Reporting for rookies

Schooling a newbie on the basics

The line between “blogger” and “reporter” has been blurry for a long time. Those of us who went to journalism school and graduated to staff jobs at publications spend a lot of time insisting that our professionalism is worth something—our skills aren’t something that just anyone can pick up.

But is that really true? A blogger friend recently wrote me,

I came at the journalism thing sort of backwards—I started my writing career as a blogger rather than a trained reporter. Now I find myself in a position where I’m being asked to do longer, more reported pieces—which is great, and I love doing it, and it’s a big step up for me. But I’m sometimes terrified that people (editors, sources, whoever) will see through me and realize I’m not really a reporter and don’t have professional training in reporting. Can you offer any advice for people making the blogging-to-reporting transition?

Sure, reporting is a multifaceted craft that journalists spend years honing. But the basics really aren’t that hard to pick up on the fly. I sent her this primer:

Read up. This part isn’t really different from blogging. Read what other reporters and writers have compiled on the topic. Pay attention to their sources—who are they quoting? Who aren’t they quoting? What research do they cite?

Make a list of the stakeholders. Write down the people who have an interest in the topic at hand. They could be experts (of the professional or academic variety), or “average” folks. These are the people who will become your sources. The experts’ contact information isn’t usually hard to find.

Write out your questions ahead of time. Even if you stray from them, having a basic list will keep you on track and help you make sure you ask everything you planned on covering.

Pick up the phone. Or send an email—but the phone is better. If you’re not used to it, reaching out to strangers is hard. But I guarantee that they’re more scared of you than you are of them, and rightfully so; you’re the one controling how they’re portrayed and how their words are used. This is a huge privilege. Do not waste your sources’ time or—and this is an important warning, if you’re coming from blog world—misrepresent their views in order to fit your thesis.

—Oh, and speaking of that, check your thesis. I’m assuming that, if you’re coming from blogging, you’ve probably got an angle in mind before you start reporting. Float your theory with your sources, and ask for their thoughts. Ask for both details and broad impressions. Also ask them to point you toward additional sources.

Take copious notes. Or, ideally, record your conversation. What might not seem important in the moment may make for a useful quote later. And it’s always good to have context and backup.

Supplement with research. Stakeholders can also include institutions or people who aren’t likely to get back to you in time to meet your deadline (like, say, US senators). In those cases, see if you can Google or Nexis-search for quotes they’ve given or things they’ve written in the past.

Give credit where it’s due. If you quote from another piece of journalism, credit it and link back. DUH.

And I counseled one last thing: Stop using the “I’m not really a reporter, I’m a blogger” caveat. If you’re doing reporting, you’re a reporter.

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Ann Friedman is a magazine editor who loves the internet. She lives in Los Angeles Tags: #Realtalk