Reporting: “Embrace the awkward”

Yesterday I spoke with a student about how to get in touch with some sources who weren’t returning her calls. (Yes, she was phoning, in addition to sending emails.) I suggested other people who might be equally good sources and gave her other options on how to get responses. As we talked about using Twitter and sliding into sources’ dms, she said, “OK, but it seems super awkward.”

I agreed: “Most of reporting IS super awkward.”

Reporters insert themselves into the best and worst times of people’s lives. They go where they don’t belong and get in your face. They ask intrusive questions of people they’ve never met and will never speak with again. They want to know details and facts and “how do you feel?” Watch reporters in action and you might conclude they’re rude.

Meanwhile, no one likes being rejected, and reporters have to get used to being told “no comment” and being ignored entirely by sources. Now that the president of the United States has declared the news media “the enemy of the people,” being met with outright hostility isn’t uncommon.

“Super awkward,” indeed.

As an introvert, I came to see the “Professional Reporter’s Notebook” was my badge of authority, my letter of introduction. I would pull it out of my back pocket and, pen in hand, it gave me a reason to ask strangers questions. It reduced my sense of awkwardness into a shape that would fit into a little box: I was doing my job.

Last night I tweeted about the exchange with the student. My conclusion about reporting is shared by many. Some responses:

When you run out of letters to the editor

In a more innocent time — back in the late 1990s — I was the editor of the editorial pages of the News & Record. As part of that, I read, selected and edited the letters to the editor. The letters gave you a real feel for the community — the paper still had about 50 percent circulation penetration in our county then. Note I said “real” as opposed to “good” or “accurate.” (There was one letter writer who often said he was going to come downtown and whip my ass. He never did.)

Back then, we limited writers to one letter every 30 days; it’s two letters now, thank you, declining readership. We had space for about five letters every day, and people submitted many more than that. So, we usually had plenty of letters to choose from.

But during the Christmas holidays and the humid, slow-moving, “it’s-too-hot-to-even-move” depths of summer, letters would slow to a trickle, and I’d scramble to fill the space.

Dave Dubuisson, who was my predecessor as editorial page editor and who remained as associate editor, taught me most of what I know about the job. He was — and still is — an astute thinker and insightful writer. His sense of humor was also as dry as James Bond’s martini.

I bemoaned the lack of letters one day.

He said, “That’s OK. I’ll just write about gun control. That will solve the problem.”

(He didn’t.)

 

Sunday sampler

Happy Memorial Day!

Charlotte: Good story on a WBTV personality who is gay and hesitant about coming out. “It was ironic: Hampton was always looking for the best in people, but deep down, she feared the worst in them. It was also hypocritical: She prided herself in being authentic with her audience, but felt strongly against coming out to it.”

Raleigh: What do you do if you’ve been in prison virtually your entire life? You don’t want to leave. Joe Neff returns to the front page of the N&O with a piece about a man who feels that way. “I ain’t going nowhere,” Phillips said in a recent interview at the minimum-security Randolph Correctional Center. “Too many fools out there.” Easy to understand that.

High Point: You’ll hit a paywall on this story in the Enterprise. It’s a good one, too, about one of the city’s more dangerous streets. “This is a prostitute street.” And the Enterprise got the information from a public records request.

“You’re on the story. Now…”

“Follow the money.”

“Goddammit, when is somebody going to go on the record in this story?”

“Nothing’s riding on this except the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I’m going to get mad.”

“All non-denials denials.”

A wife and a family and a dog and a cat. Right, Ken, right, yeah. Uh, Ken, I don’t want to print that you were in Sally’s apartment… I just want to know what you said, in Sally’s apartment.”

All great lines from the movie version of “All the President’s Men.”

But my favorite is one uttered by Jack Warden, the actor who portrayed Harry Rosenfeld. Rosenfeld was the metro editor of the Washington Post who supervised Woodward and Bernstein. He had to fight to keep the story on the metro desk and to let two green local reporters continue to report the story.

I used to say that to reporters on occasion. And now that my students are getting their first full-time jobs as reporters, I send them this clip. A classic.

Slow-walking the boss

“Since assuming office, Trump has issued many private demands to aides that have either been slow-walked or altogether ignored.”

That line is from a good story in the Atlantic about the damage President Trump’s impulsive tweets are doing to government and the nation. But it describes a management style I used for years in the newspaper business. I assume everyone does it.

Once when I was the editor, I was asked to begin a weekly series of profiles of successful businesses in the community. “In this bad economy, we want to show companies that are doing well,” I was told.

The idea isn’t terrible, except that, because of layoffs, our business staff had been pared down to two reporters. We couldn’t even cover the news of the day, much less do puff pieces on companies that weren’t suffering during the Great Recession. I ignored it for a month, and then, when I was told to do it, I slow-walked it for another month. Finally, at the third request, I created a simple graphic in which I would gather the information with a quick phone call.

Most of the time, I’ve had bosses who would float an idea for a story or a personnel matter and I knew it was simply an idea. Sometimes I liked the idea and we’d do it. Others, I listened to it and didn’t act on it. I always believed that the bosses purposely let me make the decision.

I had a box on my desk in which I kept the ideas that I was ignoring. That way, if a boss asked me the status of a task I’d been given, I could immediately put my hands on it and say, “I have it right here. It’s in process.” On the third request for a status report, that’s when I knew it wasn’t just an idea; it needed to be done. And I’d get it done.

My record for slow-walking was 18 months. To protect the innocent, I won’t describe it. But I still believe that it was a bad decision forced on me.

These never happened around ethical issues. Those, the boss and I would talk come to an agreement on a course of action. Those discussions were rare because my bosses and I normally agreed on the ethics of the business.

Instead, the slow-walking occurred around productivity issues or issues I thought weren’t important.

Once – when I was a lower-ranking editor – I was told to begin assigning more stories to one of our best — and slowest — writers. “What’s he doing?” I was asked. “We are paying him to put stories in the paper.” I wasn’t the first to get this complaint about that reporter. It was an inside joke among other editors. I slow-walked that one forever.

And yes, I assumed that people who reported to me did the same thing to my always brilliant ideas. I usually trusted their judgment that my idea wasn’t the best use of time.

Sunday sampler

Greensboro: 1969 was one helluva year in Greensboro. The News & Record goes back to three days in May 50 years ago to tell the story of the time that an A&T student was killed, eight others were wounded by gunfire, 300 protesters were arrested, and, as John Newsom writes, the National Guard shot up two dormitories. A helluva year and a helluva story.

Adventures in news coverage, part 2: When a kiss is banned

Update: Check out the first comment.

About 10 years ago, we published a photo of two women kissing on the bottom half of the front page. The world didn’t explode, but some of our readers’ heads did.

It was a chaste kiss between two elderly women, but it seemed as if the depiction offended some of our more conservative readership. They called, they complained, they cancelled.

The publisher told me that he, too, was offended and, after we debated the photo’s news value and the role of a newspaper, he told me not to publish that sort of photo on the front page again. While I was editor, we didn’t.

I’m reminded of this because I came across this  blog post-appreciation by my friend Addison Ore about the late inestimable Pearl Berlin. Addison posted this photo by Lynn Hey of the News & Record of Berlin kissing her longtime partner, Lennie Gerber.

Photo by Lynn Hey

Addison wrote: “At one infamous rally on the steps of the Greensboro Government Plaza, Lennie ended her remarks by planting a sweet kiss on Pearl’s lips. It is one of my favorite photos of them – even though the News & Record deemed it “too much” to run in the print edition.”

Scandalous, right?

 

Adventures in news coverage, part 1: When we would and then wouldn’t publish civil union announcements

Time was, brides announced their nuptials in the daily newspaper. In retrospect, it seems so “Mad Men” era quaint. Yet another tradition gone the way of digital.

Anyway, in 2002, Editorial Page Editor Allen Johnson, Publisher Van King and I were talking about our policy on publishing gay wedding and civil union announcements.

Correction: We didn’t have a policy — the assumption was that weddings were between a man and woman. I don’t know that anyone had tried to place a gay union in the newspaper. But the New York Times had decided to publish the civil union announcement of a gay couple. If the old Gray Lady was going to do it, we’d better know what we were going to do.

Of course, the law of the land was that marriage was between a man and a woman. And bear in mind that a good percentage of the newspaper’s readership was conservative; this is part of the Bible Belt, after all. We knew readers would complain. We didn’t mind readers complaining so much. But we wanted their complaints to be over something important. And we wanted to have thought through our position.

It wasn’t a long discussion. (One reason is that the ad director wasn’t involved and he should have been. Wedding announcements — the paper called them “Celebrations” — were paid advertisements. But Allen and I wanted to strike while we had the publisher’s attention.)

Both Allen and I wanted to publish them. Van was less sure, but I don’t know if he was truly uncertain or was playing devil’s advocate. In any case, we left the meeting with the tentative decision that if we received a request for an announcement for a civil union, we would publish it. Or, realistically, we would have another discussion about it, but the inclination was to publish.

We didn’t get a request for a civil union announcement.

A few years later, under a different publisher, Allen and I raised the question again. I don’t remember what provoked it. This time, the publisher, Robin Saul, said we would not publish them. Saul had asked his boss about the issue and was told that the newspaper would follow state law. As long as gay marriages and civil unions were not recognized by the state of North Carolina, the paper would not publish any “Celebrations” of civil unions.

For the rest of the time I was at the paper, I dreaded the possibility that a same-sex couple would try to buy an ad. I believed the paper’s position would embarrass us and put us on the wrong side of history.

It didn’t come to that. We didn’t get a publication request, and in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriages are legal.

And, the “Celebrations” page has gone the way of classified ads.

Sunday sampler

Mother’s Day and college graduations are plastered all over front pages today, as they should be. But you can find other good stories here:

Greensboro: One of the best writers I’ve ever worked with is Mike Kernels. He tells the compelling story of getting a letter out of the blue from his birth mother. And as he asks, “What should I do now?”

Raleigh: The N&O profiles Ashley Christensen, the best chef in America, in a Q&A. And it’s not a Q&A about food in so much as it’s a story about her and her motivations. I like her and plan to make one or two of her restaurants a destination meal.

Asheville: The Citizen-Times has a dramatic story about a 7-month-old who had tumbled 30-feet down into a ravine, allegedly because her mother threw her there. Unfortunately I can’t link to the actual story because of the paywall, but here is an earlier piece about it from USA Today.

Winston-Salem: A state cookie? Now we have to have a state cookie? Well, it’s the Moravian Cookie so, hell, yes.

“The pen is sometimes our only flashlight”

“A word after a word after a word is power.” That’s from “Spelling,” a poem by Margaret Atwood. It’s one of my favorite writing quotes.

Today, I have new one:

“I write because there’s so much good in this world that goes unnoticed, and sometimes we all need a reminder. But I also write because there’s darkness in the world that lurks in the shadows, unnoticed, and the pen is sometimes our only flashlight.”

That’s by Mary Glen Hatcher, who graduates from UNC-Chapel Hill Sunday. Mary Glen was a student in my feature writing course, and I ask students to write “why I write.” I think that if they want to become writers — many of them do — they need to begin wrestling with that topic. Their responses are pretty damned good. Here are some excerpts.

 

***********************

“My confidence plummeted in middle school, and it stayed on the ground through high school. I knew it was gone. I could almost see it down by my shoes in class, mocking me for never raising my hand.

“I wrote because it was something I could feel proud of, even if it never made it out of my Google Drive drafts. I didn’t know I was smart. But when words flowed from my fingertips, I felt unstoppable again.”

***********************

“I still get excited when my stuff gets published and printed. And that’s almost weekly. I know the rush of “Look, my name’s in the paper!” is even better.

“Somewhere in this state, I have a feeling that a few of my stories are hanging on walls or sitting in binders. Probably some of the high school sports ones I wrote two summers ago, when I was still finding my voice as a writer and tried to make everything epic. I bet a few moms and dads are still fans, though.”

*************************

“To be provocative by telling the truth—even though others may cry out “fake news!” To practice my inalienable right to speak my mind.”

***********************

“I write because I think words strung together on a paper have more power than just about anything.”

***********************

“I want to be a voice for the voiceless. This has two different meanings. One, it’s giving people a platform to tell their story, whether they’re an athlete or not. Two, it’s telling the story of a person that’s typically in the spotlight for a different reason or hangs in the background. It’s showing who the person is behind the athlete, or well the real person within.”

**********************

You can read all of Karen Stahl‘s here.

**********************

Last semester’s are pretty damn good, too.