Today's ideal journalism recruit should have a firm grasp of the basics, Web savvy, TV presence--and be able to write really, really fast.
By Cynthia Gorney
Cynthia Gorney was a reporter for the Washington Post from 1975 to 1991, based for much of that time in San Francisco. She was the paper’s South American bureau chief from 1980 to 1982. Her critically praised book “Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars,” was published in 1998 by Simon and Schuster.
THE FIRST UNSETTLING BRAVE New Reporter story I heard, when I went back to the Washington Post newsroom to see what I ought to be teaching journalism students these days, involved a cell phone, a video clip, multiple deadlines and a mouth full of dental gauze. The dental gauze turned out to be embellishment, but not by much; the story was told to me by Tracy Grant, managing editor for the Post's online afternoon edition called PM Extra. In it a heroic business reporter named James Grimaldi is phoning in at midday from the periodontist's office, having already appeared that morning as a talking head on a PM Extra video clip. It seems Grimaldi has just gotten word of a new development in the Microsoft trial he's covering--presumably he was still in the dental chair when his pocket commenced ringing--and he has a spare half hour or so before he's due at a parent conference at his kid's school.
"So he says, 'I'm at my dentist's office and I have to go see my kid's principal,' " Grant told me. " 'But can you take dictation on a couple of graphs?' " Whereupon Grimaldi rattles off four new inches for the afternoon's dotcom copy, and here I have this image of him sprinting for the cab while squinting into his opened notebook, shouting sentences into his cell phone, and holding his throbbing jaw. Apparently he was not actually spitting cotton as he dictated (when I tracked him down in the newsroom, Grimaldi contended that he had waited until the gauze was out), but I have been thinking about how to turn this into a training exercise: First we give them a 30-inch deadline newspaper assignment, then we turn a video camera on them, then we heave a lead-changing noon update at them, and then we whack their molars with a sledgehammer and tell them they have 20 minutes to file.
I think they could do it, too. I'm not saying I could, mind you; by the time I left the Post nine years ago I was pretty sure my technical versatility had peaked the day I mastered WordPerfect 5.0. But after I started teaching last year at U.C. Berkeley, where the Graduate School of Journalism program includes an introductory boot camp of the sort most J-schools require, it occurred to me to poke around some and figure out what editors would like us to be teaching these folks first and foremost. Is every prospective newspaper reporter now expected to present a résumé that includes courses in new media, video production and Web editing? Do hiring editors want rookies who arrive as one-man bands in video camera hats, ready to simultaneously shoot and record and write for tomorrow and knock off eight early inches for the afternoon dotcom? Has crafting a pithy, well-reported paragraph become less important than knowing how to repackage the contents of that paragraph six different ways?
Having watched the day-to-day job demands of Tracy Grant and a sampling of other editors I would like my students to be able to impress someday, I feel I can report with some confidence that the answer to these questions is no, no, and no, but sort of yes. "Nose for news," Grant said firmly, when I asked her what mattered most in a promising new reporter. "I don't think it's changed a whole lot. I think you want someone who has an intellectual curiosity, who always asks the next question, who is not satisfied with the pat answer--somebody who writes lyrically, who can really take you someplace as a writer, as well as be a good reporter."
Editors in a half-dozen newsrooms were emphatic about this: We want reporters, we want writers, we don't want technowhizzes who are adept only at dressing up shoddy information. But being fast helps. Being really fast helps more--"broadcast-competitive" is a phrase I heard newspaper people using, along with a lot of other evocative vocabulary like "flash head" and "screen shot" and "online team leader," which is the title the San Jose Mercury News has given a recent hire named Pamela Moreland, a longtime newspaperwoman whose last job was the managing editorship of the Marin Independent-Journal. "I'd never heard of an online team leader," Moreland said ruefully, when I repeated her title in wonder; Moreland is adamantly of the we-want-reporters school, too, but after hanging around for a while with both her and Tracy Grant, it's clear to me that the 2000 model fantasy Superhire--the perfect young reporter many newspaper editors would now custom-design, if they could--shows up ready for certain daily demands that would have fried me.
Superhire knows how to speak into a television camera, for example, without grimacing or misplacing the verb. I'm not talking about a broadcast reporter here; it's becoming increasingly common for newspaper people to be hauled over to the camera that now takes up that corner where the rubber chicken used to hang. These are still tentative days in the convergence experiments, and so far nobody seems to be expecting print reporters to attend to their Q factors. (I think we still get to look rumpled at press conferences and make rude remarks about expensive hair.) "I don't think 'telegenic' is the right word," Chicago Tribune Senior Electronic News Editor Mitchell Locin told me, when I asked him about recent accounts of the Tribune Co.'s vigorous efforts at cojoining the paper to broadcast and Web operations. "I think 'telecapable' is the right word. And 'telewilling.' We're not trying to remake newspaper people into something they're not. But what we are trying to do is work with them, so they're good on the air."
I am trying to imagine Jim Spaulding, the acerbic, demanding, unflappable former Milwaukee Journal reporter who taught me Journalism 101 in 1973, being advised to make sure I was also "good on the air." But we composed our copy on manual typewriters then, children, and if I am now supposed to spend a semester beating these guys up to start readying them for the outside world, I see that it is in all of our best interests to keep up. So this is my small list of what editors seem to regard as the New Basics: the modern era's amendments, as it were, to Journalism 101. A couple are Old Basics, as it turns out. But new technology has brought them back. As in:
1. MULTIPLE DEADLINES, rapid write-throughs and other arts the wire service people mastered long ago. All journalism training teaches deadline survival. But we're talking here about advanced deadline survival. Despite the demise of afternoon dailies, early-version copy is back in a big way; online newspaper editions are now dropping radio-style deadlines on people who used to think they were going to have all afternoon to fill out the story and work some perspective into it. This does not bode well for people like me, who like to hyperventilate and rewrite leads a dozen times as the clock ticks down. There's a reason AP veterans and former afternoon-daily reporters--James Grimaldi, formerly of the then-p.m. Seattle Times, is one--sometimes seem to be adapting most easily to the new demands of online newspapers.
"For them this is completely natural," Tracy Grant told me. (Word has it that at the Post, the venerable David Broder was one of those wholly unrattled by the new technology's demands for early-version afternoon copy, which I find easy to believe, since I once saw Broder lose a 50-inch political convention lead story into a cranky hotel-newsroom computer, right on deadline. Without so much as looking over his shoulder at the huddled editors watching him and gnawing their sleeves off, Broder sat upright in his chair and rewrote the entire story in 15 minutes.)
Good newspapers still have an appetite for reporting projects conducted under more leisurely conditions; various editors I talked to, including the Post's managing editor, Steve Coll, pointed out that online's early-deadline demands are pretty modest at this point. "We're talking about six stories of six inches each in a newsroom of a hundred people," Coll said. But on the theory that it's easier to learn stick shift as part of the driving lessons--a theory I have now tested on my teenage son, with debatable results, but could we talk about that another time?--I'm making my students this semester file early short online versions as they're out there writing their first daily-deadline spot news stories. That is not nearly as ambitious as the multidextrous University of Kansas class Chris Harvey writes about in her report on new-media training. But it has already thrown my students into some useful new-reporter panic, trying to figure out what to say when the city council is still stuck in pre-vote palaver as the early deadline looms.
2. DICTATION THE OLD-FASHIONED KIND. Pam Moreland and Tracy Grant both take dictation in a crunch; that's what you do when you've got six minutes to remake the online lead. They need reporters who can flip open their cell phones, look at their notebooks and assemble the pertinent facts into a few coherent sentences--without taking the time to turn on a computer. For students who have grown up learning to think on keyboards, this may require some practice. I sent my gang running for phones a few weeks into the semester, immediately after a high-profile press conference by a local police chief. Their instructions: Call this number, start talking, and don't stop until we've got the three top graphs. A remarkably patient T.A. helped me transcribe every one of the nervous phone messages; they weren't exactly David Broder, but nobody clutched, and one of the students sounded downright cheerful as he began: "Hello, sweetheart, get me rewrite..."
3. FAMILIARITY-- a comfort level that used to be thought unseemly for print reporters--with television and video. Nobody's wearing video camera hats yet, not even those Chicago Tribune reporters, whose working mandate is, as Locin put it, to "share content" with their various Tribune Co. relations. That includes ChicagoLand Television, the Trib's all-news local cable TV station, Web sites and news talk radio, and although there are occasional requests to double up--to bring back some usable video along with the reported text--the more common model around the country right now seems to be the spur-of-the-moment talking-head mandate: Explain into the camera, with or without interviewer prompting, the news story you just reported.
Not a complex technical skill, perhaps. But if somebody had stuck a video camera into my face when I was 23 and trying to make the first edition, I would have dived under my desk. It's a subset of Dictation, I think: Dictation With Poise. (You're not allowed to flip frantically through your notebook and mutter, "Um, um, oh hell, um," while a camera's trained on you.) New media and television classes teach this sort of thing as a matter of course, but I'm now convinced that even the most basic newswriting classes need to subject students--especially the shyer and less articulate students--to the impromptu face-to-face with a video lens.
4. IMAGINATIVE THINGKING ABOUT ART AND GRAPHICS. When I was sent out on metro assignments in the 1970s, I don't think it ever occurred to anyone to ask for my suggestions on photography or graphics; I was a reporter, a lowly beginner reporter at that. But the relationship between words and pictures is changing rapidly, especially in online formats. Now a print person may be asked to pay close attention to visuals from the very onset of a story; she might be handed a digital camera, or instructed to write her text as a companion to somebody else's pictures, or at the very least to regard the photographer as a full partner in the enterprise.
"People who are going to succeed in this medium are going to have cross experience," the Post's Tom Kennedy told me; he's managing editor for multimedia at washingtonpost.com, which he joined after 10 years as director of photography for National Geographic. It's still too early to know precisely what "cross experience" means: Are print people expected to become expert at digital photography? I don't think so--not yet, anyway. Photographers spend a long time learning how to do what they do, and Kennedy doesn't want me out there pretending I'm good at his job. But knowing the fundamentals has got to help.
Learning to be competent with graphics and other visual aids is going to make editors increasingly happy too; at CBS MarketWatch, which is now churning out financial news in online, newspaper and broadcast form, reporters produce their own computer-generated explanatory charts. And learning to think about pictures is huge, as the sports-talk guys say--how to work with photographers, listen to their reporting and writing ideas, suggest visually interesting ways to enrich the story material. "If I was selling myself to an editor today," the Mercury News' Pam Moreland told me, "I would tell them, 'Oh, I know how to work with photographers--how to give them instruction without saying, 'Shoot this, shoot that.' And I can also work with graphic departments.' "
5. ONLINE RESEARCH COMPETENCE. Working reporters are now expected to act as their own online librarians, and quickly, too. Mark Stencel, the politics editor for washingtonpost.com, told me he thought newspapers ought to screen potential hires by sending them on an online scavenger hunt. "I wouldn't think of hiring a print journalist who didn't know how to use the Internet," Stencel says. "I couldn't have said that seven years ago." ###
I like Stencel's opening scavenger hunt proposal: "Find me the lyrics to James Brown's 'Hot Pants.' " I believe my 14-year-old daughter could manage this in about 15 seconds, but I couldn't. (Although I could sing it for you, which would almost certainly not get me the job.) At Berkeley we've just begun making computer-assisted reporting part of the obligatory boot camp class, thanks chiefly to our new-media sage Paul Grabowicz, who's somehow managing this semester to teach five CAR sections at once--and who worries, as he tells Chris Harvey in the accompanying AJR story, about where he's supposed to draw the line: How much technology do most of these students really need to know by the time they walk out of here?
Nobody quite knows the answer to that question yet; the delivery systems are changing too quickly, and it's worth bearing in mind that reporters tend to be quick studies. "My feeling has always been, if you can string a couple of sentences together, and you know what the news is, I can teach you the rest," CBS MarketWatch Executive Editor David Callaway told me. Like every other editor I talked to, Callaway said the newcomer he dreads is the one who's got HTML and Dreamweaver down pat but can't put sentences together on deadline. "They can do anything on the Internet, but they can't write an earnings story," Callaway said.
Just then an extremely composed-looking young woman strode past Callaway's office, two pages of copy in hand, and perched on a tall stool in the center of the MarketWatch newsroom. I nearly dropped my notebook; three years earlier she'd been a student of mine, part of the first boot camp course I ever taught at Berkeley, before I joined the regular faculty. "Oh, Kristen Gerencher," Callaway said. "She's terrific."
I looked at the day's MarketWatch online page: There was Kristen's just-filed feature article, about planning for disability or for catastrophic illness. There was Kristen's tiny talking head face, coaxing viewers to her story, in an endless clickable video moment. And here was Kristen on this stool, gazing into a television camera now being trained upon her by a person who looked barely old enough to vote. "Few people think about catastrophic illness or injury coming between them and their paychecks," Kristen said into the camera, her voice authoritative, her hands resting on her black-skirted lap, and I thought happily for a minute: Grace under pressure, sister! If I taught you even a little of that, Mr. Spaulding's legacy lives on.