Category Archives: Newspapers

A little sympathy

Ideally, you’re the sympathetic ear as a journalist. You can’t help it if you are interviewing a parent whose child just died tragically. Or a person whose house is burning down.

But as a reporter, my “sympathetic” side often took back seat to my reporter side. The reporter in me needing to get a story had to “act” sympathetic while I talked to families, asking them sincere questions about their sons or daughters. I tried never to ask, “How do you feel?” You may get a one-word answer: “Horrible.” Instead I tried to ask, “What was your son like? What did he like to do?”

The parents would often open up and tell me stories, show me pictures — sometimes they would even let me borrow the pictures to use with the story (or, if a photographer was with me, he or she would take pictures of the pictures). If I had time I’d let them talk for a while. It seemed to help them. They wanted people to know about their child. In one case, where a boy had been shocked while climbing on an electrical tower, the father wanted to make sure other kids didn’t make the same mistake, and he talked about that for a little while.

I used to hear people refer to reporters as vultures, who only care about selling more papers, no matter who gets hurt. But why would I as a human being want to disturb people who have just gone through a tragedy? I didn’t. I absolutely didn’t, and it was one of the worst things ever to have to go knock on someone’s door, or talk to the neighbors, after a murder or fire or other tragedy. And does it “sell more papers”? Probably not. If it did, it wouldn’t affect me one way or the other–I certainly didn’t get a bonus–except that more people on a particular day might read my story.

The other argument was that the press only cared about “sensational” stories and didn’t write about day-to-day “good news.” Those who said those things always overlooked the pages and pages of “good news”–features, community news, ribbon cuttings–that appear in every paper.

The sensational thing is the event, not the story about it. The accident/murder/fire already happened. I was just reporting on it. And if there’s no story, people wonder why. Who was the man who got killed? How did the fire start? Why was Route 130 shut down for three hours yesterday?

Reporters are not the only ones who want to know the answers to those questions. But the answers aren’t automatic, and we have to be persistent–yet sympathetic–while finding out what happened.


On deadlines …

When I was a reporter, the deadline was king. Well, OK, the story was king, the deadline was … queen? There was a lot of pressure. But wasn’t a bad thing, necessarily. After a while I loved that rush, that extra stress, with a copy editor reading over my shoulder, checking my lead so he could start working on a headline or decide where to place the story.

Believe me, it took a long time for me to get used to having someone read over my shoulder. It took a long time for me to conduct an interview with people around me, too. I actually used to be incredibly shy. I thought everyone was listening to me, and that surely I’d ask some incredibly stupid question.

As a reporter you learn quickly that it doesn’t matter if you ask a “stupid” question — you don’t put the stupid question into your story; you write about the answer. I would prepare for an interview with a list of set questions, and I’d sometimes go down the list as I talked to the person on the other end of the line, but I learned to be flexible and deviate from that original list. Often my source would go off on a tangent, and that tangent would become the story … I had to be quiet and listen. Have you ever seen an interviewer on TV who loves to hear himself talk? He may be missing something very important that the source wants to say.

When covering a late meeting or some late-breaking news story (usually some fire or major accident) I’d do my interviews, put my notebook in my bag then rush back to the office. I’d be writing the story in my head. Ideally, the lead and the first graph or two were done before I logged onto my computer. The editors would have already reserved a spot for my story so they’d tell me the inch count and I’d start pounding away at the keyboard.

A long time ago I taught myself touch type, which helped tremendously on deadline. But some of my friends in the newsroom who’d never learned touch type were just as fast as they used the hunt-and-peck method. I’d write fairly clean. My ex-boyfriend, another reporter, would pound out a story and never bother with Spellcheck. “That’s what editors are for,” he’d say, in his blustery way. He was a great reporter and he got away with this attitude. (The editors are there to fix mistakes, but as a writer you are supposed to check your spelling and grammar before sending.)

When I was reporting on a really big story, on deadline there was a fantastic rush. Have you ever seen the movie, “The Paper,” where the character played by Randy Quaid sits down to write a story and as he types, he blurts, “It’s like butter!” That’s what it was like. It was like the story took over and just flowed from your fingers.

It didn’t always happen like that. Some nights were simply grueling and you had to write the story first before the lead. But I can’t say there were many times I missed a deadline. It looked really really bad if you missed a deadline. And it’s a very rare occasion where they will hold the presses for you.