An optimal point for nosiness, the journalist’s secret sauce

Here’s a reminder that there’s nothing wrong with getting what you want —

Especially when what you want is answers and information. I’m offering a defense for those pesky, relentless reporters. They have every reason to feel good about the annoyance that they are.

"I know of no human being who has a better time than an eager and energetic young reporter." -H.L. Mencken, in the Newseum (should be noted that he's one of journalism's harshest critics)

My profession gets a lot of flack. So much so that, in the past, I have lived in fear of people’s reactions when I dial them up and introduce myself as a reporter. This has even caused me, occasionally, to lose some sight of my goals and the objectives of the stories, articles and projects I’m working on.

I become an apologist, as I am right now: “I’m really sorry to take up your time – I promise this will only take 15 minutes,” are the first words out of my mouth. “I so much appreciate your help on this,” I tell my sources. I have, on many occasions, crossed the line from politeness to groveling. And this isn’t simply the result of any extraordinary doubts of my own invention. The perception is out there. Reporters are nosy, invasive and rude, right? Oh yes, and we constantly screw up?

The other day at my internship at The Post-Standard, my editor was going over with me a story that I had just finished. I had struggled to come up with many good anecdotal sources, because the subject matter was sensitive and no one seemed to want to tell his story. When my editor sensed some hesitation on my part, he shared these words of wisdom with me:

“You can ask anyone anything you want. You’re a reporter.”

First, he’s right, and not just because I’m a reporter. Second, it’s incredibly important to remember that the exchange which I know benefits me is also beneficial for the person on the other end of the phone, or email, or sound waves — and, of course, it’s beneficial to everyone else, too, because journalists are public informants.

So, journalists’ pushiness has an optimal point.

Lots of fields talk optimal points, like economics and biochemistry. What's journalism's?

I pull the term “optimal point” from Joon S. Park, a source for an article I wrote on another kind of invasiveness. In the context of consumer information sharing, he said, there is that sweet spot where everyone can be happy.

Just because journalists are the seekers and gatherers doesn’t mean that we are out to invade anyone’s privacy or trick the people we seek information from.

I certainly pride myself on my own authenticity. I’m a real-live example of someone who cares about journalism and also cares about caring about people other than myself. It isn’t my intention now to defend manipulation or come across as overly utilitarian in my relationships and conversations.

But in every step of the news gathering process — setting up interviews, interviewing and writing — I’ve learned to remember that at the end of the day I have a job to do, just like most of the people who I talk to.

1) The Email Dance

The first obstacle is courting the source — and it’s probably the hardest (once you score the date, the rest should be natural, right?). Of course, it’s great to give people the benefit of the doubt — that they are cooperative, respond in a timely fashion, and have a minute or two of flexibility in their schedules. But even the most efficient people are really difficult. Here are five steps for making it easier.

  • Be explicit in the first email — not overwhelming. I open with my title and organization, state my purpose and describe in detail what I’m looking for from them. And of course, I say please and thank them so much for their help. But not much more.
  • Give them options. Generally, I list three ways of getting in touch and three times I’m available. This avoids the awkward “When are you free?”-“No when are YOU free?” conversation.
  • When someone isn’t cooperating, send them a bitter, seething email. Maybe not that bad, but if you call yourself a writer, one of your greatest weapons is  conveying strong emotion through words. Email also allows you to be … assertive without necessarily being rude to someone’s face.
  • Good cop, bad cop. The prior move sets you up nicely to come back on your subject’s side. OK – this might be where things start to sound manipulative. But usually, a bit of aggressiveness leads to action. Then, it’s a relief to interact with some sympathy and understanding for whatever schedule or circumstances that person is dealing with.
  • Be obsessive and strategic about replying. It pays off to be timely. If your source knows you are busting your tail to be organized and prompt about scheduling, they will start pulling their weight, too. And, yeah, “I left 16 messages on his answering machine” is a pretty good defense when your editor starts grilling you.

2) The Recorder

I still pack the recorder - even if I don't use it.

As a milennial and a reporter, technology has my tacit approval. But for a number of reasons, I can’t dive in and advocate for the recorder reliant reporter (yes, I will start calling it the “RRR” for short). Why?

  • Technology doesn’t fail us, we fail to use the technology.

And that can be catastrophic. I won’t pretend that my iPhone has miraculously failed to record my interviews in the past — it’s almost always very obviously my fault for not hitting the right button, or worse, not having enough memory to save the file. Imagine my panic when I discovered this just as I shook hands with my interviewee at the end of a two-hour interview.

  • Recorders make it too easy for us to forget what we’re doing.

In the aforementioned catastrophe, I spent way too long asking way too many questions to my interviewee. He happily obliged me, and said thousands of quotable phrases over those two hours that I certainly don’t regret spending in his company. But I completely lost track of what I was doing there: getting select information from a select source.

The real reason to stay away from a recorder is so the interviewer is forced to ask strategic questions instead of facilitating a winding conversation. Of course, each reporter will find what’s comfy for him or her. Recorders are a great back-up for interviews and lead to more accurate quoting, which is a tough task and dilemma in itself. But after personally trying out each option, I’d take the pen and paper over the battery and play button any day.
I can only write so fast — so what I’m writing is always the best stuff. And it’s making me think about what else I need to get down in my notes before I let this person away from me.

3) Severed Limbs

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more …”

The hardest time to be relentless is in the writing process. It’s because not only must writers be tough on their subjects, but they must be tough on themselves.

In my undergraduate creative writing workshops, we called it being married to your words. In reporting, I get married to everyone I interview. Can you blame me after reading how hard it is to even get them all on dates?

The quote above, from Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5) is “The Poor Player Theory” cooked up by my reporting professor. It demonstrates how after all of the brainstorming, emailing, phone calling, conversations, questions and basically breathing life into insight and articulation of ideas, each source only gets a strut along the stage that is the final article.

It gets worse. Sometimes they don’t even get lines!

And even worse: they become understudies, with no appearance to the public whatsoever.

It’s tough being relentless.

It pays off.

In my trip to New Hampshire to report on the presidential primaries in January, I wrote a post about the rewards of access. This was only one of many times that I reaped the benefits of straddling the optimal point of pushiness.

I was hopped up on chocolate and scored interviews, blasting the radio in my car and celebrating my first A1. Every time I finish writing a story, I feel that way — like I want to call someone I care about and make them understand how much I love doing what I do.

Now if only I could bottle that feeling, harvest it, and give it to all of my future sources before I call them up.


One thought on “An optimal point for nosiness, the journalist’s secret sauce

  1. “Here’s a reminder that there’s nothing wrong with getting what you want –”
    Success is getting what you want….happiness is liking what you get.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s