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I got into this to write, to express myself. That first year, it seemed my editors were rewriting everything I wrote. And what they wrote sucked. They were the most tin-eared, ham-handed bunch I ever had the misfortune to work for.
On rare occasions, editors left my copy unscathed. I could actually recognize my story when I picked up the paper the next morning. And that got me to wondering why. Over the next few years, I noticed that when I had all the facts nailed down, had every hole filled, had every conceivable question answered in the story, the editors left it alone. My story was my story.
When I scrimped on the reporting, cut a corner, I could expect to see my writing twisted and tortured. So I began focusing on the reporting. I spent more time on research, on thinking about the questions I should ask, on anticipating the responses I might get. I broadened my source network, and I bolstered what people were telling me. I got deeper with my initial sources, going back again to clarify information. The more confident I got about my facts, the easier it was to write the story.
And more and more, editors were letting my writing stand.
Years later, as a line editor, I'd ask job applicants: Are you a better reporter or a better writer? The applicants who answered "reporter" usually went on to discuss the connection between reporting and writing. Those who answered "writer" generally failed to understand the relationship, the cause and effect. Good writing begins and ends with good reporting. They failed to understand that it might take awhile to learn the craft of reporting and that it takes even longer to practice well the craft of writing.
As an editor now, young reporters often come to me and speak of voice, style and nuance. That's when I know I'm in for a night of twisting and torturing copy. Tin-eared, ham-handed hack that I am, my first allegiance is to the reader, not the writer.
And readers want to know: Why? How? How did we get here? What's next? What is the basis for that assertion? How does this fit into the larger picture?
Wow. Was I breathing a sigh of relief when I realized I'd given Ed Williams the answer he was looking for. "I'm a better reporter than writer," I told him. "I, uh, have done a lot of writing, but I'm a lot better at finding information than getting it on paper right now. I, uh, hope that's all right."
Those words are SEARED into my brain because I immediately sensed the moment I spoke them that they had helped me cinch that interview. (It was just about the only time I remember Ed smiling that day! :>)
My first year working with Ed, I picked up a nifty little saying that I use with many young journalists today: "There are holes in this story wide enough to drive a Mac truck through." I, too, was guilty of raising more questions than I answered in many of my first stories.
Looking back now, I wonder why and I wonder why many of the young journalists with whom I work are having the same trouble. These are some of my suspicions:
Young reporters think they know what they're doing, but they haven't a clue. Admit it. I sure had to. I thought I had to know everything walking in the door or find it out on my own by digging through musty filing cabinets. I thought my internships had taught me what I needed to know so that I could spend my first job or two out of college "polishing my skills." Ha! What an awakening I had. I worked 60 hours a week trying to file five to seven stories a week. (Given that my personal record is now six stories in a day, you can see how far I've come ... ) The work you're doing now is not in vain, but it ain't all you need to know about this business, that's for sure.
Young reporters often have too much pride to admit they need help. In always wanting Ed to think I had everything under control, I made even bigger messes that wound up costing both of us a lot of precious time. When you've bitten off more than you can chew, be the first to say so.
Young reporters often fail to consult a variety experts. Sure, j-school might teach you how to use the Web responsibly, a crisscross, an AP Stylebook and an almanac, but those sources arent necessarily going to help much when youre working local stories on tight deadlines. And oh, the horror if youre reporting from the field with no wi-fi access! Get used to talking to people. Ask questions of everyone. Stop strangers. Go straight to the top or as high as you can of every power structure. Consult truly knowledgeable sources. And sure, its important to get reaction, but reaction to what?! Call on people who clearly understand the issues about which youre writing. Dont present your audience with a situation in the lead and spend the rest of the story letting people either cheer or jeer. Every story should include some informative source that helps readers understand the big picture. Find sources who can help put a story into some sort of historical context (The question of How did we get here?). Find sources who can give your audience and idea of how the rest of the world is handling a similar situation. Before submitting your work, ask whether youve done enough to talk with knowledgeable sources. Yknow what? I was amazed at how much better my stories were and how much easier they were to write when I made those extra calls. (They arent extra calls at all, I later learned.) I also was amazed when I stumbled upon an even better story when I made those calls. (That happens almost every time! Even today ·)
Young reporters are scared about ever appearing clueless. If you think hiding your insecurities from an editor is important, youll be 100 times more determined to look good in front of sources. I was a basket case as a result. And heres what often happened: Id call a source usually some city manager and ask about the towns trash pickup or proposed budget. He or she would launch into some long explanation filled with jargon and historical references I had no clue about. I would nod my head and dutifully take down all that was said. Never mind that I had no earthly idea what it meant. (After all, what dummy doesn't understand how taxes or recycling work, I sniffed.) Then, I'd sit down to write the story and try to fake my way through it. Ed would throw a complete hissy-fit, and now I understand why because I've thrown a few of those myself. Again, don't be afraid to ask questions. Save yourself a heck of a lot of grief by breaking down that tough-guy or tough-girl image of yours and asking someone to show you how something works. Your sources will appreciate your desire to learn, and they'll probably be more pleased with the accuracy and fairness of your reporting.