25 things I learned from the best newspapermen (and women) around

Dallas News reporter John Rosenfield sitting at desk, behind typewriter in Houston, TX in November 1948. Photo by Michael Rougier for Life magazine.

Tradition matters to me.

It gives us culture. It is a way to pay remembrance for those who came before. Yes, it’s a little bit fun.

In the world of news, there is a lot of tradition that needs to be lost. Unquestioned impartiality, balance without real context, an ignorance and distance of what funds it, a rigid belief in a strictly reactionary audience.

But, I’ve always felt, there is lot to be taken in from the past. I’ve been blessed to work alongside some talented and hungry older journalists who have imparted great wisdom on me. I thought some of that tradition was worth sharing as, in my own way, I try to preserve the best of it.

Below, find 25 pieces of advice about being a newsman that I take great value in.

  1. If someone wants you to have his number, you’ll have it in a flash. If he doesn’t, you won’t — Advice given after repeatedly trying to develop a source. It was sentiment around those who covet and those who avoid newsmen.
  2. A journalist should never be the best dressed man in the room — A mentor of mine once told me that my suit jacket shouldn’t match my pants. Don’t have money, don’t want money, so the questions can come from you, instead of being about you.
  3. If it bleeds, it ledes — It’s a famous one, but as it was portrayed to me, it simply responds to the triage of a lede. Whatever is most pressing goes first. Still, its more gruesome nature of running crime stories instead of important, deep analysis isn’t lost on me.
  4. If the newsroom is full, the newsroom has failed — Get out on the streets.
  5. Journalists are the worst kind of middle man. They want to trade you little bits of paper for all your knowledge and stories — Something that came out of a conversation with a friend.
  6. You’re not a novelist, so let me hear from someone else — Believe that someone else is smarter than you on the subject and should get that quote high, to add voice and perspective. Oh, and make sure the quote is actually saying something. “That is cool,” man told lazy journalist.
  7. If you keep asking the same question to the same people, you’ll keep getting the same answer — Either change the question or change the people and probably both.
  8. Never leave without your lede — If you’re reporting on a story or interviewing a major piece of it, if you don’t have a lede in your mind, then you’re not done yet. It can change, and surely will, but you better have it in your mind.
  9. You never know who is reading — I was writing a small weekly feature as part of a great internship I had in college with the Philadelphia Business Journal, and I came to realize through a conversation with an editor that even if it was small and formulaic, each time I wrote was an opportunity to find an audience. It’s not unlike when someone asked Michael Jordan why he always wore suits to press conferences: ‘because I never know who I might meet,’ he is said to have replied.
  10. Write tighter — If you can do in 300 words, what you can do in 700 words, you’re a better writer. I’ve heard this over and over and it’s something I strive for and have tried to develop in my writing here and elsewhere. Something we all should work on. This may be the greatest gift print journalists gave to the world — cut your word count down. That should translate to the web: keep it short.
  11. Inside every journalist is a failed novel — An old knock of the creative spirits of reporters. I’ve worked with a couple who would mention this. (I’ve also heard it said:  “Every journalist has a novel inside him. And in most cases, it should stay there.”)
  12. Don’t use a quotation in your lede — Only one time in all of history will a quotation be admissible in a lede,” Morning Call reporter John Micek once told me. That’ll read: “I’m back,” Jesus said. More broadly, don’t give a single source so much power over the story as to lead it. This is the most influential from lessons I’ve learned on writing stronger ledes.
  13. Strive for context rather than information. Information is plentiful, context is scarce — This was my favorite from a list of 100 Poynter curated last year.
  14. Shut up while you’re interviewing someone — If you’re talking, then whomever you are interviewing isn’t. (Another of my 10 favorite from that Poynter list, but this is something shared with me often, and something I have tried to work on myself)
  15. What is your fuckin’ nut? — Get me the point quick. Have your lede, sure, get me a quote high, sure, but then get me a graf putting it all in context, tightly and powerfully, or go home. It’s the foundation of your story.
  16. “Never write a letter when you can call. Never make a call when you can meet. Never meet when you can nod from a distance” — An Old Philly ward leader adage that goes alternately: “Never write when you can speak. Never speak when you can nod. Never nod when you can wink.”
  17. The whiskey writes my ledes — Cheers to that
  18. On the whole, liberals believe people are naturally good and conservatives believe people are naturally flawed — Politics summed up rather nicely.
  19. We don’t pay sources. We buy them coffee.’ — A trick of the trade passed on to me while trying to foster a relationship
  20. Record your interviews and then take notes like you didn’t — After a digital voice recorder failed on me and I used it as an excuse
  21. “Being a reporter is only lately a respectable occupation.” — The quote is from an interview I saw last year, but it’s a sentiment imparted on me, by wise and crusty newshounds who seemed suspicious of my eagerness.
  22. Say ‘I don’t know’ and ask questions — If you don’t know something, admit it and ask the question that helps you find out. Early on in my career, I had a nasty habit of pretending I knew subject material because I didn’t want to be embarrassed. I’ve worked to get better at admitting how regularly I don’t know what other people do know. that’s part of the job. (this is also one of the 11 most influential things I’ve learned in recent memory).
  23. Ethics are about saying no to most things and disclosing the details of everything else — A notion that came out of another conversation, this with a mentor
  24. ‘Great men, after all, are not good’ — This is the final line of a Philly mag profile of a controversial public housing official, but it encompassed a perspective many older journalists gave me: the most visionary, successful, active and influential people are often the least defensible, because of the compromise necessary to get things of value done. Lord Acton famously wrote “Great men are almost always bad men”
  25. You can know it’s a press releases because it has one source, exclamation points and nothing of value — An early one in my career.
  26. If both sides hate it, you should love it — Sometimes you piss off people on both sides of the matter and that usually means you did due diligence.
  27. “…Never invite a newspaperman anywhere there are people with manners.” — From the Pete Dexter novel Paris Trout, it speaks to what has been shared with me on roles and my view of personality.
  28. “All good work is done in defiance of management.” — Bob Woodward’s old saying:
  29. “When news writing, start with your strongest material. Lead with your second best stuff. There should always be rising action.”Said magazine reporter Jim Collins. To add to that, I’ve also always been taught to close with a point, so if your strongest stuff (quote or what have you) leaves the story going somewhere in the reader’s mind, then it’s the right fit.
  30. “My business is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” — Mother Jones’s famous play on Finley Dunne’s writing.
  31. “A journalist’s job is to weave together seemingly disjointed parts into a broad narrative for a busy world.” — A friend summed up a common concept that good beat reporters are always building a longer story, not just one in the moment.
  32. “I don’t care if my reporters are fucking elephants, as long as they aren’t covering the circus” — Former New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal famously said about Laura Foreman, who had slept with a PA state senator while she covered him at the Inquirer before coming to the Times. I first heard this on Freakonomics and found it fitting for a broader view of bias.
  33. Relationships are our currency — Don’t burn bridges unless you’re doing it for the right reasons because the relationships you build are what separates you.
  34. Reporters get their names next to your headlines just for telling the story — A little reminder that journalists are often bystanders to history not much by their own merits but by being near to someone or something else.

4 thoughts on “25 things I learned from the best newspapermen (and women) around”

  1. Nice list. Wikipedia credits Boston political boss, Martin Lomasney, as the source for “Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink.”

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