The Job of the Reporter:
An Introductory Talk on Reporting for the Collegian Reporters
The reporter has two jobs. The first is curiosity and the second is storytelling. It is a job that can will take you anywhere and put you in the middle of anything, often with little preparation.
This is mostly a job about stories. I’d like to tell you in the next few minutes about the work I’ve done and convince to give the job a try. I hope you’ll be interested in working as a reporter for me in the next year covering this college.
In my two full years as a reporter I’ve written stories about a self-described “habitual thief,” a Native American tribe blessing of a hand carved canoe, the selection of one college president and the adjustments of our college president—Arnn—to his job. I’ve covered the shooting death of a 16-year-old and later his funeral. I reported on a 14-year-old girl—an aspiring actress—getting her first major part in a film. I did a story about a man who had his back yard washed away in a flood. I’ve covered the arrest of a bank robber.
The reason a descent reporter can cover such a variety of stories and do a good job is curiosity. You need to be able to come into something you know nothing about and get really interested in it.
I wanted to mention some cases I’ve had with as an example of this. I am a very curios person, I love to know what’s happening and get more information, and what happens is you’re sent to cover something you know nothing about and you let your curiosity kick in and take you into the story.
I was sent to cover a salmon hatchery experiment for a daily paper in Washington State. I know little about salmon, I think I’d done something in grade school about how they return to the place they hatched to lay their eggs but that was about it, and within three or four hours I was a salmon hatcheries expert. I’d called all over the state talking to officials and I read some reports on hatchery work and I spent an afternoon at a hatchery and now I was writing about the life cycles of salmon and the color of natural salmon compared with the color of hatchery salmon and prey and feeding habits and this whole world I never thought about before my editor handed me this piece of paper talking about this hatchery experiment.
It’s a curiosity that can just kick into gear and a fascination with things you just heard about and a love of good story.
The driving force behind a reporter is a good story. The only thing that matters, one excellent reporter said, is the story, the one for tomorrow’s paper.
And what is a story? How do you know if it’s a story? There are criteria and five categories you will probably have on a test of Joy’s if you’re in her class but basically a story is what people are talking about.
I had three people tell me about how the Classics department is so full that Dr. Jones is teaching seven classes—that’s obviously interesting. That’s a story. In the last few days I’ve heard a lot of people talking about Sir Martin Gilbert so that’s a story. Yesterday afternoon I heard that Gilbert’s Churchill library is coming to Hillsdale College and that it might be permanent. This is a great story because people would talk about it but the haven’t heard yet so we get to tell them.
The concept of a story being what people talk about should be used as a general concept but also used for the details of the story. When I reported on the arrest of a bank robbery I walked into this bar—it was about 11 a.m. seven days after the robbery took place and he’d been drinking and gambling the whole time. So I walk into this bar and the guy’s beer is sitting on the counter. So I ask how much the beer costs because I realize that everyone is going to be calculating how many he could have bought and I think the arrested fellow is probably just as mad about not drinking his beer as he is about getting caught. I know he’s saying “Damn! I got caught and Damn! I didn’t get to drink my beer.” And I know all the guys reading the story are going “So how many beers could you buy with the money from a bank robbery?”
If you’re going to be a reporter cultivate your curiosity and your love of a good story. Most of the technical stuff is simple and simply serves your curiosity and story telling.
I want to hit a few technical notes here before I close. I’d suggest you pick up and read something on news reporting in the next week. We have a few books in the Collegian office that are excellent and can give you a lot of good tips. You’re going to run into problems with you’re interviews but it you pick the brains of other experienced reporters, do a bit of reading and feel your instincts you can surmount those blockades easily enough.
You need to have an idea what the story is about and to know some basic information about the topic. But you’re not going to know everything and you need to be flexible and follow the conversation and get your information. Those are the two things you have to do in an interview: don’t miss what you’re being told and get the needed information. You may be going after the wrong dead cat and need some redirection or maybe someone’s trying to tell you the dead cat doesn’t stink.
For that reason I don’t write out my questions. You should be able to remember your questions and to be pretty flexible. I have an idea of what I need to know and then it’s not a question answer session it’s a conversation where the source does all the talking and I ask enough questions to keep him going and to get my information.
When it comes to asking questions this is where your curiosity really gets free reign. When it’s for the story, you can ask anybody anything. They don’t have to talk to you but you’d be surprised, most times they will talk or can be convinced to talk. We say in the business “there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers and it’s our job to be there to take them down.”
When you’re in the interview take a lot of notes. You’ll want to learn a sort of shorthand—at least your personal made up short hand—and listen for good usable quotes. That’s the only way you can handle a full conversation. Most of the information you’re going to paraphrase. As an example: I had an interview with Pewe yesterday and we talked about how they are trying to raise money for a new classroom. All that I can paraphrase. But then I have a direct quote of him saying: “When we get this building we will be recognized as one of the best places to teach liberal arts because we have the facilities.”
The best thing I can suggest—in addition to reading a bit about reporting and talking to folks with some experience—is to read newspapers. Newspaper writing is a craft and the more familiar with the craft you are the better. An editor can tell if you are a regular newspaper reader. I’d recommend staying away from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal for a while because they are really big and play by their own rules. Read good metro papers, any major metropolitan paper. You can read them online easily. Being from the West Coast I read the Seattle Times and the San Francisco papers and the L.A. Times. Just look up the local metro paper and read it every few days—it’ll make a notable difference in your work.
If you can push your curiosity and ask questions and learn to love the story then you’ll do a great job as a reporter and we’ll have a great year.