The reporter’s best source

In my first reporting job in Monroe, N.C., one of my beats was Union County government. Every day, I would make my rounds from department to department, talking with managers and staff members, seeing what was going on. (Despite what you see on television, reporting is time chatting up sources in the hopes of some day getting them to tell you something worth printing.)

The county manager’s office was on the 8th or 9th floor. To get there you had to pass through the office of an assistant to the county commissioners and the office of the manager’s assistant. Yes, you walked in one door, passed the desk of one assistant, walked out a door on the opposite wall, passed the desk of his assistant, walked through a door on the opposite wall to get into his office.

Except that his door was almost always closed. So, nine days out of 10, I’d end up talking with the administrative assistants. And that is how I learned one of the key secrets to being a reporter: The workers know more than the leaders.

The administrative assistants liked me, and I liked them. We talked about our lives, our dreams, and county business. Eventually, they began to gossip. Most of it wasn’t worth reporting. But occasionally it was. They never told me anything I could go with on its own, but they left bread crumbs.

Once, as I was trolling for a story, one of the assistants told me to swing by the Public Works department before I left. That’s all she said. So, I went down to the department head’s office to find it was cleaned out. He had quit that morning, and, once I found him, he had a good story to tell.

Another time, the assistant to the county commissioners whispered to me that the chairman of the board was in the board room alone. I walked in, sat down and asked him what he was up to. He was a farmer by profession and he rarely minced words: he told me he was questioning some public official’s submitted travel expenses. That became a story, too.

One afternoon, I needed to get a comment from the county manager on something. His assistant told me he was booked all day, but that she’s try to slide me in between his 4 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. appointments. So I waited. When his 4 p.m. walked out of his office, the assistant told his 4:30 to wait and ushered me in to talk with the county manager.

Throughout the rest of my reporting career, I spent more time developing secretaries and assistants as sources than managers.