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2016 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Small Newsroom finalist

The Mastermind

 

About the Project

“The Mastermind” is an investigative series that unfolded in seven episodes over eight weeks, beginning in March. In brief, it is the story of a programmer-turned-global cartel kingpin named Paul Le Roux, the U.S. government’s efforts to catch him, and then his role as an informant, helping set up elaborate stings for the D.E.A. But it is also a story that lays bare the new power of networked crime, explores the digital side of the opiod epidemic, and exposes the perverse incentives that accompany the war on drugs.

“The Mastermind” is, in one sense, a traditional piece of deep investigative journalism. The story is informed by two years worth of reporting, in which Ratliff navigated through tens of thousands of pages of documents and data sets, gathered from sources as diverse as the Hong Kong court system, obscure Internet registration records, and company databases in South Africa. It required on-the-ground reporting in far-flung locales including the Philippines and Israel, where Ratliff developed sources who had worked inside a violent criminal organization—and who still feared for their lives if they spoke out. Back home, it required cracking the wall of silence thrown up by U.S. law enforcement about one of its most secretive cases.

Ratliff leveraged this reporting to peel back the layers both of a new kind of digitally-driven, global criminal organization, and of the U.S. government’s decisions to turn justice on its head in order to dismantle that empire.

The story broke significant news, including not just the status of Le Roux, a criminal and informant that the D.O.J. had kept in close secrecy well beyond any typical law enforcement requirements to do so. “The Mastermind” also broke and documented the extraordinary fact that Le Roux was the man behind software that formed the basis of TrueCrypt, one of the world’s most widely-used encryption programs, lauded by Edward Snowden and revealed in his document releases to be unbreakable by the U.S. government. That revelation tore through the tech community, from Reddit to Hacker News to Vice and beyond.

In another sense, however, “The Mastermind” is much more than just an investigative piece. It was also a path breaking approach to online journalism. As a serialized story, it borrowed from the approaches of documentary blockbusters “Serial” and “Making a Murderer,” brought serialization into the digital realm, and then added its own unique approach. “The Mastermind” wasn’t just unfolded over seven episodes for maximum suspense. It was a story that was also reported and produced in real time. Each episode was written, edited, fact-checked, and designed over the course of a week to ten days. This was by design, based on our belief that the published episodes would deliver new sources—and open up known ones—in ways that could inform the episodes that followed. Indeed, it was these new sources that ended up driving the narrative.

Nor was the production of “The Mastermind” just a matter of throwing up an episode each week. The production cycle was a carefully planned, extraordinarily delicate system for our small staff. From the video trailer that gives a sense of design continuity across episodes, to the two fact-checkers assigned to check 6,000-9,000 word stories over a period of four days, to the weekend copy-editing shifts, to the social assets designed specifically for each episode, a crew of less than eight people pulled off what a much larger media companies might not have. Over eight weeks we produced 50,000 words of deeply reported narrative journalism, artfully designed with exclusive photos that the likes of The New York Times and Vice were unable to obtain.

The result pulled readers—over 700,000 of them and counting—into a unique and at times terrifying world. More than that, those readers experienced investigative journalism in action, reporting whose impact was displayed as we went. The story forced open sealed files and sealed courtrooms. It brought to light the nature of how informants are used, and the D.E.A.’s distorted decision to “cooperate down” a man at the top of a murderous criminal empire. From its exploration of the moral choices that underlie criminal networks, to the role of an internet underground in new kinds of crime, to its investigation into the excesses that accompany the war on drugs, to its human portrayal of people pulled into a violent network, “The Mastermind” is a singular piece of reporting and writing. New York Magazine summed up in its Approval Matrix description of the story: “highbrow, brilliant.”