When Robin Respaut got her first journalism job at the Nutfield News in 2007, she had never studied the craft. After editor Leslie O’Donnell hired her as the Derry reporter, Respaut said she drove straight to Barnes and Noble and delved into a journalism text, teaching herself the basics. “I read about what a lead is, how to do a nut graph,” she recalled.
Respaut’s cramming and the hard work that followed paid off. This year the Brooklyn, N.Y., resident and Londonderry native was part of a team whose investigative reporting made them a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.
When Respaut graduated from Colby College in 2007 with honors as an English major, she had no idea what to do next. “I grew up in New Hampshire and went to college in Maine,” she said in a phone interview. “I wanted to get out of New England.”
She procured a one-way ticket to Portland, Oregon, and couch-surfed with friends while she looked for jobs. She ended up as an unpaid intern at an alternative weekly, but she didn’t want to work without pay. Her mother urged her to come back home and she applied for journalism jobs from Portland, receiving four interviews in one week. She interviewed with the Nutfield News, was hired, and immediately began to study.
“It was a trial by fire,” she said, adding that O’Donnell helped her learn her craft.
After two years in Derry she was ready to move on, and parlayed a volunteer gig at New Hampshire Public Radio into being a news “stringer” and then a producer on a contract basis.
She applied to Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City, one of the top journalism programs in the country, and was accepted into its investigative reporting program. “I wanted to learn something I hadn’t learned,” she explained. Investigative reporting “took” with Respaut, and when she got out of graduate school, she knew she wanted to do that “as long as I can.”
She worked at ABC News under Brian Ross, producing a Nightline piece in summer 2011, and then did contract work with ProPublica, an investigative nonprofit organization, and worked on projects on racial disparity in the Department of Justice and the safety of cell phone tower workers. But as a contract worker she had no benefits, and in January 2012 she took a news assistant job with the Reuters news agency.
She did research and reporting for Reuters, including several of her own stories. And she was tapped to work on a long-term project involving the online marketplace for international children’s adoption and re-adoption. She worked on a team with a lead reporter and a data reporter.
“We were able to break into a Yahoo forum where parents and guardians advertise the availability of children to other adults,” she said.
“For many reasons, some people can’t handle adopted children and they regret adopting them,” Respaut said. “So they advertise and ‘re-home’ them.”
In many cases, she said, local authorities did not know this was going on.
She and the team copied out every message, 5,000 posts, occurring over the previous five years, she said.
“The main reporter and I spent the whole month of December 2012 reading and logging every message,” she said. “I spent 10 hours a day reading messages about parents who didn’t want their children.”
The story, “The Child Exchange,” was published by Reuters in September 2013 and picked up by NBC for its online news component. She wrote several follow-up pieces, and the series was a Pulitzer finalist for investigative reporting.
The story also won an award from IRE – Investigative Reporters & Editors.
She learned about the honor at work and remembered thinking, “This is great, this story really deserves it. Very few people know about these kids.” The situation is “mind-boggling,” Respaut said, noting that the practice is not illegal in most areas.
“This did inspire a couple of new state laws,” she said about the series.
Respaut will be moving on this spring, to report on municipal and public financial issues from San Francisco. “I’m coming full circle,” she said. “It’s what I did in Derry, reporting on municipalities and communities.”
Respaut is the daughter of Jim Respaut of Hampstead and Bonnie Grodt of Londonderry. She grew up part time in Hampstead, part time in Londonderry and graduated from Londonderry High School in 2003.