Reporting — you know, asking a lot of nosy questions — is dying

Reading the newspaper: Brookgreen Gardens in P...
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Facts? You want facts?

You wish.

It’s only getting worse, according to the new, annual State of The Media, an annual report from the Pew Project For Excellence in Journalism. The report, their seventh, is enormous and detailed.

This, from the executive summary, struck me immediately:

Technology is further shifting power to newsmakers, and the newest way is through their ability to control the initial accounts of events. For now at least, digital technology is shifting more emphasis and resources toward breaking news. Shrinking newsrooms are asking their remaining ranks to produce first accounts more quickly and feed multiple platforms. This is focusing more time on disseminating information and somewhat less on gathering it, making news people more reactive and less proactive. It is also leading to a phenomenon in which the first account from newsmakers — their press conferences and press releases — make their way to the public often in a less vetted form, sometimes close to verbatim. Those first accounts, sculpted by official sources, then can rapidly spread more widely now through the power of the Web to disseminate, gaining a velocity they once lacked. That is followed quickly by commentary. What is squeezed is the supplemental reporting that would unearth more facts and context about events. We saw this clearly in a study of news in Baltimore, but it is reinforced in discussions with news people. While technology makes it easier for citizens to participate, it is also giving newsmakers more influence over the first impression the public receives.

I have added the bold and italics. This worries me enormously.

Here’s what happened yesterday when I spoke to the public affairs office of a major corporation. I asked for an interview with their CEO and determined, after more discussion, that lower-level executives might be better suited to this topic — part of the research for my book.

“Oh, a book,” she said. “They take up so much of our time.”

“No more time than a magazine or newspaper interview,” I retorted, a little — maybe a lot — sharply.

“No,” she said, “There’s all that fact-checking.”

News to me — most publishers do not fact-check at all; the onus is on the non-fiction writer to be ethical and honest and get it right. The most meticulous (or well-financed) hire their own fact-checkers, knowing no one else (which they still do for most major magazines) will make those calls.

I always explain in detail to potential sources not just what I want from them  — 10 minutes (more like 60, to start) — but why I need their point of view and how they fit into my larger story. I choose my sources carefully: my time and energy is limited and my book is only 75,000 words, of which most is my own story.

I was told I would have to sign a legally-binding document allowing them to review my material about them and to amend it as they see fit.

She called my request a “deep dive.”

This used to be called reporting.

I recently emailed a list of 20 questions to another source — who freaked out. “I don’t have time for this! Do you have any idea what you’re asking?”

Yes, I do. Like any reporter who cares about their work, I want as much detail as I can possibly get my hands on — not just that someone drove a car, but what color/year/make/model and whether the left mirror was cracked and why. I once covered a head-on car crash in Montreal between a small car in which everyone was killed and a city bus. It one of the most horrific stories in my career — the car’s windows, a sight I will never forget, were sheeted with fresh, wet blood. I only saw that because I got as close to the car as police would allow. My editor told me I was the only reporter to get the make and model of the car.

I didn’t want to do it. It was disgusting and terrifying — and I had my driver’s test the very next day.

That’s what reporters do.

We do not: sit in press conferences and take hand-outs and re-write press releases and let spokesmen tell us their shiny, happy versions of the story. Letting “newsmakers” tells us what matters — hey, it matters to their shareholders and Wall Street! — is BS. Letting corporate and government interests set and control the agenda is a recipe for disaster. And the more they get used to a lazy, stupid, under-paid, under-trained style of “reporting” the harder they bite down on the dinosaurs among us who want facts, dammit.

Not spin. Not a press release. Not just one interview, with three of their flacks sitting in and recording every word — but maybe three or four or 12.

I once interviewed a Navy admiral. She actually reached for my notebook to see what I had written. I shoved it under the desk and kept writing.

People will try, whenever and wherever and however they can — and they have powerful tools at their disposal — to intimidate, ignore, stonewall or confuse reporters.

You, readers, deserve better. John Edwards — shiny, happy guy….until some dogged reporters found out he wasn’t. Enron? Great company…until reporter Bethany McLean led the pack and said, Not so much.

No one likes to be asked a lot of nosy questions. Takes up their valuable time. Might make them uncomfortable. Might raise an issue they hoped no one had even considered. Might scare them.

The day we stop doing that, we’re all screwed.

Water On Stone: Journalism As A Slower, Communal Exercise

Water Melody
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I was struck recently by a post by T/S contributor Maureen Henderson lamenting how quietly passive Generation Y is and wondering why they do not protest more or more loudly about a lousy economy and other issues.

Fellow T/ contributor Sara Libby there lamented a lack of Gen Y access to the biggest media outlets and another commenter pointed out that True/Slant, still, does not have that many readers for most of its individual writers.

In December, here, I hit a high of 7,562 unique visitors — which annually comes to only 90,744 readers. As the commenter fairly and accurately pointed out, that’s a mere fraction of the audience journalists can get — if we can get it — at The New York Times, or other major markets. I’ve been writing for a living for a while, and my work has already been seen and read by millions, so, much as I’m really enjoying my work here at True/Slant, it’s hardly the make-or-break moment of my career.

With the death of so many magazines, and the firing of 24,000 print journalists last year, there’s something of a panic about how any of us will continue to tell important stories and who, if anyone, will pay us properly to do so.

Let’s talk about this.

I’ve been writing for the Times since 1990, with more than 100 stories published there, sold to ten different editors in a number of its sections. I have not, yet, scaled the true Everest of that paper in terms of pay, prestige and sheer clout — getting a story into the Times Magazine, the bulk of which is spoken for by writers its editors have already chosen and made commitments to. It’s next to impossible to sell a freelance story to the paper’s Metro and National and International sections, where, arguably, the most important and compelling news stories are run. As a rule, they simply don’t buy this material.

So, on many, many freelance stories, no matter how timely or compelling, you simply have to forget the Times.

In the past there were the Big Four, four print outlets where almost every ambitious journo hoping for a killer career had to get published: The Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Harper’s and The New Yorker. I wrote a piece, on assignment, for the New Yorker more than a decade ago; like 60 percent of freelance stories they assign, they killed it, which meant they only had to pay me half what we’d agreed. I had to pay my agent 15% for placing it with them.

So this great opportunity ended up costing me financially, earning a total fee of about $1,500.

These magazines, too, are extremely difficult to sell to. No matter how much you, or your sources, want that arguably prestigious, mass exposure, too bad.

The most elite media outlets, of the left, right or center, tend to hand-pick their writers from a small cabal. Even editors at “O” magazine are known not to answer their phones and only work with writers they select. Penetrating these cliques is close to impossible. Smithsonian is widely considered an impressive win and I was thrilled they ran my humor essay in December 2009 — it took time. I began courting one editor there a full six to eight months before I finally won an assignment from someone else there, and not for a feature as I’d hoped. One veteran writer I know pitched 12 times before winning his first assignment there.

So insisting upon access to these audiences is a real exercise in frustration. I would argue the same is true of any medium, anywhere: people choose those they like and trust — how subjective is that? — to carry their water.

If you are, consistently, shut out of these Big Name Markets, and their coveted millions of readers and listeners, what do you do instead?

Make multiple attempts. You blog, write FOBs (front-of-the-book, the little 200-word items no veteran writer wants to touch) for magazines, op-eds, essays, articles, letters to the editor. You do commentary for every program you can think of in every possible broadcast medium, regardless of pay. It’s said that any message needs something like 27 repetitions for people to even remember it.

What’s your goal? If you only want to be(come) famous and get a cool job and/or make a lot of money and/or sell a screenplay of your story, go home. Veterans know it, smell it and hate it. If you’re committed to the story and your sources and feel utterly compelled to tell this story, tell it. No one is stopping you but your ego.

There are many, many ways to get the word out. But….you won’t own it. It won’t be your story.

Few stories are.

Anyone who fantasizes that their work and their opinions will change the world without some grovelling to the powers-that-be — which may not work anyway — isn’t well acquainted with gatekeepers, whose job is still to ferociously guard access to their pages, airwaves or bandwith — and to their ideologies and to their advertisers, without whom none of us get paid anything.

It’s also a sobering thing to work your ass off on a story you’re convinced will, certainly, create a storm of interest and reaction and get…nothing. However ugly, it’s a useful reminder of our individual weakness and the folly of relying on a major outlet to make your story or your career or your ideas matter.

This happened to me most recently, and instructively, with an investigative medical story I did for Chatelaine — a Canadian version of a Washington Post story I’d read earlier. Chatelaine was then Canada’s largest women’s magazine, with about 1 million readers, and, in a smaller country, dominant in that market. The editors flew me to Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto from my home in New York, an unusually serious commitment for them financially, and a clear vote of confidence in my skills and in the piece.

I interviewed three women who had taken a drug, Mirapex, that had caused serious side effects, causing all of them to gamble uncontrollably. This was, in a long career with many tough stories, one of my hardest: all three women, and their families, were financially and emotionally devastated as a result. One woman shook like a leaf throughout our interview, her adult daughter beside her, because the stress of talking to me aggravated her Parkinson’s disease, for which she took the drug.

I found the story harrowing to report and write, so for that reason, as well as its intrinsic importance in warning other readers about this drug’s side effects I hoped it would be well-read and valued. The editing process was insane, with so many editors coming and going, I ended up in the hospital with pneumonia from overwork.

We didn’t get one single email or call or letter on that piece. Not one. The editors promised they’d nominate it for a National Magazine Award, but didn’t, and no one bothered to tell me in time to submit it myself.

Was it still an important story? One worth doing? One worth the costs to me, and the magazine and the women who spoke to me? Yes.

I later received an astonishing email from a medical student who had taken the drug, told her physicians she was having terrible side effects, and no one believed her until her mother showed them my article. There’s no award worth more.

Did its publication achieve my more selfish personal goals? No.

Here remains the fundamental problem and it isn’t changinging anytime soon. Very, very few journalists, anywhere, has the power — individually — to break and run with a major story of national or international import.

Very few journalists, still, alone, have:

1) the financial resources to do nothing but one story day after day for weeks or months; 2) the financial resources to travel to a breaking story, whether in the Mideast or Latin America or Asia; it costs money to travel, eat, stay somewhere, hire translators or interpreters and fixers; 3) the knowledge, understanding, experience, language or cultural skills to truly penetrate a story and tell it effectively 4) the physical, emotional and mental stamina it can require to report the toughest stories, whether of war, poverty, brutality, violence or corruption; 6) the balls, you should pardon the expresson, to do so.

The most crucial, still, is your outlet. Who is going to run it? Who will listen, heed, act? If you focus all your energies and resources on only one or two Big Name Outlets, and fail, then what?

So this fantasy that one journalist or blogger or freelancer can, and should, change the world through the sheer force of their will, intellect or opinions is madness. There are few better ways to make your head explode with frustration.

In my mid-20s, as a deeply ambitious freelancer then a staffer at the demanding, ferociously competitive Globe and Mail, I wanted every story to matter, a lot. (This drove my poor editors nuts.)

Changing the world seemed of huge importance. It still is.

But a wiser and slightly older friend pointed out that not any single one of my stories was likely to do so. These stories were still well worth doing — as part of a larger effort.

I believe in the principle of water on stone.

You can wear away the largest rock, over time, by the continual pressure of water. It may not happen this year, or this decade or even within your lifetime. What my friend, a former journalist, meant was that I could keep returning to the story, year after year, in different versions for different markets. Or, even more shocking to my young ego, I could also count on several, maybe many, other journalists to also work on the story, expanding and deepening it, adding to a wider body of knowledge, context and understanding.

Then, as now, great stories do not have to be mine, all mine.

Nor do they have to be yours. They do need, somehow, somewhere — in service to the readers, viewers and listeners for whom they are produced — to become ours.

Checkbook Journalism, David Goldman And The Brazilian 'Rescue' — Should Sources Be Paid?

Society of Professional Journalists
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Here’s a wrist-slap from the Society of Professional Journalists:

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee is appalled NBC News breached widely accepted ethical journalism guidelines by providing the plane that carried David Goldman and his son Sean back to the United States from Brazil after a high-profile custody battle.

NBC conducted an exclusive interview with David Goldman during the flight it financed and another exclusive interview once the Goldmans returned to the United States.

Journalists know this practice as “checkbook journalism.”

The SPJ Code of Ethics urges journalists to act independently by avoiding bidding for news and by avoiding conflicts of interest.

By making itself part of a breaking news story on which it was reporting — apparently to cash in on the exclusivity assured by its expensive gesture — NBC jeopardized its journalistic independence and credibility in its initial and subsequent reports. In effect, the network branded the story as its own, creating a corporate and promotional interest in the way the story unfolds. NBC’s ability to report the story fairly has been compromised by its financial involvement.

“The public could rightly assume that NBC News bought exclusive interviews and images, as well as the family’s loyalty, with an extravagant gift,” Ethics Committee Chairman Andy Schotz said.

The news media’s duty is to report news, not help create it. The race to be first should not involve buying — directly or indirectly — interviews, an unseemly practice that raises questions of neutrality, integrity and credibility.

“Mixing financial and promotional motives with an impartial search for truth stains honest, ethical reporting,” Schotz said. “Checkbook journalism has no place in the news business.”

Selling your story to the highest bidder is standard practice in Britain. Journalists  — who, if they are not handsomely rewarded personally, help their parent organizations reap viewers/readers and ad revenue by snagging and riding the hottest stories — routinely refuse to pay sources. That’s just how it’s done in the U.S. and in Canada, even if the person being interviewed is destitute.

It does create an unwinnable “arms race” when a large media organization with very deep pockets can, literally, spirit away the key figure in a breaking international story. But, as we all know, life’s not fair and the media business remains ever more competitive.

What do you think?