by Jim Stasiowski
A recent enjoyable email exchange with a reporter I once supervised included this from him: “OK, maybe we don’t miss the inevitable entreaties to ‘make just one more phone call,’ but we do miss most everything else you brought to the newsroom.”
I do especially value the reporter who, without being prodded, makes that “one more phone call.” But I also realize that if any reporter actually required entreaties that were “inevitable,” I did a poor job of helping him or her frame the story.
I almost always resisted my editors’ efforts to guide what I wrote. Part of my attitude was immaturity – who wants to have his work follow a blueprint handed down by someone else, no matter how experienced or wise? – but part of it was my wish to have a story reflect who I am, not who my editor was.
I know, I know, I sound like some egotistical artist who cannot accept anyone’s help, advice or rules. I also know that journalism, unlike such arts as painting, music, poetry or the writing of fiction, requires a devotion to facts.
So when I became an editor and a coach (and later, a combination editor-coach), I tried to instill in reporters a set of general expectations within which they could express themselves as individuals rather than as editor-pleasers determined to finish each story and head home confident that they wouldn’t have to put up with my tracking them down with “entreaties to ‘make just one more phone call.’”
Here are a few tactics reporters should adopt to ward off editors’ intrusions:
Scratch the itch: As you’re listening to a debate in a government meeting, something tells you the course of action being considered violates some ordinance, law, charter or constitution. But no one raises that issue.
Take the trouble to look up documents that spell out or restrict what a government can do.
“But,” you reason, “the government (be it city council, county commissioners or state legislature) has lawyers who advise the decision makers, and surely the lawyers would point out the error.”
Don’t be so sure. Government lawyers are neither infallible nor immune to political pressure. Your editor probably will have the same question that made you wonder, so checking and explaining may prevent a bounced-back story.
Push the source: A former colleague wrote a story about a man in the prime of a successful career who suffered a devastating injury, leaving him a quadriplegic. The reporter included an interview with the man’s wife, who described her new, unexpected and difficult role of constant caregiver.
All of us would wonder: Will the wife stick with the man for another 25 or 30 years? None of us would be comfortable asking that question. But when the reporter did, the wife acknowledged that the future was uncertain, and although her answer was colored with hope and love, it also was realistic and no doubt painful for both her and her husband.
Get to the point: You’re convinced an anecdotal lead fits the story you’re working on, but when you write the lead you love, you realize you then need to contort five (or more) paragraphs to get back to revealing the story’s central conflict.
Many editors will either rewrite the top or, if there is time – and there often isn’t – instruct you to do so. If an anecdotal lead requires that much explanation, it is a reach. And a hard-news lead, while not as satisfying to your artistic side, almost never is wrong.
Be creative: This is a follow-up: Stop thinking that the lead sentence is the only place to show off your individuality. Find ways to weave into your stories a vivid description of a scene, an enticing slice of history, a source’s quotation that is not only relevant but also thought-provoking, original, amusing or unexpectedly emotional.
Analyze: Show your editor (and thus, your readers) that you’re thinking ahead, that the hard news means something more than just what happened that day. Maybe an isolated traffic accident is part of a pattern no one else noticed, or a public official’s latest proposal is based on some significant experience in his or her life, or a school district’s policy revision may lead to bigger problems than the one the revision is designed to solve.
Rehearse: Before your fingers hit the keys, tell your editor the story. If he or she wants more questions asked, you can find that out before laboring over the writing, then being asked to revise. You also can explain why you think you don’t need the extra call. Remember, no editor’s “entreat(y)” has to be “inevitable.”
The final word
In one of William Safire’s compilations of his language columns, he highlighted the verb “obnubilate,” which means “to make unclear, indistinct, vague, etc.,” something we journalists do when we’re too lazy or too busy to fully explain. (I used to say, “I fuzzed that up,” but now I can say it more eruditely.)