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When Julie Tate’s name appears in the Washington Post, it’s generally surrounded by predictable text. The predictable text sits at the footer of the story, and often at the footers of long and complicated stories. The predictable text, always in italics, reads like this:
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.
The formulation is simple and brief, in the best of newspaper traditions.
And in light of recent events, it may be one of the grandest understatements in journalism. On April 7, the Post won six Pulitzer Prizes, a one-year record for the paper and just one shy of the all-time mark set by the New York Times. The six-pack was bound together by a masthead that loves investigative reporting and a company with a history of ponying up for journalism.
Another thread was Tate, who was involved in four of the six prizes—the series on Vice President Dick Cheney, the stories on private security contractors in Iraq, the series on Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and the breaking news coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre. When the Post newsroom was celebrating the awards, the 38-year-old Tate was called upon to share the limelight with the by-lined honorees.
“Extraordinary,” remarked Executive Leonard Downie Jr. when asked by Washington City Paper to comment on Tate’s contributions.
Those contributions tend to begin early in a story’s development. On the Cheney project, for instance, Tate was tasked with laying a reportorial foundation of sorts. She compiled a list of all the people who had worked under and around Cheney over his decades-long career. Defense Department staff directories, congressional staff directories, White House staff directories—these were the points of departure for a project that unearthed new and revealing things about perhaps the most secretive figure in politics today. “She kept this huge master list and that was really key,” says Jo Becker, a co-author of the project who now works at the New York Times.
“Fun” is how Tate characterizes the work on the project. She also compiled a timeline of key events in Cheneydom and composed a “wiki” of speeches that he’d made. The authors of the four-part series—Becker and Barton Gellman—valued Tate’s involvement enough to deal her in on $35,000 in award money from the Goldsmith and Pulitzer prizes. “I couldn’t think more highly of her,” writes Gellman via e-mail. “She’s as much a reporter as a researcher, I think; she has sources and works them and often gives reporters a heads-up that something is coming, or that something seems to be coming and needs further checking.”
Tate, a former fact-checker for the New Yorker, brought her info-digging skills to other celebrated Post projects. For Walter Reed, she used the Internet and other means to locate people who’d pretty much fallen off the modern data map and ran background checks on subjects. “I don’t know how to find a lot of these folks,” says Dana Priest, a co-author of the Walter Reed series. For Steve Fainaru’s pieces on private security contractors, she pounded the Labor Department for documents that—after much synthesizing on Tate’s part—ultimately yielded the first definitive number of private security contractor deaths in Iraq. And for the Virginia Tech coverage, she helped rummage through Facebook and other databases to find sources for Post reporters.
“Julie can find someone 100 times faster than me,” says Fainaru. “So I think there is a tendency when you know that…to just ask her, ‘Can you find this person?’”
Given those feats, moving from researcher to reporter looks like a short walk for Tate, and one she’s happy not to take. “I’m not sure my talent is in being a writer,” she says.
That Tate is bursting out of her job title became clear a few years back, when she was helping Priest document her scoops on secret overseas CIA facilities—another body of Pulitzer-winning work. Working on a lead from Priest, Tate unearthed a set of mailboxes that the CIA used for front companies. She managed to confirm that just about all the names attached to the mailboxes were not real people. Priest recalls presenting Tate’s work to the agency. “The CIA people said, ‘Who is this Julie Tate?’ I was afraid they were going to hire her away,” recalls Priest.
Right fear, wrong suitor: Last summer, the New York Times approached Tate about coming on board, but she decided to say put. “I’m very glad that the Post has done what they have to keep her here,” says Lucy Shackelford, Tate’s boss.
According to Shackelford, the research unit has 13 staffers and has lost about four positions since the early 2000s. It also has five employees who are eligible for the paper’s generous 2008 early retirement package; Tate isn’t among that group. Downie says the unit is critical to the paper’s investigative work and is keeping a close eye on how it fares in the buyout. “The research staff is one that we wouldn’t want to short on resources,” says Downie. “What exact number that means, I don’t know. We wouldn’t allow it to be imperiled.”
Funding for news research at the Post appears competitive with other big papers. The New York Times’ unit has a dozen positions, according to research chief Terry Schwadron, and that paper’s very own buyout program may claim some staff. Resources for his division have been stable in recent years, says Schwadron, who doesn’t know whether he’ll lose slots to the paper’s downsizing initiative. And the Chicago Tribune is hanging in there with 14 bodies manning its research operation, according to Debra Bade, the paper’s editor of news research and archives.
Whatever their (under)staffing levels, modern newsroom research desks have come a long way. Once dusty repositories of clips and bulky files, they now harbor some of the industry’s most ingenious computer-assisted reporters.
People like Tate, that is. A while back, she was talking at a party with New Yorker fact-checking head Peter Canby about her craft. “She talked about search programs she was using that I had never heard of,” recalls Canby. Tate subsequently gave a seminar to 30-odd New Yorker people on the latest in online research tools.
“I think we’re vital because we’re able to find things in surprising places and keep together different pieces of information to help shape a picture that makes sense,” she says of news researchers. “Fortunately, the Post gives us the freedom to do that.”