Looking Back on a Messed-Up Year — Large-Scale Tragedies, Minor Triumphs, and Livelihoods in Limbo
I’ll try to get through this post without using profane language to describe this abominable year, but consider yourself warned: I expect to fail.
We started 2020 with high expectations. We hoped to update Pursuit more often, explore specific topics every month, and create much-needed new CE for PI Education. Somehow, we actually did those things. At PIed, we added multimedia courses on ethics, undercover investigations, and process service, and occasional live virtual courses on ethics and criminal defense investigations.
In Pursuit, we experimented with monthly themes and asked our expert contributors for related articles and interviews. We also vowed to produce weekly briefing videos with editor Hal Humphreys and post them every Monday(ish) on YouTube. Most weeks we succeeded in shooting something, such as it was.
The theme idea taught us a lot about what readers like most and how difficult it can be to announce topics and then actually follow through with them. Some months, we did pretty well, and others … not so much.
Most of all, we struggled with how to be useful at a time when everyone needed so much. Failing that, we tried to at least be forthright and calm — or at least, to do no harm.
It was a very hard year to know what to do. And it was a year when behaving with common decency became a matter of life and death.
January: Business Development
Back when the world was almost normal: We had a strong PI marketing article by Ruben Roel, a piece by Scott Fulmer on Google and Microsoft ads, a story by Hal on his most hated part of the job (admin work), and a moving essay by Rachele’ Davis on fighting to run a PI business while fighting for her life after a cancer diagnosis.
We interviewed Entrepreneur Magazine editor Jason Feifer about creative marketing for PIs, ran Kelly Riddle’s primer on launching a PI business (on Feb. 5 — whoops!), and hosted Tim Santoni in the PIed webinar.
February: Ethics and Professionalism
We published great philosophical treatises on ethics by Brian Willingham and Philip Segal, and Willingham guest-hosted the webinar, starring Philip Segal. Those two rock stars carried us that month, before all semblance of normal life ceased to exist.
March: Criminal Defense Investigations
In Nashville, March opened with a tornado and closed with an emerging plague. The days between felt like the eye of a storm. Our theme was theoretically criminal defense investigations, but in the unfurling reality of our pandemic spring, nobody had the bandwidth for writing articles. So I cheated by sharing stories all month from our deep archive of masterpieces by the likes of John Nardizzi and Mike Spencer, and Oliver Mackson sent us a great new piece on how his newspapering skills have served him well as a public defense investigator.
We made up the difference in the podcast and weekly briefings — Hal spoke with journalist Pam Colloff about media & criminal justice, and with a defense attorney about the philosophy of defense work. And he added his own thoughts on the question, “How can you defend criminals?” in the briefings. Our webinar guest, criminal defense and appellate attorney Allison Clayton, offered great advice on getting into defense work. And Robert Gardner shared this great piece on the benefits and perils of credit reports for investigators.
April: Surveillance & Covid-19
And then, normalcy collapsed. “This month is all about surveillance,” said Hal in his April 6 briefing, “except the parts that aren’t.” Security expert Ami Toben bailed us out with a great article on covert ops, and our attorney friend Phil consented to an interview about surveillance ethics. Hal’s briefings covered legal conundrums related to surveillance and the contents of his go bag. And our webinar guest was the great Boston PI, Barry Maguire.
We then turned to the triple threat of pandemic, global recession, and a plague of misinformation. We posted interviews about the SBA‘s new pandemic relief programs and published the results of our survey. Hal started hosting weekly virtual cocktail hours — to break isolation and find out how colleagues were faring. And we shared an interview with our business partner who was hospitalized with a severe case of Covid-19 — a terrifying experience that made him a believer.
Have you already noticed a work slowdown or loss of income?
May: Elder Abuse & Fraud
Hal’s first April briefing was a plea for epistemic humility in dealing with our pandemic response: The importance of acting on known facts. Admitting what we do and don’t know, and what cannot be known yet, even by experts. And he announced the monthly theme: elder abuse, neglect, and fraud — crimes against a population hit hardest by Covid.
Kelly Riddle’s thorough overview of investigating elder abuse anchored our coverage, and he was also our webinar guest. Two podcast interviews explored what to do if you suspect elder abuse and investigating drug theft in long-term care facilities. And we interviewed a trust officer about how to protect senior family members from financial exploitation.
In other news, John Powers sent this piece on contact tracing, Shawn Terry wrote about interviewing with your face (somehow, from behind a mask), Robert Granzow offered tips on making your office Covid-safe(r), and Hal’s hair got really big.
June & July: Origin Stories
People loved this theme so much, we decided to run it all summer. By June, some folks had settled into the new reality of lockdowns and found the time to write wonderful “How I Became a PI” essays — from Brian Willingham, Angelica Brooks, Colleen Collins, and Mark Murnan.
This is the month I started compiling all the themed stories, videos, and interviews — past and present — into one big page, reachable by clicking the header image:
Our webinar guests were Steve Morrow, who shared how his love for Walter Mosley’s crime fiction inspired his life’s work, and Angelica Brooks, who was (bravely!) just getting started as a PI amidst a pandemic and recession. And we were a little bit proud of the video we produced featuring Hal’s PI origin story, which doubled as a Father’s Day tribute.
August: PI Tools, Toys, & Tech
Also a popular topic — and an easy one to pull off: just ask folks for gear recs and compile them into short & sweet pieces (with fun images), which are collected here. We roped in great new contributors this way, including Matt Gale and @drowsygeek, whose gaming chair was my favorite gear rec of all. Hal also shared his #top3tools in our 2nd most viewed briefing of the year.
This month we tried the idea of having a monthly sponsor. We think this worked pretty well. People were genuinely interested in the SiOnyx night vision cameras, so nobody seemed to hold the sales pitch against us. In the webinar, PI Scott Stover shared his field experience with the camera, and Hal shot some very cool in-the-dark briefings with it — see below.
September: Domestic Cases
In September, we did nothing. Nobody had time to care about this theme. Fortunately, Clay Kahler sent a great op-ed about the moral conundrums of defense investigations, and Jacob Osojnak wrote about ethical grey areas in process service – he also shares great information about the business in the September webinar.
We made up for September with our OSINT coverage in October (archived here). People loved this topic — no matter how much you know about open-source intel and databases, there’s always something new out there.
Robert Gardner led strong with his piece on the power of public records. CFE and attorney David P. Weber reviewed OSINT techniques that don’t involve the Internet, Arizona PI Steve Mason shared case notes that illuminate how OSINT and databases work well together, and Kathy Doering covered social media metadata sleuthing.
Emmanuelle Welch of French Connection Research anchored our OSINT coverage with an article about databases and a recap of OSMOSIScon 2020 — and then headlined our VERY well attended webinar on open-source investigations and proprietary databases.
In November we explored occupational fraud, the origins of fraud examination, and the ways scammers have exploited the Covid-19 pandemic. Big thanks to CFE, attorney, and forensic accounting professor David P. Weber for carrying our fraud coverage, with articles on white-collar crime theory and Covid-19 fraud, a Q&A with SBA Inspector General Hannibal Ware, and as a guest on the webinar.
We also asked CFE Kelly Paxton to share intel about her great new podcast highlighting her fellow female fraud fighters, and we interviewed author & PI Tyler Maroney about his great new book, The Modern Detective.
Find all our fraud-related content by clicking the fancy fraud triangle below:
As the weather cooled and the pandemic heated up, we had big plans for this theme but didn’t manage to achieve much beyond a few weekly briefings. We did, however, launch a new process service course by Jacob Osonjak, so that’s something, right?
What can I say? December was ugly. Sometimes, when you don’t quite meet expectations, move the goalposts closer and declare yourself the winner. (e.g. I didn’t curse in this article: SCORE!)
“Move the goalposts and declare victory” sounds like a pretty good epitaph for 2020, come to think of it.
Looking back on what we actually did manage to eke out this accursed year has been a form of therapy. The best part is remembering how many of our colleagues took the time, amidst the uncertainty and disorder, to share their expertise, write articles, and appear on the podcast and webinar. It’s awe inspiring to recall all that generosity, at a time when we all needed so much.
That feels like a huge win to us. And with that, here’s Hal’s final word on a lousy year — and a huge thank you to our fellow PIs.