behind to live in Africa to dig and process ore.

Now, two Chinese state-owned companies are opening the biggest mine Congo has ever seen. In exchange, they’re spending billions of dollars to build new roads and modernize Congo’s infrastructure.

But will Chinese mines and roads help transform Congo in a way Western aid and business has not? Or will Chinese businessmen and Congolese officials get rich while the people continue to live in poverty?

In “China’s Congo Plan”, Jacob Kushner takes us street-side to a grand, Chinese-constructed boulevard in Congo’s capital Kinshasa, to a mountain range where Congolese men, women and children dig for minerals with picks and shovels, and to a factory where Chinese immigrants melt aqua-blue rocks into molten copper lava. Two years after China overtook the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner, Kushner brings us inside the world of China’s rise in the continent.

Kushner’s reporting was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and his research was advised by faculty at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “China’s Congo Plan” was awarded the Grand Prize in the Atavist Digital Storymakers Award for Graduate Longform, sponsored by the Pearson Foundation.

Congo’s subsistence miners dig for their livelihoods

Congo’s subsistence miners dig for their livelihoods

‘Artisanal’ mining is now the country’s leading profession — attracting adults and children alike. Chinese investment is driving its growth.

KOLWEZI, Congo — Patrick Bwana strains his body as he thrusts a full-sized shovel into a patch of rocky ground. He is 12 years old. He looks 9. He speaks with his eyes fixed on the ground. “I used to go to school, but my father died, and no one paid for my studies anymore,” he says.

Bwana works from around 6 in the morning to about 3 in the afternoon, lugging around bags of rock that seem to weigh as much as he does. He says he can earn $5,000 francs a day doing this. That’s about $5. He hopes he can save enough to pay his own school fees, and return to school.

Bwana is one of tens of thousands of child laborers estimated to work in Congo’s mineral sector. Most take to the work out of necessity, to help their parents earn enough to feed their family. Child labor is illegal in the Congo, as is much of the artisanal mining that takes place in and around Kolwezi on mineral reserves owned or leased by foreign or Congolese companies.

The forces that shape Congo’s artisanal mining sector are many: A worldwide demand for copper and other base minerals for manufacturing; the inability of many Congolese to find any other sort of lucrative work; the absence of government regulation. But ask any Kolwezi miner who’s responsible, and you’re likely to hear just one answer: “The Chinese.”

Read the full story at GlobalPost or NPR, or at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which provided funding for the project.

A woman holds the gold she found this week. Image by Ben Depp. Haiti, 2012.

Haiti’s Gold Rush

Riches beckon from beneath Haiti’s hills, and mining companies are hoping to lock in huge tax breaks to get at them.

Deep in Haiti’s northern mountains, a half-dozen supervisors at a mining exploration site spent their days playing dominoes at a folding table next to a helicopter pad. For weeks they waited in La Miel, off a dirt road deep in the countryside, for Haiti’s government to give them the go-ahead to search for the gold they believe is buried in the hills around them.

Read the full story as it appeared at Guernica.
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