Sönke Iwersen on discovering massive fraud, bribery, corruption, a cartel, and why journalists can’t listen enough.
“Just let the sources talk. It may take several hours to pick up the one piece of information you need.”
What were the major findings of your story “The rise and fall of Imtech”?
We discovered massive fraud, bribery, corruption, and a cartel.
What impact did your story have?
Several people were fired, the German and European antitrust authorities launched a large investigation, and two people received prison sentences.
Was your story based on another publication?
No, we did the original reporting.
Did you receive any funding to do this story?
How did the story start and how did your team decide on the first steps to take in working on this story?
I got a tip from construction workers at the twin towers of Deutsche Bank detailing problems with Imtech. That led to the first story, triggering another tip later. Then the insider [information] just kept coming.
How long did it take to report, write and edit this story?
All in all, our reporting spanned more than 4 years.
What challenges did your team face while working with sources?
Some sources were extremely shy, only wanting to meet in total anonymity, and then changing the place of the meeting at last notice. We faced a lot of stonewalling and legal threats, but in the end prevailed on all fronts. At one point though, several sources were too scared to talk at all and we could not convince them otherwise.
What is the key motivator for sources?
Revenge. There simply is no greater motivating force.
What resources and tools did your team find useful?
All information was gathered in personal meetings.
What other challenges or barriers did your team face while working on the story or series, and how did you overcome these challenges?
At several points of the story the wealth of information was just too great to put it all into one story. We solved this by splitting it up into several pieces and also kept an online timeline so the readers could follow the story easily.
What advice would you give journalists working on similar investigations?
Just let the sources talk. It may take several hours to pick up the one piece of information you need. But you can’t listen enough. And remember, usually each source can open the way to several others.
Did your team face any pushback during or after the publication of this story?
We had a lot of threats and insults, but no actual lawsuits coming forward. And interestingly, it was possible to turn some of the “opponents” into new sources.
Did working on this story change your perspective as a journalist?
I was surprised how some journalists wrote stories on Imtech years after us, using all of our groundwork and then tried to tell their readers it was their exclusive story.