Mar 2, 2010

Reporter's roladex

'It scares me when I think about it,' he said. 'I have more experience at this thing than most of them, and I don't know anything about it.'

-- Dick Stout, political reporter, qtd. in The Boys on the Bus


The first thing you do in a new news room is the tour, which normally involves an editor or someone pointing at the vacant, trash-piled desks of reporters who haven't shown up to work yet, and the editor or whoever it is says their first names and beats as if that will be meaningful. Then there's a general gesticulation towards the paginators, who won't be in until after 4, and maybe at the old lady who types up obits faxed over from the funeral homes. You find out where the coffee is, see the phone has 15 messages that are password protected, and then there's a roladex.

Here's the thing about the roladex: It's a mess.

It's scribbles. It's names and names and numbers and there's no context for anything, or if there is it's cryptic, coded for memory. Jan, it says, Murphy trial background. Phyllis, it says, no on bond measure. And there are business cards. They're stapled in and stuffed in and coming out like clumps of hair and each one might mean nothing, but how would you know?. They're for lawyers and little shops, tow truck drivers and repair men, politicians who aren't even running any more and people who've since been promoted, or moved on, and you don't know what they have to say or about what and would they even talk if you called them. You see a card for a dry cleaner on a busy corner and you don't know, does the man have info about the crime on that corner, or is he secretly passing along secrets he wants the paper to use to sink the mayor, or is this the oldest business in town, or there's a synagogue that meets in the back of the place, or is this just where the last reporter who had this desk had his dry cleaning done?

And that's the thing about the roladex: it's worthless without memory. It looks like it's got valuable information, good leads and sources and story ideas, but there's nothing in there that means anything without the memory of the person who put it together. Each name in there, each number and reference, is so irregular, so particular, so formed by the relationship with the reporter and tied to the tangle of connections that you would have to have to break the cryptic, scribbled code that a reporter's roladex only works if there's a reporter there to explain it all. Even take you're own roladex -- it only works if you remember, if you're reporting and you can make the connection in your mind, oblique or oddball or sideways or whatever, and without any help or prompting, between the subject you're working on and a name, a person who said something sometime in the past and might say something now that connects -- somehow -- to what you're writing.

It's meaningless without the memory to put parts together.

The roladex gives you the first lesson of journalism as practice, the first one you get when you get out of class and into an actual newsroom: you've got nothing to go on; there's no experience to draw from; you're going to have to start from scramble and scratch.

When you walk into a new newsroom and there's the tour, when you see the fax machine spits mimeo-looking press releases form weird lobby groups and you wonder if the florescent lights always make that sound, when the boss says things like how his "door's always open" and you see the sport reporter's got a typo in his headline and the school reporter keeps a collection of gas station soda cups, you always hope someone's going to point to someone in the newsroom and say this is the person who's been here forever. Say, institutional memory. Say, this is the person who knows what's happened and where and how and how it relates and mostly, especially, the one who can take a little bit of long view and can say, past the deadline, past the next edition, what things mean.

But this almost never happens. Or the "institutional memory" is an editor with a few years who likes to chop copy and warp stories for pre-imagined narratives, or a guy in the back who always knows names but can't quite remember them, or someone in the front, one of the white shirts, who is always asking favors for friends and financial interests, feigning not to know how any of this works but knows exactly when a leak will help a special business interest. So you're on your own. You're starting with nothing but a blinking phone and a blank screen and press 9 for an outside line.

You just got to be lucky. You just got to scramble.

You got to make your own roladex and try not make mistakes while you try to get some sources you can trust to give you some history without burning you or using you too bad. Even later, though, when you're the one with experience, when you're the one with the tip for the other reporters on who to call, you know that and it scares you 'cause it's still mostly scramble and luck and cold calls and coaxing to try make up for the lack and the fact that news is mostly all surfaces and you're always just skating over the cold, dark lake of what it means.