Natalie St. John
Investigative and Visual Journalist
EO Media Group
Natalie St. John’s career has morphed from teaching and freelance reporting to an unconventional field within fraud detection — investigative journalism. Since becoming an ACFE member in 2015, St. John has discovered a passion for playing “gumshoe” (detective) and is preparing to take her CFE Exam. Her desire for justice and truth has led her on adventures like researching puppy mills and investigating landslides. When faced with the difficult task of investigating stories, St. John has become strategic. “I make it my business to know what records exist, who keeps them, how to write smart requests and where to find elusive information,” St. John said. “Surprisingly often, the truth is buried in an old dusty box that no one else wanted to deal with.”
Where were you born and raised?
I spent my childhood in Colorado and California, and my adult life in Texas and the Pacific Northwest. I’ve also lived in Mexico and China.
What steps led you to your current position?
I started out wanting to be a photojournalist, but worked as a teacher for about a decade. When I was laid off in 2009, I decided to pursue my original goal. After freelancing for about a year, I was hired at a regional daily paper.
Though I still regularly work as a photographer, I discovered a real passion for playing “gumshoe.” Three years ago I moved to a smaller weekly paper because I wanted to have time to learn how to conduct investigations and write deeply researched stories.
What does your role as an investigative journalist entail?
Finding potential stories involves intuition, vigilance and tips from trusted sources. In the planning phase, I give a lot of thought to ethical and practical considerations. I ask subject area experts what they know, try to develop a working theory and come up with a strategy for testing it.
The investigative phase is fascinating, rewarding and often extremely difficult. The truth is often buried in mind-numbing datasets or hard-to-find documents, and I usually need to interview people who don’t want to talk to me.
I love it when my projects require creative problem-solving and old-fashioned detective work. A story about puppy mills involved using a reverse directory to cross-reference online puppy ads with county inspection reports, then staking out suspected breeding facilities from adjacent properties. I also recently found myself digging through a landslide in search of pieces of trash that I could use to determine whether illegal dumping played a role in the slide.
What are some of the most challenging aspects of being involved in investigative journalism?
I live in an economically challenged rural area, so fraud — in all its myriad forms — is rife. However, much of it falls below the threshold for scrutiny by state agencies or prosecution under the law. Smaller-scale frauds are often more difficult to detect and more difficult to address in any meaningful way. For example, a local woman who systematically misappropriated funds through a fake receipt scheme at her city job was ultimately only charged with a couple of counts because the county justice system simply couldn’t afford to investigate or try her for all of her alleged crimes.
Another example is that the state only requires nonprofits to give detailed financial reports if they earn more than a certain amount. Smaller nonprofits operate on an honor system, virtually without oversight. It may not be a big deal to the state of Washington if a so-called charity can’t account for $4,000. But if it was a low-income grandma’s hard-earned savings that got lost, you can bet it’s a very big deal to her.
What are the most important skills you have learned throughout your investigative career?
I don’t have the magic power of subpoena, so I’ve become something of a public records ninja. I make it my business to know what records exist, who keeps them, how to write smart requests and where to find elusive information. Surprisingly often, the truth is buried in an old dusty box that no one else wanted to deal with.
I’ve also learned how to work effectively with law enforcement and legal professionals. Crime reporters can’t pander to cops and lawyers, but they should work with respect for their unique motivations, professional “codes” and concerns.
I have learned to how to find good stories hidden in data, and make them accessible, compelling and relevant through the power of narrative.
Interviewing is truly an art. I really respect great interviewers and I strive to keep getting better at it.
What activities or hobbies do you like to do outside of work?
I am a proud volunteer EMT and wildland firefighter with my local fire department. It’s challenging, fun and occasionally scary while providing me a wonderful way to see my community from an entirely different perspective. I also have a special place in my heart for unsolved disappearances and homicides, so I spend some of my own time researching a couple of local cold cases.
Read Natalie's full profile in the Career Center on ACFE.com.