Learn from experienced newspaper reporters
Here are 11 tips that can help freelancers strengthen their writing and research skills
Published: April 7, 2010
|It’s a tough time to be a newspaper reporter. Since 2008, many thousands of them have lost their jobs. As newsrooms thin, though, many reporters are going freelance. These savvy veterans of daily work, skilled at easily cranking out stories within hours, even sometimes minutes, know how the game is played.|
We know what it’s like to be handed an assignment about a topic or person we know nothing about and have to produce a lucid, lively piece within hours. And many of us started our careers long before Google made research quick and easy.
Working on staff for a daily newspaper offers many lessons that can benefit freelancers, from how to research efficiently and write quickly, to the challenges of dealing with a variety of sources, ranging from a prickly political press aide and protective corporate public relations officer to a shy teen or new immigrant.
I’ve worked for three large dailies as a reporter and a feature writer, and each one taught me new skills. I started at the Toronto Globe and Mail, Canada’s oldest and most respected national daily, moved on to the Montreal Gazette, and most recently worked for the New York Daily News, the sixth-largest daily in the U.S. I also freelance for The Toronto Star and The New York Times, for whom I’ve written more than 100 articles for 10 different editors.
Here are some of the best tips I’ve compiled from other newspaper veterans and my own experiences:
1. Do your homework. You can’t write anything worth reading without really understanding your subject. Reporters “save string,” collecting anything we think helpful to fully un-derstand a subject we plan to explore, whether tomorrow or next year.|
Have you done what we call a “deep dive” on your topic, delving into blogs, Listservs, academic journals, conference proceedings, new and old books, broadcast transcripts?
Learning the most you can about a topic, even one already familiar to you, means reading, listening and talking to a wide range of sources, not just the first three who responded to you.
“Read or watch everything you can about the subject or person you will be pursuing,” says Maryn McKenna, a Minneapolis-based author of two medical books and a former reporter for 23 years at four newspapers, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“Interview and report more than you think you need,” agrees Leslie Scrivener, a 30-year veteran with The Toronto Star. “It will give you confidence you know the subject. Report until you start hearing the same things from different people.”
Eugene L. Meyer, a Maryland-based freelance writer, worked for more than 40 years for The Washington Post and Philadelphia Bulletin. “Reporting, when done well, is one of the most challenging things you can do,” he says. He urges writers to focus on “everyday people and low-level government workers,” the sort easy to overlook when you’re focused on a quick answer. He adds: “You actually have to leave the office to find them.”
Meyer is getting at a classic phrase used in newspaper work—“shoe-leather” reporting, which means literally getting out on your feet, off the computer and Internet, out of your vehicle, and talking face to face with people. It also means leaving your comfort zone far behind, whether talking to people whose religious or political views are very different from your own, or maybe spending time in a country, city, town or neighborhood that’s a little scary, or totally unknown to you. Great reporting is not about being comfortable!
“I really, really, really like being surrounded by strangers,” says Nicole Bode, formerly a veteran reporter at the New York Daily News. “If you don’t like talking to people, and to people who aren’t just like you, or visiting unfamiliar neighborhoods, journalism isn’t a good fit for you. It helps to be the sort of person who enjoys talking to strangers on the street.”
2. Cultivate sources. A source is anyone willing to share reliable information with you, someone you may quote or use only “on background,” their knowledge informing you when you sit down to write or call an-other expert. A source can be anyone with solid, firsthand knowledge of the issue, from a local teen to a prize-winning scientist. If you specialize in a top-ic, check in with sources regularly to see what they’re working on and hearing.
“When I talk to people now, I let them tell me about something they’re interested in, not just the story I’m officially there to report,” says the Los Angeles Times’ Nathan Olivarez-Giles. “That could give me a future story idea.”
3. Use a wide array of public documents. “All federal court documents—criminal, civil, bankruptcy—are available on this government-run site, PACER [www.pacer.psc.
uscourts.gov], after you register (for free),” Meyer says. “Downloads are 8 cents a page. It’s awesome! The [search engine] www.pipl.com is amazing to track down people and information about them. Fee sites, like Intelius [www.Intelius.com], for under $2 give you unlisted phone numbers and addresses. Through my public library card, I have free online access to an array of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times to 1951 and The Washington Post back to 1877.”
4. Use time zones to your advantage. If you live in the Eastern U.S. or Canada and face a tight deadline, find sources anywhere west of you who might still be in their offices. The same principle applies to working with sources overseas, whose workday is half done as most of us are just waking up.
5. Think strategically. I once had to research and write a complex story about DNA testing right after the 9/11 attacks for a Paris-based news agency, with only one day to gather and write the story. No one in D.C. or New York City would have made time for me, so instead I interviewed forensics experts in San Francisco and Toronto.|
6. Listen carefully and hush up. “Keep listening after you’ve put your notebook away and the interview appears to be over,” advises Scrivener, who has reported from New York City to Cambodia. “Everyone is relaxed, and often that’s the time that shining little nugget of conversation is your subject’s parting gift to you. Don’t put that notebook too far away.”
Bode suggests, “Give yourself, and them, time. Let every interview push a little further than you ... had planned. They often have no problem talking to you longer, or talking to you at all.”
McKenna is blunt and imperative about this most crucial of skills: “Shut up. Let your sources speak. Don’t interrupt and don’t talk too much. Especially, leave silences—let the source fill them in out of helpfulness or discomfort.”
7. Stay skeptical. “Sometimes it’s people’s job to lie to you,” warns Bode, now an associate editor at DNAInfo.com. “I’ve seen reporters being really diligent and working a story really hard, but it wouldn’t even have occurred to them that someone would lie to their face. Sometimes it’s just in their best interests to lie to you.”
8. Be persistent. When Bode or her reporters have been told to “Get lost,” they might simply circle the block, on foot or in a vehicle. “Do a lap and come right back,” she says.
I once had to stake out a Manhattan hotel, sneaking repeatedly inside until a furious guard ejected me, threatening to have me arrested for trespassing.
Maybe such aggressiveness looks a little easier for tabloid-toughened New Yorkers. Bode admits such behavior may feel uncomfortable, but how badly do you want the story? “Push your own boundaries a little bit,” she advises.
9. Be compassionate, but firm. Some people are reluctant to talk to a reporter. “My reporter’s antenna can also thwart me,” Bode admits. “If you’re good enough to notice what people want—and anyone drawn to journalism has sympathy or empathy for others—it’s easy to get sucked into their agenda.” She suggests changing your tone of voice, or saying, straightforwardly, “ ‘I’m not trying to push you.’ Say what you want to say to them, as long as it doesn’t change the interview dynamic very much. At the end of the day, people feel valued and appreciated if you treat them well, not just as a commodity to be used and abused.”
10. Chew your idea or assignment over with someone whose writing you admire. This is easy when you work in a newsroom where skilled veterans may be sitting at the next desk. It’s much tougher for the freelancer, but through groups like Freelance Success and the American Society of Journalists and Authors, both of which have online message boards, you can find a few trusted colleagues.
“I like to talk to someone whose perspective on a story is very different from mine,” Olivarez-Giles says. “Sometimes they’ll give you a very different idea of how they’d report the story.”
11. Read, constantly and widely. It’s tempting to read only what you most enjoy. But dipping into a wide array of fiction and nonfiction, books and articles, will refine your thinking, and thus, your reporting and writing. The home of every newspaper veteran I know is full of papers, magazines and books. No matter how experienced, we’re always eager for inspiration.
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Caitlin Kelly, author of Blown Away: American Women and Guns (Pocket Books, 2004), is writing a retail memoir for Portfolio, a Penguin imprint. She blogs at www.trueslant.com and writes for publications including The New York Times, Smithsonian and The Wall Street Journal.|
(This article appeared in the May 2010 issue of The Writer.)