James Pilcher: Opportunity Launched Career

An opportunity led to a career.

It all started at the University of Massachusetts’ school newspaper. The Daily Collegian needed someone to write reviews for the art section. James Pilcher qualified for the position.

In college, Pilcher knew he liked writing, but admits he was not good at it.

Pilcher told me he is a huge music fan, and this opportunity led to curiosity about journalism. “I could go review music and go to shows and stuff like that. And I did and I signed up and from then on I just caught the bug,” Pilcher said.

Pilcher eventually became the Arts editor for the school newspaper. He also branched out to sports and news coverage. Pilcher wanted to get as much experience as possible.

After graduation, Pilcher moved to Cincinnati. He wanted to explore jobs in the business world. Pilcher quickly realized it was not for him.

A friend helped Pilcher land a job as a sports writer for the Savannah Daily News. At the time, Pilcher covered the Olypmics in Atlanta, Georgia. Pilcher says his knowledge about sailing helped his career take-off. “What that turned into, was Atlanta got the Olympics for ’96 and Savannah was named the site of the um Olympic sailing events,”

Shortly after the Olympics, Pilcher worked with an editor that knew how to use Computer-Assisted Reporting (CAR) skills. Pilcher’s interest grew in CAR skills. Pilcher said he established his CAR skills right before got a job in Atlanta with the Associated Press.

Pilcher came back to Cincinnati to start his career 2000 with the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Pilcher took a break from working after a while, because he experimented with freelance work.

Pilcher discovered that freelancing was not the path for him. He received a call from the Cincinnati Enquirer. Without hesitation, Pilcher went back to work.

Pilcher left another time to start a family and tried to pursue different avenues. Those avenues did not give Pilcher any satisfaction. He still had ‘the bug’ feeling implanted in his heart from college. “I really felt called to it,” Pilcher said.

Pilcher returned to work three years ago this month. Since the last time he left, Pilcher never regretted coming back to the Cincinnati Enquirer.

“I feel like at this point it’s more of an avocation than a profession,” Pilcher said.

At the time, Pilcher was assigned the transportation beat. Pilcher looked at the safety of the Brent Spence Bridge. He heard rumors that the bridge was unsafe. Using his CAR skills, Pilcher asked two questions, “How safe is it? How dangerous is it?” Pilcher looked at the national data and 15 to 30 different state bridge reports.

Brent Spence Interstate Bridge

Pilcher began to use computer programs, like Access and Excel, to make spreadsheets. Plicher says it is important to know how to use different formats. “There were times looking back at my career that I was so comfortable with Access that I would use it and sometimes it was like killing it with a sledgehammer, because there were things I could have done,” Pilcher said.

Pilcher teamed up with a colleague, Gregory Korte, for another CAR story. Pilcher and Korte looked at daily gas prices in the Cincinnat and Kentucy areas for two months. Pilcher asked questions with the consumer in mind. “What are the biggest questions people have? What are the preconceptions or misconceptions people have about…or what would you want to know out of this data?” Pilcher said.

He also inspected the data and asked it a laundry list of questions.

“What’s the most expensive day or the cheapest day to buy gas? Is it true that it’s more expensive near an interstate than not? If you have more than one station next to each other does that make a difference? Does competition matter? Who is the cheapest brand?” Pilcher said.

Pilcher’s findings amazed him. Gas Price Story Series 

Random people were telling Pilcher one thing and the data told him another. Pilcher is proud of his reporting on this gas story. “We proved that Speedway as a brand was dropping one day and then everyone else matched it,” Pilcher said.

Pilcher utilized the CAR skills to uncover stories like this one. “For me it’s an invaluable tool in my toolbox,” Pilcher said.

Management pays for all of the CAR equipment Pilcher uses for his stories.

Pilcher will attend an Investigative Reporters and Experts (IRE) convention in New Orleans this June.

Pilcher’s interest in learning CAR skills not only helped him with stories, but found these skills necessary to keep people accountable. “There is data on everybody and we, as journalists, if we’re going to report on what the government is doing, we need to understand that language,” Pilcher said.

I asked Pilcher how important it is for today’s reporter to know how CAR skills work. He answered with one word: invaluable.

Pilcher says CAR skills are useful even for daily or quick-turn stories. Depending on the story, you need to know the basic facts. Pilcher gave me an example of a homicide story. He told me I would need to know how to access monthly crime rates, and report on the specific number of shootings that happened up until this point. Pilcher said he used CAR skills to break the Brent Spence Bridge story.

Pilcher classifies breaking news with CAR skills in two ways. “Computer-Assisted Reporting drives you to like an enterprise story, but Computer-Assisted Reporting can also help you augment what’s happening on the street,” Pilcher said.

Sometimes Pilcher uses social media to get viewers to read his stories. He creates animated gifs, quick and short animations, charts, and graphics with a tweet or a Facebook post tagged with it. Pilcher said his stories get a lot of attention when he includes social media to his posts. He also said he follows a guideline management created for ideas to post his stories while incorporating social media.

Pilcher gave me some advice about CAR skills. “Don’t let an editor say you’ve got the database now write the story, because the database is not the story. The database is a source,” Pilcher said. He goes into explaining how to use the data. Pilcher echos what my professor teaches in class.

“Learn how to interview it. Learn how to ask the questions and what questions to ask,” Pilcher said.

Pilcher adds to his advice about pursuing a career in investigative journalism. “Don’t be afraid of math. Most journalists get into this because we are right-brained artistic writer people, which you have to know your math,” Pilcher said. “You’re not dealing with the story, you’re dealing with the source of the story.”

I asked Pilcher what advice he would have wanted in college. He gave me few things to write down. “Good writers are a dime a dozen. Good reporters are hard to find. An editor will give his right arm for somebody who will get the story. Decent to good writing can be taught versus where to look for the story and how you get it.”

Pilcher’s aggressive and competitive nature landed him the job he has always wanted: investigative reporter.

 

Links to Pilcher’s work:

http://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/2015/01/31/cmha-raises-public-housing-standards-renters-pinched/22596041/

http://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/2015/09/17/behind-rise-cincinnati-shootings/32520965/

http://www2.cincinnati.com/news/bridge/

http://gregorykorte.com/gregorykorte/projects/gaspricesecrets.pdf

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