Come With Answers

By Robin Sloan

During the question and answer period of Samantha Power's Sunday afternoon session, she tossed off a phrase that I think is worth dwelling on:

"Win trust by knowledge."

Power spent many years reporting and writing her book "A Problem from Hell," a review of America's response to genocide in the 20th century, and became an expert on the subject. She often knew more about the subject than the government officials she was interviewing -- more about the history and about the personalities involved.

It sounds grimly sixth-grade: The low-level officials wanted desperately to know what their bosses, the national security advisors and secretaries of state, had told her. These high-level policymakers in turn asked her: Well, what did those below me say?

Power told former NSA Tony Lake about Prudence Bushnell, an deputy assistant secretary of state who was one of the first to warn of trouble in Rwanda. Lake asked: If this was so important, why didn't she call me at home?

Power mentioned this to Bushnell, who wondered: "Who does he think I am?" It would have taken an incredible amount of institutional self-esteem, Power says, for Bushnell to call the national security advisor at home and argue the case for Rwanda.

I think it's crucial that Power moved beyond surface explanations and down into the human gears of policymaking. It must have been a huge asset: Who wouldn't want to talk to a reporter who, besides posing questions, could also provide answers?

Robin Sloan works at The Poynter Institute.

Posted in book-length narratives, reporting, sessions.Against Neutrality, speakers.Samantha Power on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Keep in Touch

By John Currie

David Halberstam has been there, writing from the heart, the words his editor cut forty years back still intact.

Stay in touch with your sources, he said. I’m going to do that when I get back to B.C. I’m gonna call up the ex-street girl I profiled last year; see what’s new. Four men staying in touch, knowing each other sixty years, knowing the moment will never happen again — that was the seed Halberstam grew into his baseball book. Make your editor say, Damn, why didn’t I have that idea? he said. Get that time you need from your editor.

It’s not just dogging it, it’s thinking of ideas and asking the best question any reporter can ask a source: Who else can I see? The more views, anecdotes, perceptions, the better. Get too much and use your best stuff.

  • Read, read, read. A book a week. Everything.
  • Love talking to people. Don’t bullshit people. Don’t try to be more on their side than you are. It doesn’t work and it’s just not nice.
  • Good reporters know nuance and set up the interview ground rules. Make interviews congenial.

The more you do it, Halberstam said, the more you’ll have a sense of human nature, and there’s always a pattern there.

Good writing comes from tons of legwork. The keys, again: the perception of the story and legwork. “As you get older you waste less time.”

John Currie is completing his Master’s of Journalism at the University of British Columbia.

Posted in reporting, sessions.Welcome, speakers.David Halberstam on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

A 24-Hour Job

By Larry Schooler

I remember learning just before I became a camp counselor that the job I was about to take — at a salary of $100 for the summer — was a 24-hour-a-day job. Even my rudimentary math skills convinced me that my employers were “exploiting” me (albeit lovingly and thoughtfully) for a job that would keep me busy even while sleeping. Naturally, they were right: my seven-year-old campers would wake up with nightmares and run home in the afternoons with insect bites.

But I loved my underpaid camp counseling job, just like I love my underpaid journalism job, and after hearing Lane DeGregory’s 20 tips for finding compelling narratives, I understand why. Lane does her job in such a way that she’s never really not doing it. In a way that makes me uncomfortable, since I’ve always wanted to maintain a work-life balance — and leave work at work. But my mind races, regardless, and Lane’s tips, from hanging out in bars to joining bowling leagues, seem like ideal ways to put that racing mind to good journalistic use.

I learned something else from Lane, too, something that she might not want to know. When she began her presentation, I saw a bubbly, bright-eyed blonde whom I expected would focus on the kind of sugary sweet stories I try to avoid reading or watching. Instead, I found a journalist who seems to crave telling stories of notable failures and less notable successes in ways that paint more accurate pictures of the world. My misperception of Lane reinforced one of the ideas she spoke about — not to discount someone because their culture and mine differ.

Read Lane DeGregory and learn. And remember — you can never really clock out at the end of a day on this job.

Larry Schooler is a public radio journalist based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Posted in reporting, sessions.20 Tips from 20 Short Pieces, speakers.Lane DeGregory on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Do the Leg Work

By Robin Sloan

David Halberstam doesn’t put much stock in great writing. Solid journalism isn’t about fancy verbiage, he says; rather, "it’s about ideas, about narration, about setting things out, about telling the story."

And what really comes first is legwork, "The more the better." The more interviews you do, the better. The more anecdotes you get, the better. Because when you’ve got a hundred different angles on a story, Halberstam says, you can write with authority. When you’ve got a hundred different anecdotes, you can leave the lame ones out.

Do both, and your writing will have -- and this is a key characteristic, Halberstam says -- it will have density.

"I can always tell when a writer is cheating," Halberstam says. "I can tell when it’s a two phone-call story."

It’s not surprising, then, that he says you have to actually enjoy talking to people to be a good journalist. The legwork has to be fun. You have to look forward to asking Halberstam’s Best Question That Any Reporter Can Ask a Source, which is: "Who else should I see?"

Robin Sloan works at The Poynter Institute.

Posted in reporting, sessions.Keynote: The Pleasures of What We Do, speakers.David Halberstam on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink