Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Another favorite cartoon from a favorite cartoonist, Wiley Miller. This one ran back in 1993, coincidentally about a month after I left the newsroom, though I didn't see it until considerably later when I gave my daughter-in-law a Non Sequitur collection for Christmas and, of course, read it before wrapping it.

I miss being an instant expert, but you have to understand, I was uniquely qualified for the position. I majored in being an instant expert. There were several times when I bought the books for a course the day before a term paper was due. Of course, I graduated in the top 85 percent of my class, but I like to think I probably placed much higher among the subset of students who hadn't read the material.

As a business reporter, I specialized in Sunday section covers and I worked for a tiny paper, about 22,000 circ, which meant I didn't have the luxury of sitting back and taking a month or three to research and write each of these things. I'd start at 9 am Monday with an idea and would file by 5 o'clock Friday, and in the interim would have to continue to cover daily events in business and the occasional fire as well.

In other words, it was a lot like college. It was rougher because I had a term paper due three Fridays out of every four, but that was more than balanced by the fact that my professors in college had known when I was bullshitting and my editors didn't. They'd change "that" to "which" in my copy or break up a long sentence, but they wouldn't come back to me and say, "That's not how avoided costs are calculated in compensating non-utility generators."

Which brings us to Wiley's point -- Reporters who cover subjects they don't understand.

I loved the variety in reporting, especially in a small newsroom. You'd come into work thinking you were going to write a piece about health insurance for small businesses but then the scanner would go off and you'd find yourself up to your ankles in mud watching somebody's barn burn to the ground.

But this ability to absorb, interpret and regurgitate on the fly is not for everyone, and we've all had, I think, the experience of reading a news story on a topic we do understand and realizing that the writer is completely lost. It's one thing to say, "Well, I might have added ... " or "Too bad he didn't consider ... " It's another to say, "What the hell is he thinking? That's not how it works!"

There are C students who do poorly because they can't understand the material, but there are also those who learn, painfully sometimes, the skill of absorbing and reflecting. Senior year, we had a standing joke in seminar that it was unfair to ask questions about material in the last third of the book under consideration, but the fact was, we had a lot to read. We covered "War and Peace" in three 90-minute sessions and Aristotle's Metaphysics in two.

The trick to being a good C-student was knowing how to build on the insights of someone who had actually read the material, and that's the trick to being a good reporter, too. And it's really all the source, or the reader, wants: You are supposed to get into the head of the expert and translate it for the benefit of the readers.

That's why you attribute quotes -- You're not there to say what economic policy is best going to curb inflation. You're there to report on what economic policy the Treasury Secretary thinks is best going to curb inflation. And, just as a good C-student learns which fellow-students around the seminar table to listen to and absorb from and which ones to ignore, a good reporter figures out which sources to go to for backgrounders and balance and which ones are going to try to spin him and make him look foolish.

There are way too many former A-students working in newsrooms today. They don't make good reporters because they think they know stuff. You can't possibly know enough of the random stuff that comes up in the course of writing a news story. Only someone who is experienced in covering up his own ignorance has the skills necessary to be a good reporter.

Hemingway said that a reporter needs to have a good bullshit detector. He was absolutely right.

And it takes one to know one.


BrianFies said...

Great post, Mike. It crystalizes a lot of my thoughts and experience (which has been much more modest than yours) exactly.

As my writing career matured, I became aware of a little engine working in my brain into which I could put almost anything and produce a story. Regional planning, pesticides, telecommunications, accounting, hydroelectric generators...didn't matter what, just pour it into the big ol' hopper and I could churn and chug for a while and give you 3000 words about it. I don't think I'm applying a template or formula, exactly; it's not that mindless. More like a process of figuring out what's important and what readers want or need to know.

I don't know...I haven't given it a lot of conscious thought before. But I'd say that if I've developed any skill at all, it isn't that I've accumulated a lot of factual knowledge but that I've learned to apply that process. Sometimes with a little style.

As part of that process, I long ago got over any embarrassment about asking a dumb question. I could have avoided a lot of early published humiliations if I'd just had the courage to say, "I don't understand." Sometimes this is the "grandma" question: "If you had to explain this to your grandma, what would you say?" Most subjects have the patience to explain and are happy you're taking the time to get it right.

I do think you're being a bit hard on the A students (ahem). You've got to be able to pick up stuff fast, retain it long enough to digest it, and see how pieces fit together. Being smart--the kind of kid who got A's--is more helpful than not, if tempered with humility. A few screaming fits from an editor makes you humble fast.

My ideal writer/reporter is a well-read Renaissance Man (yeah, or Woman) with wide-ranging interests and at least a vague understanding of the sweep of human history, politics, science, etc. The best reporters I knew were like that, the kind of people who'd have a morning conversation about the Blues vs. the Greens in the late Roman Empire. Sooner or later, it seems like you use everything you ever learned. If I were an editor, I'd rather hire a sharp liberal arts major and teach them to write than a journalism school grad and teach them about the world.

I'm getting random. Thanks for the morning reflection.

Mike said...

Agreed about humble A students who know how the pieces fit, and I always tell kids to major in something they care about and pick up the journalism stuff on the side. There were some brilliant A-students in our department and those are the ones you would learn to listen to and reflect and riff off of in seminar -- the ones that concern me (and who show up in too many newsrooms) are the grinds who got their A's by doing everything it takes to get an A but, in terms of knowing how the pieces fit, are like Oscar Wilde's cynic who "knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." They think that, by focusing on 'the facts,' that they have covered the story. One big missing part in their work is the odd follow-up question, the "wait a minute" that only occurs to you if you see the story as a web of interrelated things rather than a list of specific facts. A forest rather than a collection of trees.

Unfortunately, they're also the most self-righteous and prickly in defending their turf, which I guess is understandable.

I knew people in college who could score straight A's but then get thrown out of school for extracurriculars, or who could score those A's the morning after somehow being up on stage with Jefferson Airplane in Grant Park. I wish more of them had become reporters, but since the two that come most quickly to mind became teachers, I guess I'll accept that there are other places where that sort of well-rounded intellect is of societal value.