Investigative Business Journalism by Alec Klein
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Investigative Business Journalism by Alec Klein



Northwestern University journalism professor Alec Klein discusses the process of creating investigative business journalism projects. For more information, please visit

Northwestern University journalism professor Alec Klein discusses the process of creating investigative business journalism projects. For more information, please visit



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Investigative Business Journalism by Alec Klein Investigative Business Journalism by Alec Klein Presentation Transcript

  • Investigative Business Journalism
    Presented by
    Alec Klein
    Professor, Medill School of Journalism
    Northwestern University
    May 7, 2010
  • About Me
    Alec Klein, who joined the faculty of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism last fall, is an award-winning investigative business journalist and bestselling author
  • Ideas
    Generating ideas and executing them while covering your beat
  • Conceiving investigative stories
    To begin with, you need PHOAM
    Image by flickr user marttj
  • The Best Ideas
    They usually come from beats
    That’s because they’re organic. They arise naturally in the course of reporting
    To wit: Secret bonuses at City Hall
    The anonymous tipster on AOL
    Image by flickr user MonkeyMike
  • Have a Starting Point
    This is not the same thing as a preconceived notion
    Rather: Consider a set of questions that need answering
    To wit: When cigarettes are under attack, why are cigars being glamorized? (Yachting magazine)
  • How to confirm the idea
    Let’s say you think you’ve hit on a
    great idea
    How do you check it out to
    make sure it’s uncharted territory?
    The overriding question: Has it been done before?
  • The Big Problem: Feeding Beast
    But who has time to pursue investigative business stories, especially when you’re on a busy beat and your editor is breathing down your neck to file early and often?
  • The Ugly Truth: Rebellion—within reason
    Get out of the office: kill or be killed
    Cub reporter: worked on vacations—only time the editors couldn’t assign stories
    Worked on weekends
    Worked afterhours, after the proverbial smoked cleared from the daily deadlines
    Bottom-line: find time
  • The Wall Street Journal way
    Darwinian approach: only the fittest will get on Page One
    In the old days: Only three stories on Page One
    Lot of reporters, few A1 slots
    Mistake: Walk into your editor’s office with an ill-conceived idea
  • What Not to Do
    Such as: I’d like to do an investigation of poverty
    Many a times: Bludgeoned in editor’s office
    Finally figured out: Need to do some research before entering the torture chamber
    But how much research?
  • The Solution
    About 20 percent
    That’s enough to tell you if you’ve got a story or whether you’re going to spin your wheels
    The 20 percent:
    What’s the story?
    A new trend?
    A twist on an old idea?
    How will you report it and how long will it take?
  • Avoid This Mistake
    Mistake: Never show editors your raw notes
    Made that mistake on AOL
    Editor: Don’t get it, nothing here. Go back to work
  • The Power of the Memo
    Then Enron happened
    Editors: What was Alec working on?
    This time: I wrote a memo
    Set free for a year
  • Spinning Your Wheels
    Having a year to do an investigative business story sounds better than it is
    You better come up with a great piece
    Can you withstand making no progress for several weeks at a time?
    Maybe inbred
  • Clarity of Purpose
    Back to the memo
    It clarifies the issues. It makes editors see. They can print it. They can ruminate over it. They can forward it by e-mail to their bosses. Then they can approve it
  • When All Else Fails
    Let’s say your editors still say no
    Then what?
    Set your own agenda
  • The New Model
    The old model: the three-part series that took a year to report and runs in December in time for the Pulitzer entries
    The new model: write episodically
    WSJ did this: Word was sent out at the beginning of the year—let’s write about death
    The episodic approach, it’s the way of the world: The economy, the industry. Investigative reporting is expensive
  • The Episodic Approach
    Build on your beat coverage
    Think this way: once a month, craft a great piece of investigative reporting on the same subject
    Over a year, you’ll end up with 12 pieces that amount to a worthy in-depth investigation into a single topic
  • Examples of the episodic approach
    The Las Vegas Sun, most notably including the reporting of Alexandra Berzon, won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for public service, for a series of stories about the high death rate of construction workers on the Las Vegas strip. See
    Steve Fainaru of The Washington Post, 2008,
    for international reporting, for his episodic
    stories about private security contractors
    Kevin Helliker and Thomas M. Burton of The
    Wall Street Journal, 2004 for their episodic
    stories about aneurysms
  • Questions?
    Please feel free to contact me at
  • Interviewing techniques
    How to get people to open up
  • Columbo
    I was accused of being like this
    We’re supposed to not know
    Have them condescend to you
    “Treat me like a fifth grader”
    Don’t have an ego about this
    Need to be absolutely sure to write authoritatively
  • The Dumbest Question in Journalism History
    New at WSJ
    Ordered to write lead news story
    Call analyst: What’s P&L?
    Cancel subscription
  • Ask the Obvious Question
    You may know the answer already
    To wit: How old are you?
    Answer: 51
    Thought 52
    Yeah, actually 52
    If small lie, is there a bigger lie
  • Continue Reporting in 11th Hour
    AOL series: Almost a year into it
    Had hundreds of confidential documents
    Had well-placed sources
    Editor called me into his office
    Mused: Wouldn’t it be nice …
    Vice president of finance
  • Corollary to Reporting in 11th hour
    Ask the same question five times
    But in different ways
    At different times
    To wit: Do you know a vice president-level finance guy who had raised questions about AOL’s finances?
  • The Notebook
    When to use the notebook
    When not to use the notebook
    When to tape record vs.
    When not to tape record
    Billionaire: I want to be able to deny I had this conversation
  • Thinking on Multiple Levels
    During the interview, you need to think about several things at the same time:
    The lede
    The images to capture
    The details to portray
    Is this the first of many interviews or a one-shot deal?
    Why, why, why?
    The cosmic point
    Follow up questions
  • Let Them Yell
    When people say you got it wrong, that you made a mistake, check it out thoroughly
    Sometimes, it can help
    Red Hat
    The Reluctant Interviewee
    What do you do when they won’t talk?
    Certified letter: know they got it, but act of war?
    Intermediary: someone they know
  • The Cardinal Rules
    Take chances
    Don’t take no for an answer
    Surgeon General
    Go there
    Last Words of Advice
    Bob Woodward
    Show up early
    Show up late
  • Part Two: Developing sources
    When starting a new investigative business story, where do you begin?
    The onion: otherwise known as the circling effect
    Begin on the outside, work your way in:
    Friends of friends
    Former employees
    Current employees
  • Meet People on their Own Turf
    At their homes
    On weekends
    Away from places where they are monitored or overheard
    At bars
    Bowling alleys
    Places Where People Network:
    Industry gatherings
    Trade shows
    Exchange business cards
  • Don’t forget about the gadflies
    Yes, they can be a bit odd
    But they often know their stuff because they have no other life
    Don’t Dismiss the PR People
    Example: secret bonuses
    But also: AT&T cable assets
    “You didn’t ask the right question”
    Image by flickr user Meg Marco
  • It’s All About the Spider Web
    “How did you find me?”
  • Horizontal vs. Vertical Reporting
  • Getting Secrets
    No secret
    It takes time
    Willingness to protect sources
    Are you willing to go to jail for them?
  • Bartering for Information
    Exchange of information
    Once you have information they want, then you become valuable
    You have something to barter
    As long as it’s not confidential information
  • Background vs. Off the Record
    Define the terms
    Explain why it’s important to go on the record
    Move sources up the ladder
    Off the record
    On background
    On the record
    Sometimes, refuse to go off the record: why?
    It can tie your hands
  • Beware of Agreements
    Reading back quotes?
    Showing stories pre publication
  • My Rule
    Do we let sources go? Do we let them change their minds?
    My opinion: Let sources go
    Example: AOL
  • Another Cardinal Rule
    No surprises
    Always let them know what’s going on, even if it works against you
    Better for them to be angry at you before publication than after, when it’s too late
    21-page single-spaced letter
    Credit raters
    Removed lead anecdote even though information obtained independently
  • Go Back to Your Sources
    A Woodward technique
    You need to know when you can trust your sources
    Eg.: Whether FTC would approve AOL-Time Warner merger
    Origins: Editor: Woodward was a new reporter, too
    FTC threatens pre publication: Last story you’ll write
    Sources at the heart of the secret
  • Questions?
    Please feel free to contact me at
  • Using public documents
    What documents to look for and where to find them
  • The Secret
    The secret to investigative business reporting is…
    Start with:
  • Everything You Need to Know
    You don’t need to know where all the public documents are
    You need to know what questions to ask to find them
    To wit:
  • Hidden Depositions
    Baltimore Sun investigation: Supermarket bankruptcy
    Words of wise editor: “The good reporters know what’s missing”
    Thinking: I never know what’s missing
    Did you check for hidden depositions?
    Not in court record: wads of cash in
    brown paper bags
    Before the jump on A1
  • SEC Filings
    What are they?
    Where do you get them?
    Company Web site
  • SEC Filings
    10 Q: What’s the first thing to look for?
    Proxy: What’s the first thing to look for?
    SEC public filings only go so far
    What is considered “material” to investors?
    Material: Any information related to a particular business that might be relevant to an investor's decision to buy, sell or hold a security
    A company can slice its business into small sectors that don’t require disclosure
    To wit: AOL
  • New Age Documents: Alec’s Facebook Page
  • Lawsuits: What You Can Find
    Former employees
    Sworn testimony
    Copies of contracts
    Business strategy
    Where to find lawsuits
    State and federal suits
    Many online
    If not online, check Lexis-Nexis
    If not there, check Pacer for federal suits (not free)
    Pulling documents
    Big issue?
  • Bankruptcy Filings
    For what?
    Creditors; assets; debts; lawyers; suppliers; vendors
    Key kinds?
    Chapter 7: liquidation
    Chapter 11: reorganization
  • Government Filings
    Key: on almost every investigative business story, there is a government body that has some connection to it
    Congressional Testimony
    Remember the tobacco executives who claimed they didn’t know anything about the addictive power of cigarettes?
  • Company Documents
    Company e-mail
    Internal newsletters
    Get on the mailing list, if possible
    Remember: Don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t break into computer system
    Chiquita Banana case
    Wall Street analyst reports
  • Local Government Records
    Property records:
    County or other local office
    Many online
    Good to check for:
    Size, details of executive’s home
    Other great resources:
    Planning department
    Driver records
    Depends on state; eg. Maryland, need permission of driver for records
  • Private Company Records
    Better Business Bureau
    Consumer complaints
    Uniform Commercial Code
    State records, secretary of state usually; shows who has borrowed money, what used as collateral, etc.
    Incorporation records
    Usually secretary of state; records of founding of the business; who owns it; its executives; etc.
  • Nonprofits
    Can get detailed tax filings—990s—of their finances from the nonprofits themselves
    Or try Guidestar at
  • Web Sites
    Airplane ownership search
    Finding lawyers
    Message boards, blogs
    Web site ownership
    Internet archive: old Web sites
    ProfNet: e-mail queries for experts
  • Locating People international directory
    AutoTrack and other pay Sites:
    Even at The Washington Post: key holder
    But good resource for information for investigative or beat reporting
    Personal information: telephone numbers
    Legal judgments
  • Political Contributions Center for Responsive Politics Political Moneyline Center for Public Integrity The Institute on Money in State Politics
    Lobbyists and Other Legislative Resources: lobbying on behalf of foreign entities
    Congressional Research Service:
    GAO Reports:
    Thomas Web site: basic legislation, Congressional reports and records
  • Backgrounding an individual
    Born, married, died
    Previous addresses, relatives, associates
    Lawsuits, bankruptcies, divorce, criminal, traffic
    Home phone
    Attended college
    Real estate
    Courtesy of Duff Wilson of The New York Times
    Truth About Criminal Records:
    There is a national criminal record database but it is not available to the public
    FBI database
    Public access to criminal records controlled at the state level
    Each state has different rules about who may access records and what records will be available
    Some records handled at the county level
  • Freedom of Information Act
    FOIA: the good and the bad
    Secret bonuses
    “Oh, that bonus”
    List of reprocessors
    No List
    Names missing from list
    They might leave stuff out
    Of fishing expeditions
    Of unexpected costs
    Sample FOIA letters:
    FOIA letter generator:
  • The Best Documents
  • Secret Documents
    Not public
    They may say “Confidential”
    You need to interpret, analyze, translate
  • They Don’t Say “Smoking Gun”
  • Questions?
    Please feel free to contact me at
  • Case study
    AOL investigation at The Washington Post
  • What it was about
    How I discovered how AOL inflated its advertising revenue to pull off the biggest merger in U.S. history to create the largest media company in the world
  • The beginning
    Summer of 2001
    Sitting at my desk
    Not much going on
    Phone rang
    Anonymous tipster
  • The mystery
    Didn’t give his name or number
    Just told me: An AOL executive had been suspended
    Las Vegas dot-com
    Red flag: Gambling & dot-coms
  • Confirmation
    Checked with sources; confirmed
    Had to do with accounting
    Not sure what
    Waltzed over to my editors, surprised that I wanted to write a story
    Buried deep in the business section of The Washington Post: E5
    Not even my mother reads that far
  • Intrigue
    Nobody paid attention
    Before Enron
    Accounting scandals, not a big story—yet
    Still, intrigued
    Why was AOL official suspended?
    Who was PurchasePro?
    What was the accounting issue?
  • Digging
    Did what any reporter would do
    Started calling around
    Would call one person who would tell me to call someone else
    That someone else would tell me to call so-and-so
    So-and-so would tell me to call three other people
  • The breakthrough
    Eventually, I called one person
    “Hi, my name is Alec Klein, and I’m a reporter at The Washington Post”
    Before I could say anything else: “How did you find me?”
    Didn’t know I had found anyone until he said those very words
    Then I realized: found my anonymous tipster
  • Dingy hotels, bad restaurants
    Other doors opened
    Met more people
    Wasn’t glamorous
    Dingy hotel lobbies
    Bad restaurants where they wouldn’t be seen with a Washington Post reporter
  • One unnamed hotel
    Spent a lot of time in one particular hotel lobby
    Used public telephone
    So my calls couldn’t be traced back to The Washington Post
    Sources were afraid of being seen or heard talking to a Washington Post reporter
    AOL was notorious for being more secretive than the Pentagon
  • Strange looks
    Always in that hotel lobby
    Shoes shined
    Reading the paper
    Had cell phone latched to belt, but was always using the public telephone
    Would ask for change in the gift shop
    Strange looks
    Hotel thought: drug dealer
  • Jigsaw puzzle
    Story began to come together like a jigsaw puzzle
    Began to amass confidential documents
    Didn’t say “Smoking Gun” on them
    But pattern emerged
    AOL had been inflating its advertising revenue to pull off the biggest merger in U.S. history to create the largest media company in the world
  • The illusion
    AOL created the illusion of significant advertising revenue in part through questionable accounting practices
    For example: AOL legal case, turned it into ad revenue
    AOL sold ads on behalf of eBay but AOL booked the sales as its own
  • The largest merger ever
    Deals helped AOL clinch its historic merger with Time Warner
    If AOL had revealed some of its financial weakness, Time Warner could have pulled out of the deal
  • 11th hour
    After nearly year, my editor called me into office
    Wouldn’t it be nice…
    Should’ve run for the hills
    Vice president of finance?
    Ask question five times
  • We had to be right
    As far as we knew, never before had a newspaper pointed the finger at a major company’s finances
    Usually a whistleblower
    Or company comes clean
    If we were wrong by an inch, all over
  • The letter
    Before my stories ran, wrote a 21-page, single-spaced letter, presenting AOL with my findings to give the company an opportunity to respond
    Included everything
    Such as: hair plants imported from South America
    Bumped into Dick Parsons in the AOL lobby
    Hadn’t even noticed him
  • The media killer
    AOL ballistic
    High-powered law firm to kill stories
    Lead attorney known as the media killer
    Successful in fighting the media on other big stories
    Involved in the famous case where 60 Minutes was prevented from airing a story about a tobacco whistleblower, which became the subject of the movie, The Insider
  • Called into the office
    Pretty nervous
    Told girlfriend, now mother of my children, that this might be the last story I ever write
    Len Downie: called into his office
    Didn’t actually talk about anything
    Smiled at each other
    Just wanted to know who was this reporter causing this ruckus
  • The meeting
    AOL and its lawyers came to The Washington Post
    Why my stories should be killed
    Heading to the meeting: bumped into the managing editor in the middle of the newsroom
    Looked at me in utter shock
    Had shaved
    Was wearing a tie
    Shirt buttoned all the way to the top
  • Smoking with Fidel
    Managing editor: “You look like a defendant”
    He was right
    Can’t discuss details of meeting
    But can tell this:
    Len Downie talked about smoking cigars with Fidel Castro. That set the tone
  • How Gerald Ford got his job
    Another thing: Meeting was held in the main newsroom conference room
    On one wall, an old print plate: “Nixon Resigns”
    On opposite wall, a framed classified ad, showing a picture of Gerald Ford
    “I got my job through The Washington Post”
  • Jaws of death
    Suffice it to say, The Washington Post didn’t back down
    Newspaper went ahead and published my stories
    Day of the first story, AOL’s chief operating officer was forced to resign
    Call from an AOL official: Congrats. Jaws of death
  • The denouement
    Within days, AOL confirmed the SEC had launched an investigation into AOL’s accounting as a result of my stories
    Then the U.S. Justice Department launched an investigation because of my stories
    Then AOL admitted it had improperly booked $49 million in ad revenue
    Then: $190 million
  • Prison
    AOL was forced to revise two years of its financial results
    Head of its business affairs division was locked out of his office and fired
    Business affairs division that was the focus of my investigation was disbanded
    Others went to jail
  • The end of AOL
    Ultimately, the company was forced to pay more than half a billion dollars to settle civil and criminal allegations
    They even removed AOL from company name
    No longer: AOL Time Warner
    Just: Time Warner
  • Journalism of compassion
    A term I invented to guide my reporting
    Fair checking
    Another term I invented
    Put yourself in their shoes
    Is it fair?
    Different than: Is it accurate?
    To wit: The paunch
  • Letting sources go
    AOL investigation
    Threatening letters
    Sources run for the hills
    Track them down
    But can’t threaten
    Can’t coerce
    Only: Do what’s right
  • Organizing
    Presenting investigations on multiple platforms
  • Organize From the Beginning
    Develop your own system
    Be your own best secretary
    It’s not glamorous but someone has to do it
    Keeping track of mounds of documents, notepads, calls—need to be organized
    My system:
    Daily log
    Phone log
    Contact list
    Cork board
    Visualize key players
  • The Perennial Problem
    The lede:
    Hours or days or weeks of anguish
    Blood on the computer
    Should’ve done something else
    Work with hands
    Like a farmer
  • Good Ledes
    LAS VEGAS -- Chastity Ferguson kept watch over four sleepy children late one Friday as she flipped a pack of corn dogs into a cart at her new favorite grocery store: Wal-Mart.
    The Wal-Mart Supercenter, a pink stucco box twice as big as a Home Depot, combines a full-scale supermarket with the usual discount mega-store. For the 26-year-old Ferguson, the draw is simple.
    "You can't beat the prices," said the hotel cashier, who makes $400 a week. "I come here because it's cheap."
    Image by flickr user Lone Primate
  • What Makes This Lede Work?
    Classic anecdotal lede
    Simple, straight forward
    Nothing fancy about it
    Quote that gets to the heart of the story: “You can’t beat the prices”
    We can do this
    The Los Angeles Times; that’s the lede from a series that won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting
  • Trick to Ledes
    Me in the old days: Frantically flipping through notebook searching for the lede
    Not there
    Me now: Report the lede beforehand so you don’t have to search for it later in your notes
    To wit: Lede to Stealing Time--grumpy old man
    WSJ approach to ledes:
    All about the purity of the lede
    Must be exactly on point
    Not sort of the point
    Question mark
    Pithy-sentence lede
  • When You’re Still Overwhelmed
  • Overlooked: Tone
    Okay, enough about the torture of writing
    Here’s an overlooked aspect of writing:
    The sound of the story
    Rarely is it premeditated
    It should be
    THE BOY LOVES GAMES OF CHANCE. He loves slot machines and playing cards and instant-win lottery tickets. He learned at an early age to count coins, and to bet them. He learned in the hospital that money comes in get-well cards.
    Lisa Pollak’s story
    Baltimore Sun
    Winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing
  • A Tone Technique
    Read a book or other story that reflects what you’re doing
    To wit: Writing about the civil war
    Read the classic, Killer Angels
    Wrote lede to reenactment of the Gettysburg Battle
    Using old English
    Should’ve mentioned
    it to my editors
  • Mastering the Information
    Let’s Get Down to the Nitty Gritty:
    Organizing the investigative business story
    How I do it:
    Divide by interviewee
    Annotate my own notes
    Develop a detailed outline from the notes
    Review and re-review the notes
    Can take days—or weeks
    But you have a roadmap
  • The Cosmic Point
    The nut: everyone knows the nut, right?
    How about the so-what graf:
    Otherwise known, at least to me, as the cosmic point
    The reason why we’re reading your story
    The To-Be-Sure Clause:
    Wall Street Journal thing
    The exception to the rule, or the trend
    Up high
    To immunize yourself
    Because there’s always an exception
  • Time to Respond
    Give the company or individual plenty of time to react and respond
    Not enough to call the night before
    Call, e-mail, stop by—and repeatedly
    To wit: AOL
    Six weeks, an eternity
    Risk: story leaks to competitors
    But must be done
  • The New World Order
    One of my last Washington Post investigations in 2008:
    Military contracting
    In desert in suit (not a good idea)
    Carrying notepad
    Digital camera
  • Photography for Multimedia
    Everything I know about photography, I owe to Steve Liss, who taught me:
    Now, we are all photographers
    When you’re shooting, take a lot of pictures—at least 100 images
    Camera is your notepad
    Record moments as they unfold
    Don’t wait for the perfect moment
    The first way you view a scene is not always the best
    Try different shooting angles
    Eye level
    From above on a chair
    From below on the floor
    Look for the inherent logic of the shot;
    eg,. a shot of giant might be better from a higher angle
    Don’t shoot everything from a wide angle
    Look for other opportunities, such as close-ups, which can have more impact
    Imagine, say, an expressive face
  • Audio
    We’re now all in the business of gathering audio
    Online audio stories
    Online audio with photos—slideshows
    All you need:
    A digital camera
    A digital recorder that can connect to a computer to download audio files
    Audio Slideshows:
    You need to show how the story begins
    How the subject gets from point A to B to C
    Show in the photos what the audio is telling
    The photos must match the audio
    So take lots of pictures
    Helps to ensure that images match sound
    Usually: you don’t want a single image to linger onscreen for more than 10 seconds
    For a three-minute slideshow, plan for at least 18 photos
  • Kinds of Sound
    There are two kinds of sound
    Natural sound, or “nats”
    For a slideshow, you usually need natural sound—eg., the sound of bacon frying in the background, the roar of the crowd
    Turn on the recorder, point it at the natural sound and capture a lot of it
    May help later during editing to bridge sections of your audio story
    Beware of loud background sound
    Move interview subject away from that noise
    Hold the recorder close to the subject, within a foot and a half
    Avoid talking over the interviewee: “Uh huh” et al
    If necessary: Nod head
    Beware of wind
    Stay away from yes or no questions
    Ask open-ended questions:
  • Video Basic Rules
    We are all videographers now
    Use a variety of focal lengths and angles
    Establishing shot, wide, tells the viewer where the story is taking place
    Medium shot: takes the viewer closer to the action
    Tight: close up
    No zooms or pans
    Shoot and move: Zoom with your feet
    Limit motion of the camera; use set shots
  • Video Rules
    The rule of thirds: Divide the screen into thirds, with subject taking up one of the thirds—more visually arresting
    Rule of 180 degrees
    Which way is the subject’s nose pointing?
    Stay on that side
    Don’t switch sides
    Disorients viewer
    Jump Cuts:
    Common mistake
    Two things don’t match visually
    To wit: Person is in one spot; in the next frame, he magically jumps to another spot
    One way to avoid jump cuts: have person or action come into and out of frame before moving on
  • Final Phase: Fair Check
    Walk away from the story
    Put yourself in the subject’s shoes
    Is it fair?
    Go through the story line by line
    Different than fact checking; it’s all in the nuances
  • The Story Doesn’t Belong to You
    The story may carry your name but it belongs to the paper, Web site, television station
    It’s a communal project; must get buy in; editors must be on board
    Must be willing to let go of the language; be amenable to change
    One third of the investigative business story is the reporting
    Another third is the writing
    The final third is the in-house hurdles
  • Questions?
    Please feel free to contact me at