Sometimes you stumble across something that’s just so good, you have to share it. After spending a lot of years with interns and young reporters, the Arkansas Times posted musings from a columnist with 15 pieces of sage advice for young (and old?) journalists. Some are nitty-gritty reporting tips, while others are big picture pronouncements, but all are pretty much spot on.
Warning: It’s a little “homespun” at times, but that’s part of the charm.
Here’s the list:
1) They can cuss you, but they can’t eat you.
2) Follow the money.
3) Follow the condescension.
4) About 85 percent of the time, you can find a phone number for any person in America by Googling their name in quotes, followed by the area code, in parentheses — (501) for example — of where they live.
5) When reporting in a small town, talk to the woman at the laundromat. They’ve got nothing but time, and they seem to know everything. Some of the most insightful quotes The Observer has ever published were collected while socks and boxer shorts spun in a nearby dryer.
6) The story is not about you, stupid. Shut up and listen.
7) At the end of the answer to a particularly hard question, count to five, medium-slow, before you ask the next one. If it’s a REALLY hard question, count to eight. Sometimes the whole truth gets stuck behind a person’s teeth, and it takes a little silence to coax it out.
8) Record the interview, or take good notes. Sometimes a sentence that doesn’t seem important enough to bother writing down turns out to be the key to a person’s whole life when you step back and look at them in full.
9) Even if the guy’s name is Dave Johnson, get him to spell it. There aren’t many D’havf Geonsaans floating around out there, but if you’re a reporter, you will eventually find one.
10) When they offer, accept the glass of water. Water’s close enough to free for gubmint work, and besides: It’s not really about the water.
11) Don’t take that smartphone in your pocket as an excuse to avoid stopping for directions. You can get a lot of good stuff while asking for directions.
12) When reporting on something that seems unfathomably big, the trick is to focus on something very small. Few people want to read long, War College dissertations on troop movements. Lots of people, on the other hand, want to read about a soldier praying in a foxhole — how he survived, why he stayed, how he found the thread of his life again once the war was over.
13) Buy your photographer breakfast every once in awhile, and keep your ass out of the shot.
14) Even crazy people are right sometimes. Resist the urge to hang up when they start talking about conspiracies.
15) Write the correction, get drunk and move on, penitent.