ABC’s of Newspaper Reporting

By Gary Blake

As a freelance reporter, first for a local weekly newspaper and then a daily, I found out that I was an incorrigible procrastinator. Most news stories were written shortly after the fact to meet the paper’s deadline. It’s the nature of the beast. There were a few feature stories that I let get away from me time-wise but these were few. I enjoyed the interviewing process in feature writing and the crafting of the story.

My downfall was the school board or town meetings that could drag on endlessly with debates raging for up to an hour on heated subjects, usually without an immediate resolution. The hot topic would get pushed back to a meeting next week or next month. The reporters from the big morning papers would leave no later than 10:00 p.m. to meet their deadline. Since I was with a local afternoon paper I had a little more time. I got to stay until 11:00 or 11:30 p.m. if needed.

As a freelancer I was subject to time constraints myself. I had to get up the next morning to go to my day job. There was little chance for me to sleep in. Following the meeting I had to chase down key people in the dispute and make sure I got the facts right or as close to right as I could be. No one was ever pleased with my version of the facts even though I had a mini-recorder with me to back up what I wrote. I only used it make sure of the quotes I put in. I had made mistakes by misquoting people in the past. Live and learn.

It would be almost impossible time-wise for me to give everyone who requested it a copy of the tape they could hear themselves say what I wrote in the article. There would also be more holes in the wall next to my computer than there already are. When I have misquoted someone, and it did happen, I promptly printed a correction to go in the next issue of the paper. It’s good for me to admit I’m only human.

I’ve learned one thing about human nature; if people are passionate about a topic or issue they will be willing to spill blood if need be. I just tried to make sure it wasn’t any of mine. If two parties are pumped up, as has happened on occasion, there is always the threat of physical action by one or both parties. This makes for exciting news but has never happened on my watch.

Wading through four pages of notes isn’t easy. I should have been a doctor because even they couldn’t read what I had scribbled down in the heat of the moment. Fortunately I was able to make sense of most of it. After finishing the article I felt like I had put in eight hours in front of the computer.

Every now and then a meeting would come along like one I sat in on where the acrimony was so thick the facts ceased to be important. Like two prize fighters trading blows in a heavyweight fight, the antagonists delivered tit for tat. Before ten minutes had gone by it was clear this exchange wasn’t going to speed the meeting along or come to a positive conclusion.

Suddenly I felt an object strike my shoulder. Bored to tears I had given in to the obvious and fallen asleep. The town solicitor wadded a paper ball and delivered a wake up call to me. It got a nice chuckle from the audience which had dwindled from 50 to ten.

Life is not easy for a freelancer but it has its perks. Most of the meetings were local so the news impacted either me or friends nearby. I knew what was going on and it was a source of pride to know that because of my articles, so did others.

Journalism is not for the meek but it can be learned. It requires a willingness to spend hours in the evening which is when most meetings take place. One thing I learned after a few years was to find out as much beforehand about the issues at hand. I spent time talking to folks who were early for the meeting. Usually they have a bone to pick with the powers that be or are supporters for a particular agenda.

My first article in 1992 was eight paragraphs long and didn’t include a quote. It was a straight account of what happened. Very dry. Almost nine years later I was competent enough to do feature stories, interviews, or whatever else was required along with the meeting write up. It all started with that first step.

For me the first step was to apply for a job with a new local weekly newspaper as a correspondent for my town. There were many others there that had more experience than I did. My only saving grace was that I was the only person from my town who applied for a job. This was the start. I had no experience as a reporter but I had a desire to learn.

This is a big thing. If you don’t have a willingness to put in the time chances are you will find the job less than rewarding. If it comes down to dollars and cents, being a cub freelancer won’t make you rich or even well off. It will bring you in touch with people you see in the local news and will make for good news clips for your scrapbook.

I wouldn’t change anything from those nine years. It was a wonderful learning experience and I’d be the poorer without it. This was the first time in my life that I’d stepped out with no promise of reward. There was no safety net. My wife and two sons deserve a lot of credit for doing without my presence during a lot of evenings.

May others meet the need for good reporting that brings the light of free information to an ever-needy public.