Journalists on the ‘aha’ moments that changed the way they work

Between 2013 and 2016, I worked as a reporter for The New York Observer. It was my first full-time job in journalism, there was little oversight, and I had no assigned beat. Because I was a relative greenhorn in the newsroom, I struggled to come up with story ideas. After a while, however, I found a groove: some of my favorite pieces, I realized, had started when I’d been annoyed by something—or, more accurately, noticing that I’d been annoyed by something and reporting out the feeling. (For better or worse, I am annoyed by a lot of things.)

This may not sound like much of a revelation. But the insight helped me achieve a new level of awareness that I hoped would allow me to see a story before anyone else.

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Many reporters have had “aha” moments that have changed the way they think about journalism. Because journalism is a profession that is learned on the job, reporters often develop their own personal approaches to writing, interviewing, researching, and other aspects of the craft based on singular experiences that they carry with them. CJR surveyed journalists by phone and email about such experiences. Some interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

 

It can be anxiety-producing to reroute a story when one is already in the field, but the story is almost always better for it.

 

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Jason Leopold, senior investigative reporter, BuzzFeed News

When I was reporting in Guantánamo, I wore a Black Flag T-shirt. It’s my Twitter avatar. Someone there who was quite a bit older than me thought that my T-shirt represented the black flag of Al-Qaeda. Some of the younger guards and the people who escorted us around, however, struck up conversations with me when they saw the shirt. It was simple: I wore a T-shirt that music fans could react to, and it opened up the door to a conversation.

When I’m trying to cultivate sources, I’ve learned that it’s best to make people feel comfortable so that they can let their guard down, speak freely, and perhaps disclose information. So sometimes I’ll show up to an interview in a band T-shirt—I happen to own thousands. I’ll be very casual. That can sometimes lead to a conversation about, Hey, I know that band, I’ve seen them play. One time, I met with a source, and I had a Misfits T-shirt on. The source ended up talking about the show he went to in the ’80s, and we talked about that for 30 minutes before we got to business. 

Courtesy of Jason Leopold

 

Dave Zirin, sports correspondent, The Nation

In 1996, the Atlanta Olympics were in full swing. I had never given thought to the politics of sports or the ways that sports could be used politically until then. The opening ceremony had an elaborate, garish tribute to “The New South” and to Dr. Martin Luther King, which President Bill Clinton applauded. It was all a bit over the top, but I didn’t give it much thought. Later I learned that, while the opening ceremony with its brightly colored tale of racial reconciliation played out, civil rights protestors were demonstrating against the demolition of low-income housing that primarily served black residents in Atlanta. That housing was being replaced by Olympic facilities. It made an incalculably strong impression on me: the idea that journalism can reveal deeper truths, and that beneath the flash and shiny lights often lies the real story. It taught me that the most important narratives don’t take place center-stage but are often fighting to be heard at the margins.

 

Vanessa Grigoriadis, contributor, New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair; author, Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power and Consent on Campus

I’ve always believed that reporting should dictate a story’s angle rather than the other way around. But I never realized the value of simply listening to subjects talk about what they want to talk about until 2009, when I wrote a piece on Facebook for the cover of New York. I’d told the Facebook PR folks that I wanted to write about the way Facebook was remaking old friendships—this was the truth—but when I visited their offices, all they could talk about was the company’s dedication to users’ privacy. I realized that these interviewees were unwittingly guiding me to a much better story about digital ownership, and quickly folded the first premise into their new one. It can be anxiety-producing to reroute a story when one is already in the field, but the story is almost always better for it.

 

Hadas Gold, reporter, CNN

One editor of mine told me long ago to simply imagine you’re telling your friend or colleague what happened and why it’s important in one line. That’s your lede. You don’t need to get all the “who what where when why” into the first sentence. It’s more important—and engaging—to tell readers why they should keep reading. 

And a colleague once taught me you own the whole story—from the headline, to the photos, to the chyrons. Even though many other producers, editors, and the like may have a role in getting your piece published or on-air, it’s your byline or your face the audiences and your sources see. Make sure you are personally okay with everything.

 

Andrew Rice, contributing editor, New York

When I was 25 years old, I moved to New York and took a job at the weekly New York Observer. I already had a couple of years of newspaper experience, mainly at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where I had worked in a suburban bureau covering township board meetings, holiday parades, and the occasional horrific traffic accident. But the Observer was the newspaper where I really wanted to work. It was the sort of publication where you could really be a writer—the kind of writer who freely used italics … and ellipses … and even the occasional exclamation point! I quickly learned, though, that I had not been hired to be a stylist. I was a beat reporter, covering New York commercial real estate. This was terrifying to me, as I knew nothing about real estate, commerce, or, frankly, New York, having just moved to the city. What’s more, I had ruthless competition—in those days the city was filled with many daily and weekly newspapers. My job was to find a story each week in the clannish world of Manhattan real estate developers, one that all the other real estate reporters had overlooked, ideally one that involved the elements of politics, ego, gossip, and conflict. “It’s a simple formula,” my editor told me on my first day. “Protagonist, antagonist.” (He also informed me that one subject had been ruled off-limits, because the editors had deemed it completely exhausted. “A.B.T.,” he instructed me. “Anyone but Trump.”)

Where was I to find such entertaining narratives? After a little bit of struggle, I found my way to the county courthouse at 60 Centre Street. Down in its basement, in Room 103B, there was a big room filled with long wooden tables, and a row of computers that the public could use to look up lawsuits. The system was primitive even by the standards of the Year 2000: ancient PCs with cathode ray tube monitors and blinking green cursors that responded to arcane commands. Once I learned to work the system, though, I would plug in the name of whoever I was writing about and, more often than not—this being the litigious world of New York real estate—a whole list of lawsuits would pop up. I would scrawl their docket numbers onto paper slips and hand them to the clerk behind the records room counter. After a decent interval, the clerk would return with folders. Sometimes they were thin. Sometimes they were thick, and full of wonders. There were complaints, exhibits, sworn depositions—the raw material of fact that could be refined into a narrative. Buried in those papers were stories of existential struggles and epic swindles, boardroom secrets and illicit affairs. Because New York is the financial capital of the entire world, its courts are the venue for all kinds of exotic disputes. (One case I investigated involved a struggle over a Bulgarian fertilizer factory involving alleged the Russian mafiosi and a number of assassinations.) Even in a town crawling with competing reporters, many of these conflicts had gone unnoticed.

Over the course of my career, the methods I learned have proved to be an enduring asset to me, although somewhat to my dismay, the county court now employs a digital filing system, making most trips to the basement on Centre Street unnecessary. But I still end up there every once in a while, when I need something from deep in the archives. Last I checked, the computer monitors down there still look the same, and the old commands still work.

 

Alice Lloyd, freelance journalist; former staff writer, The Weekly Standard

Two profiles I wrote—first Carol Swain and then Dinesh D’Souza—changed my approach to reporting. Nothing’s more complicated than a person’s nature. The richest challenge is to learn everything you can, and see everyone’s side; that’s how you get the truest version of any story. When the subject is a controversial public figure, it’s that much more important to leave bias behind. Those pieces changed the way I think about polemics and the personalities and experiences underlying everyone’s ideology, just as I was gradually growing into a personal preference for reporting over opinion. 

When we were packing up our desks and leaving the Standard offices forever last year, I found my notes from both those profiles: I had my interview transcripts from the Swain profile cleanly typed, printed, highlighted with cross-references labeled on little sticky tabs, whereas my D’Souza file was a coffee stained legal pad full of phone numbers and a single, endless Google doc. I don’t know what exactly that says about my evolution as a reporter, except that I think it sort of says everything. 

 

Jim DeRogatis, journalist and author of Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly

I write about this in Soulless. Early on in my career, as a beat reporter covering Hoboken, New Jersey, for the Jersey Journal, just across the river from Manhattan, I had two brilliant editors, Margaret Schmidt and Pat Donnelly, who both told me, “Sometimes you choose your stories, and sometimes your stories choose you.” And I remember them talking about how, when you’re a beat reporter, and you’re living in the city, or even just commuting to work every day, you should have your eyes open all the time, because on the bus, grabbing a bite at lunch, walking the dog at the park, going to the laundromat to do the laundry, people are talking and people have stories. Everybody has a story. This is hardly a brilliant or new codicil. Sometimes you choose your stories and sometimes they choose you, and either way, you’re not a journalist if you don’t follow them through ’til the end.

 

It took me longer than I would like to admit to learn that writing profiles is more of a listening exercise than a traditional reporting job.

 

Leon Neyfakh, host, Fiasco podcast

Tom McGeveran at The New York Observer taught me that transition sentences are for suckers. You don’t need them! Just go from A to B; no one cares if there’s some fake connective tissue there to smooth it out. Many years later, I relearned the lesson in the context of podcasting: it turns out smooth transitions are actively deadly in audio, because people tend to zone out and sharp transitions (non-transitions) actually have the effect of snapping them back to attention. If you do the print thing of trying to make it totally seamless as you move from scene to scene, then your listeners are more likely to come to and not know where they are. You don’t need to do the boring stuff! Just put in the good parts.

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Stephen Rodrick, senior writer, Rolling Stone

Around 2000, I did a story for a men’s magazine where I followed a high school wrestling team in Iowa through a season. I briefed the kids and coaches about on-the-record, off-the-record, and said if they told me something that they later felt uncomfortable about to come talk to me about it.

I spent probably five or six weeks with the team and began to center in on a damaged, possibly dangerous kid who was contending for a state title. He was the kind of teen who punched out a bathroom stall if he got in a fight with his girlfriend—scary behavior, but behavior that served him well in a kill-or-be-killed sport like wrestling.

One day, he drove me around his small town and, proud to have a writer tagging along, said he wanted to make a stop at his ex-girlfriend’s house. He rang the doorbell. Before anyone answered, he told me something.

“Wait ’til you meet the mom, she’s such a MILF.”

At the time, I seriously didn’t know what it meant. He explained. I thought it was a great detail about this roguish kid and put it in the story, which turned out largely to be about his troubled life and a year that ended with a heartbreaking loss in the state finals.

A few days after the story came out, I got a call from the boy’s mom, and she was crying. There was a ton of rough stuff in the story, but it was the MILF remark that had shaken her.

“You don’t know the impact a remark like that has on a young man in a small town.”

She was absolutely right. I didn’t. Ever since, I’ve kept an eye out for the extra detail that might make the story .0001 percent better, but could make someone’s life significantly harder. I’ve never cut out anything that I thought was crucial to a story, but it was a stark reminder that you are writing about actual flesh-and-blood human beings. It is not your responsibility to capture them at their very worst. I guess I always knew this, but it took this reminder to make it sink in. A little kindness, even in journalism, goes a long way.

 

Rachel Syme, contributor, The New York Times Magazine, New Yorker, and The New Republic

It took me longer than I would like to admit to learn that writing profiles is more of a listening exercise than a traditional reporting job. When you are reporting, you want to be voracious, you want to dive into the mud and wrestle the story out of it. You have a hunch, like a tickle on the back of your neck, and you’re trying to either confirm it or prove yourself wrong. But with profiles, you must be willing to invite silences into the work, and have moments where you are not even sure what the story is going to be. I used to do an incredible amount of prep work right before I would do an interview, going over my questions in my notebook in the hours before the meeting so that I could almost memorize them and be sure not to miss anything. 

But once, I forgot my notebook in my hotel room and, panicking, had to go into the interview without my crib sheet. What ended up happening was that I was so much more present and attentive to the person sitting across from me, and in the spaces where I totally forgot what we were supposed to be discussing, we ended up filling the silences with the topics that the person really wanted to discuss anyway. So now, I still do all that prep work, but I try to do it a week in advance, and then kind of internalize it enough that I can go in to the interview without the notes and just with an innate sense or broad outlines of where I hope it goes. It always swerves around, but the lacunae tend to be the most interesting parts of a dialogue.

 

Ruth Graham, staff writer, Slate

Recently I was sending out a bunch of cold emails to try to get potential sources to speak with me about a sticky, sensitive story. My emails were long, explaining my angle, my background, how I’d come to the story, and so on. I was getting nowhere. My wise editor encouraged me to switch tacks and say as little as possible: Just start by asking if they’d be willing to chat about X. It worked. This isn’t an ironclad rule, but the more experience I get as a journalist, the more I realize the wisdom of saying less, both in requests and in interviews themselves.

 

The final line of your story is actually usually the second-to-last line, and the last line is something you put because you don’t feel super-confident in the second-to-last line. But 80 percent of the time, if you yank the last line of the story, it’s better.

 

Prachi Gupta, freelance journalist; former senior reporter, Jezebel

A great tip from an editor that sounds silly, but really works: If you’re struggling to write out your thesis and general argument, try explaining it out loud. Literally, talk in a room by yourself, and even record yourself if you need to. Sometimes it’s really easy to get trapped in your head and you can’t really see the forest from the trees. But the process of explaining your argument out loud, the way you would to a friend, gets you out of that frame of mind and less hung up on the wording. Transcribe or write down what you said out loud—it’s probably a lot more conversational and easy to follow than how you’d originally write it—and then work from that. I try to do this whenever I’m stuck or deep into an analysis, and it helps me get my thoughts onto the paper in a more clear, succinct way.

 

Vicky Ward, senior reporter, CNN; author of Kushner, Inc.

A mentor I once had was a woman named Veronica Wadley. She was the features editor of The Daily Telegraph in England at the time. I remember, I actually wrote an article on spec, and then she called me in—I was straight out of university. And she said to me, You can clearly write. That’s good. But the question is, can you report? And she said, In order to be a really good journalist, you have to be able to walk into a room full of people you don’t know and find a story. Anybody can report on a train crash. But what takes real skill is to walk into a room full of people and come out with a story that is ready to publish

And I said, Well, what about the writing? And she said, The writing is the icing on the cake. That always stayed with me—the importance of the reporting. Then I spent a year or so being sent out into rooms of people to find stories, and it was incredibly good training. 

 

Nicole Cliffe, freelance journalist and parenting columnist

This is a tip I got from Edith Zimmerman. It’s very pithy. It’s that the final line of your story is actually usually the second-to-last line, and the last line is something you put because you don’t feel super-confident in the second-to-last line. But 80 percent of the time, if you yank the last line of the story, it’s better—and actually what you want to end on. And I have found that to be true more often than not.

 

Geoff Edgers, national arts reporter, The Washington Post; author, Walk This Way: Run-DMC, Aerosmith, and the Song that Changed American Music Forever

Carlton Fisk, the greatest catcher of all time, had a sign with block letters above his locker with a message: THINK. If I had one above my desk, it would be: WORK HARDER. 

My first reporting job was at a 3,000-circulation weekly that was part of a chain based in Waltham, Massachusetts. All the reporters were in one giant room. Early on, I looked around and wondered why all these ancient colleagues (some were, like, 34!) were still covering school committee meetings and housing assessments for such meager pay. And I started working long, long hours without putting them on my time card. Within six months, I was hired for a larger paper in the chain. I was able to move out of my parents’ house. 

I’m not Alice Munro. I do the best I can, but my writing isn’t art. So putting in that time, becoming almost obsessive about simply working hard, is the only way I can be special. When I write a profile of Chevy Chase, I visit him at least six times over a year and make sure my secondary interviews are top notch. When I write a book, which I did in documenting the history of Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way,” I don’t just pluck other people’s previous interviews. I call everyone, from Run and DMC to Steven Tyler, Joe Perry and Rick Rubin. I do multiple interviews with Rick Rubin’s college roommate. I speak to more than 100 people for that book. Because without that, without WORK HARDER, I’m just another guy at a dusty laptop.

 

Lisa Snowden-McCray, editor and co-founder, Baltimore Beat

The thing that I’ve really figured out is: nobody really has this figured out. It feels like we’re in this weird kind of transitional period. My first job was at a TV station, but I got taken off writing normal scripts and stuff like that to figure out the web, because at that point it was 2003 and there wasn’t really an emphasis on the web. And so that was a thing where everybody had to figure it out. My work with the Beat is this thing where it’s just like, OK, we’re gonna try some stuff and see if it works. Journalism has gone through such a big shift in maybe the 10, 15 years that I’ve been working in it, and that’s what I’ve learned—that you kind of can’t mess up because there is no real rulebook.

 

Mosi Secret, freelance journalist and New America fellow; former reporter, The New York Times

A few years ago, when I was a metro reporter for The New York Times, an editor sent me out to try to get an interview with a grieving mother, whose son had just shot and killed two New York City police officers before killing himself. The shootings happened not long after the killings of Eric Garner and Mike Brown by police, and there was the sense that maybe Ismaaiyl Brinsley killed the two cops in retaliation. It was the kind of news event that sends the press into a frenzy. 

I drove to the mother’s house way out in Brooklyn and rang the buzzer. I knew that other reporters had been, and would be, way more aggressive than I wanted to be. When a man responded through the intercom that the mother wasn’t available, I politely gave him my name and left without trying to convince him to let me in. In my mind, the mother was grieving, even if her son had committed a despicable act. I didn’t tell my editors that I had given up so easily. 

There is incredible pressure in these situations. The whole city is pressing for information. Funnel all of that desire into one or two editors who are constantly calling or emailing for updates. There is a feeling that we reporters are allowed to be less decent than we would be under other circumstances. But it really hit me when I was standing at that mother’s doorstep, when we are out in the field on our own, we are on our own—it’s just us and the person we hope to connect with. The interaction can be much more intimate than the news crush would have us believe. I try to preserve the humanity of that interaction. This anecdote has a happy ending, reporting-wise. I ended up getting the interview with the mother. When I called later, the man who answered the intercom and who was helping the mother to manage the press liked that I wasn’t so pushy.

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Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Slate.