Lee Fang is a San Francisco-based journalist renowned for his investigative articles.
Wednesday he came to the Goodhue County Historical Society to talk about how the techniques he uses to uncover political stories can be used by people writing memoirs and historical stories.
“One of the big tools I use are record requests,” Fang said.
He walked the dozen people attending the presentation through making Freedom of Information Act requests, offering the tip to be as specific as possible in the request.
Today much of the information that writers seek is digital, saving trips to county and state archives that were required in the past to review paper documents.
“Whatever is interesting to you is worth a phone call and maybe a record request to that agency,” Fang said. “Just ask for the documents you might be wondering about.”
The potential, he said, is unlimited.
Finding sources is sometimes as simple as typing a question into Google: How do I find information on ….
He gave examples of doing online searches for Red Wing Shoes – YouTube videos, court cases, requests to the federal government for tariff protection and political contributions.
“Red Wing Shoes sells quite a few shoes to the federal prison system and to the Department of Defense, pretty regular contracts,” Fang said as he clicked through online reports.
Many Red Wing newspapers, no longer being published, are available online. Fang found six Red Wing newspapers, including a Swedish language newspaper only published for a few years, agriculture publications and newspapers from the mid to late 19th century.
“It is incredible what you can find,” Fang said.
“Compared to a lot of states, Minnesota seems to be doing pretty good,” he said. “There are a lot of records that seem accessible here.”
There are downsides to having archives digitized online. Sometimes they disappear. He said that he has looked for stories he has written for online publications that have closed, the stories he wrote no longer available.
Fang has worked for 13 to 14 years as a research-based reporter, with journalistic skills that harness the power of uncovering original source documents and giving them context. Fang believes that narratives of every community can be found with the same basic research techniques he uses on his stories.
He also has been a researcher for authors who have written historical books.
Local stories could reveal the political struggles, migration patterns, moments of great achievement and failure, and the economic changes that shape who we are today and how our society came to be.
Fang is currently an artist-in-residence at the Anderson Center in Red Wing where he is researching and writing his second book, a project that dives into the history of colonialism and early labor struggles, with a focus on how elites stoked racism and tribal conflict in order to prevent solidarity among those they sought to control.
During the residency, Fang is reviewing original source documents, academic papers and books that have researched this topic.