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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Jason's Rules of Reporting 
I was having a conversation over breakfast yesterday with a guy who's at the top of his field in the area of risk management. Specifically, he's involved in the structuring and marketing of derivatives to enable large institutions in California to hedge against a wide variety of risks - including risks like California getting swamped by a tsunami or an entire city getting devastated -- New Orleans Style -- by "The Big One" every Californian knows is coming.

He's frequently called by finance reporters, and I said "you know, now, I'm equipped to understand what you do. But five years ago, when I was actually doing the reporting on this stuff for a million readers, I wouldn't have had a clue! So many reporters think of risk in just two dimensions, and when they hear the word "derivatives," they think "Speculation" and "Orange County" and "Bankruptcy." and that's where their frame of analysis ends. But they STILL have to write the story on deadline, whether they even remotely understand it or not.

He agreed with me, and said there were very few reporters out there who "got it," which was frustrating to him - as it is to every professional who works in a field covered by generalist reporters.

That led to a separate conversation, in which I said so many reporters play to the wrong audience. I see it in press conference after press conference, in which a reporter asks a stupid "gotcha" question with no real interest in the answer - he's playing to impress the other reporters and editors with how aggressive he is, or with the fact that he might have read a particular study, and wants to confound the speaker with a fact out of left field. He said "I'm with you 100%."

Now, I was a cub reporter, and at some point, I suppose I was guilty of every sin in the book. I've done some things that - looking back on them today, make me wince. But now that I've left the crazy hours of being a mass market consumer finance reporter, and with the benefit of hindsight gained with an opportunity to reflect, supplemented with an understanding of finance and risk that dwarfs the level of knowledge I had then (and I am just now scratching the surface), I herein enumerate Jason's Rules of Reporting - so that no one coming up today needs to be as big an idiot as I was.

1.) It doesn't matter how good a writer you are. You can be the next Ernest Hemmingway in your manuscript and some editor's going to fuck it up anyway. REPORTING is much more important than writing. Spend your time nailing every fact. Make more phone calls than the next guy. Spend your time doublechecking everything. Let the writing take care of itself.

2.) It's better to come in shorter than the promised word length once than to live with an embarrassing and preventable correction later. If you aren't certain of something, cut it. Cut the whole paragraph, if need be. Cut the whole chapter if you have to - you can always run a follow-up.

3.) Go into every story holding the heartfelt belief that you don't know shit. Reporters get into trouble when they try to impress the source with how smart they are. I did my best work, I think, when I started out the interview with "can you explain this to me like I'm a ten-year-old"?

4.) Write out your planned questions before the interview.

5.) If a source says he'll get back to you on something, nail him down as to "when?"

6.) There was only one Carl Bernstein and only one Bob Woodward. Just like there's only one YOU!

7.) Woodward and Bernstein didn't break Watergate by showboating. They got it because a source trusted them to do the right thing - and because they were meticulous about following up, and worked their asses off.

8.) If you're a conservative, work for a screaming liberal editor. If you're a liberal, find a rock-ribbed conservative to work for. The bottom line is that every assumption you have should be challenged before your story sees print. (If you're a liberal, you'll have a hard time finding conservative editors. You might have to create your own.)

9.) Demonstrate what Keats calls "negative capability." Die to your ego. You are a humble servant of the truth. And that's all.

10.) Read your work aloud before you submit it. You can also try www.readplease.com, which provides a software program to read your work back to you. (The basic version is downloadable for free.)

11.) Whenever a new reporter joins your outfit, welcome her by saying "My rolodex is your rolodex." Don't be stingy with your time helping new people along. One day you may be her editor.

12.) If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

13.) Don't try to cover the circus if you're sleeping with a clown.

14.) Make at least ten phone calls for every story. Even little 200-word blobs.

15.) Have a cup of coffee with the reporter on your beat at the rival paper. Ask him how many people he talks to for a given story. Then double it.

16.) Never have lunch alone unless you're reading something to help you understand a story.

17.) Don't play "gotcha" journalism. It's cheap. Just report the facts and let the READERS play "gotcha."

18.) When it comes time to write the manuscript, you have no friends. Be willing to piss any of them off at any time. (But that doesn't mean it has to come as a surprise to your sources! Call them back and say "hey, so and so from the other party's got me convinced of something. What am I missing?" They might still be disappointed, but they'll respect you for giving everyone a fair shake.)

19.) Understand what motivates someone to speak to you.

20.) Your prime directive is to serve the truth. Nothing else, in the end, matters.

21.) A journalism career is a marathon, not a sprint. And so are your relationships with your sources. And your colleagues for that matter.

22.) You've heard it said a reporter's job is to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." That's bullshit. It leads to half-witted "gotcha journalism" of the worst kind. Plus, sometimes the comfortable are correct and the afflicted are a howling mob of idiots. Your job is to nail down the facts.

23.) You've heard it said that a reporter's job is to "speak truth to power." That's only half right. Your job is to speak truth to your readers. Let your readers speak truth to power.

24.) Close every interview by checking the spelling of the name, title, age, and other relevant basic information. Then get permission to call that person directly with a final fact check. Schedule a follow-up before you go to press, if possible. The source will be impressed that you're more careful than the next guy, and be more comfortable talking with you in the future because of it. You'll also get a direct line phone number to the source for future stories.

25.) Record all interviews!

26.) If you don't know shit (and always assume that you don't) admit it to the source! Most people will want to help you out, anyway, if you've made enough calls.

27.) Dial every phone number and visit every Website in the piece yourself.

28.) The best pure reporter in the building is probably the guy in charge of obituaries. Find out his or her habits regarding fact-checking and adopt them.

Hope that helps!

Splash, out

Jason

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