A good reporter has to be both curious and suspicious

One of the primary attributes of a good news reporter is inquisitiveness. Sometimes it’s all about asking questions. Beyond that basic curiosity, there is also the need to be suspicious. There are a lot of people out there who want to use publicity to some personal advantage and sometimes that advantage is designed to realize some kind of revenge. A reporter has to be on guard against being used that way.

Here’s a quick story about reporter suspicion. One Friday evening early in my reporting career three of us were working late. We were putting together a graduation supplement that had to be run on the press the next day. In addition to myself, the editor and the sports reporter were typing away, writing up the ceremonies that had just occurred.

I was the first to finish and said my goodbyes to the other two. As I was leaving by the front door of the building where our newsroom was located I almost stepped on a skunk that was standing on the stoop. The bottom edge of the door just barely cleared the skunk’s back. I let the door swing shut and congratulated myself on avoiding a brush with disaster. Then I thought about how that skunk might be a golden opportunity. If I could pull this off, I could become a LIVING LEGEND in the newsroom. I might not have a job, but, by God, I would have some kind of a reputation!

So I dashed back in the newsroom and yelled: “Quick, grab your cameras. You won’t believe what’s going on out in the street.”

Do you think those guys would rush outside? Heck no. They ran to windows, instead. What can I say? Reporters are a suspicious bunch.

Advertisements

The other side of competition

 

Having already written about how competition and the desire for one-upmanship is part of what makes a newspaper as good as it can be, I’m now going to tell the other side of the story. Sometimes the desire to beat the competition and get the “scoop,” results in big time errors.

One recent example of this came during the intensive reporting on the Boston Marathon Bombing when CNN and AP reported an arrest had been made and an arraignment would take place at the Federal Courthouse in Boston. At CNN the network said its reporters followed the policy of getting the information from at least two independent sources before going public with it. One reporter said he got his info from an anonymous federal law enforcement source and the other said she got her info from an anonymous local law enforcement source.

As a result crowds began to gather at the Federal Courthouse, which was then evacuated as a result of a bomb scare. Boston Police set the record straight with an official announcement denying any arrest had taken place.

The episode points out the mistake of placing too much trust in “sources” that are anonymous and also the potentially embarrassing error of going public based on such sources. When people put their names to the information it’s much more likely to be valid. Citing an anonymous source is a reporting technique that involves a lot of trust. Sometimes that trust is misplaced. In those cases it isn’t the source whose reputation gets tarnished. It’s the reporter who spreads that inaccurate information. And, of course, the news agency he or she works for.

Knowing When to Shut Up

First and foremost I’m an outdoor writer. It was my outdoor column that led to a 17-year journalism career — which in turn led me to write novels and occasional poems. The truth of the matter is that I’ll write anything. But more than twenty years later I’m still writing the outdoor stuff.

One of the things I’ve learned along the millions of words is that there are times the writer needs to just stop, shut up, and let the reader participate in the creative process. One of the best ways for an outdoor guy to express this is to tell you about a recent spring turkey hunt.

At daybreak on a misty, foggy morning that big tom shouted in the day by gobbling, repeatedly, from his roost in a mixed hardwood forest. I used my box call and a slate friction call to produce a little hen talk, which seemed to get him excited. I was careful not to talk it up too much, because often the tom will stay up in the trees waiting for that hen to appear below. This is the thing about spring gobblers, they like to have the hen come to them. It’s unnatural for them to go to the hen. This is part of what makes turkey hunting so challenging.

True to form this guy flew down about a half hour after the day got good and light. And he walked away! I called to him and called to him, but the best I could do was to get him hung up about a hundred and fifty yards down the forested hill. He gobbled and gobbled and gobbled, but he wasn’t coming. He was waiting for that darned hen to show up.

This went on, off and on, for about forty minutes. I could see him in my mind. He was down there in the woods somewhere displaying his finery. His tail was all fanned and he was strutting and pirouetting, dragging his wing tips on the ground. But he just wasn’t coming. Time to do something different.  Because what I was doing so far wasn’t working.

So I shut up!

Ten minutes went by and then he boomed out a “where are you” gobble. I resisted the temptation to answer. And he gobbled again – closer. His curiosity got the better of him and he was searching for that hen he’d heard, coming to the last place he’d heard her yelping, clucking and purring. Coming right to me.

Sure enough, there came his red head and white cap as he crested the hill and walked out in front of me at twenty yards. I pulled the shotgun stock tight to my shoulder, lined up the red and green fiber optic sight beads and tightened my finger on the trigger.

And right here I’ll just shut up. I can do that because just like how my silence drew that big tom right to me, it will also draw you, the reader, right into my story. Now I’m going to share the creative process with you. Can you hear the shotgun blast fill the woods and echo away? Did you feel the jolt of the recoil? Can you smell the cordite that’s drifting away, blending into the fog?

Most importantly – was it a hit or miss? You tell me. You’re in charge of the story now.

Because I’ve gone silent.

Is reporting a bad job?

Newspaper reporter was ranked the fifth worst job in a recent ranking of two hundred career choices done by CareerCast. The four jobs ranked worse than reporter were oil rig worker, enlisted military soldier, dairy farmer and lumberjack.

Among the jobs ranked superior to newspaper reporter were janitor, garbage collector, and maid.

The rankings were based on five criteria: physical demands, work environment, income, stress and hiring outlook.

The physical demands of reporting, discounting the very odd hours involved, are pretty much non-existent. The pay is pitiful. The deadline stress is never-ending. And the ranking for hiring outlook is in the negative numbers.

So why, I have to ask myself, did I work as a print journalist for seventeen years? The answer resides in the pride I felt for providing the public with information, which I perceive as valuable, since it’s what we use to make everyday decisions. And once I started doing it I realized I was never going to suffer job-related boredom.

Here’s what it boils down to: whatever you do, if you don’t love it, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.

Found Lit

FOUND LIT

I have a friend who has a beautiful, slightly abstract, driftwood goose on the wall of his den. The bird’s neck is extended and the wings are on the down-stroke and you know exactly what this worn and eroded piece of wood is at first glance. It was entirely created by nature. No one ever put a carving implement to this piece of art. My friend simply picked it up, saw it for what it was, and took it home to hang on the wall.

The term for this is found art.

Can there be found art when it comes to writing? I’m not talking about finding a particular event or landscape and describing it, but an actual something already written. Found literature? I’m a believer.

I once decided to write Haiku. After years of newspaper reporting I indulged the desire to write a 100,000-word novel. Then I went the other way and tried to see how much I could say with just a few words.

Haiku presented that challenge. A handful of syllables arranged just so in a three -line poem that would involve some aspect of nature, express the season and speak to a transition. I wrote a whole bunch of them. None were any good. I threw them all away.

Then one day I walked outdoors and found that nature had written one for me.

I call it Owled. Yes, I know that’s not a real word. I took a noun and made it a verb. Poets get to do that. It’s called creative license (don’t ask to see mine). Here’s that piece of found lit.

Owled

Lace of mouse tracks

Freshly stitched in new snow

Ends with wing prints

How to Write a Novel

HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL

Someone who recently read my still unpublished novel Beyond Bethlehem asked me how I did this – actually write a whole novel? My answer was there is only one way to write a novel and that’s to sit down and start writing. It won’t happen until then.

My novel started with a turkey hunt gone good.

I had played with the idea of writing a novel for years, making occasional notes, scribbling down ideas, and daydreaming various scenes. But I never quite got around to taking that all-important first step – actually writing.

What got me started was taking a week of vacation one May to really indulge my recent addiction to hunting wild turkeys. Wouldn’t you know, I bagged a turkey the first day. That left another eight consecutive days to do something else. Since I had used all my spare time the previous month doing chores so I would have the whole vacation free, I didn’t have anything left on the “honey-do” list.

So I started writing. By this time I had been a newspaper reporter for a bunch of years. So I had some confidence I could pull this off. I knew I had the discipline to actually sit down and write on a regular basis. And I was reporting at the rate of more than 6,000 words a week or 300,000 words a year.

Hell, that’s three 100,000 word novels, right?

The entire journey took much longer than that, of course. And I wrote and rewrote this novel many times before I was happy with it. But that’s a bunch of different stories.

This one is about how I started.

REWRITING

BLOG

REWRITING

I like to read gendre novels – suspense, mysteries and thrillers. I devour the work of people like James Lee Burke, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, and John Sanford. One of the authors whose work I regularly read is Joseph Finder.

Finder’s latest book, Buried Secrets, had a special surprise for me, one that hit close to home. I felt like the climax of this novel was taking place right here in my hometown Rindge, NH (Pine Ridge in the book). My suspicion was confirmed when I read the acknowledgements page and found a thank you to Rindge Police Chief Michael Sielicki.

I mentioned my discovery to Assistant Library Director Debra Qualey and she spread the word. Library Director Diane Gardenour contacted Mike Sielicki, who got back in touch with Finder, who agreed to come speak to local folk and do some book signing at an event at the library on Nov. 1.

Getting some extra mileage out of the trip from Boston, he also spoke to students at Franklin Pierce University, located in Rindge.

Among the many things he had to say about the craft of novel writing was this: he always revises a printed copy of his manuscripts, and never does those whole manuscript revisions on the computer. He said the eye makes excuses for errors on the computer screen and sees what the brain wants to see, not necessarily what is actually there.

This validates my own experience, writing my as yet unpublished novels Beyond Bethlehem and The Road Through Success.

At first when I made a copy of my novel(s) it wasn’t done until I felt I had made my revisions. I waited until I thought I was done because printing was a fairly expensive proposition – some twenty bucks or so in paper and printer cartridges. I was just downright loath to mark up something valuable with corrections and notes and changes.

But after a half-dozen or more hard copies per book I realize this is an important part of the process (for me, at least) in the progression of creating a novel. Having a paper copy of the book to read and rework always moves the story forward and makes it better. I’ve come to look forward to those hard copy leaps.