Joe the Politician’s voice was strained. We’d been talking on the phone for just five minutes, but the emotion in his voice croaked out like a worsening flu.
“I want to talk to the JONATHAN BARNES who called me two months ago, wanting to do a story on my political career. That’s the Jonathan Barnes I want to talk to,” Joe said, his voice cracking.
It was at least the tenth time he’d called me by name, though his bullying repetition didn’t sway me. Joe was mad at me for working on a story that was going to be unflattering to his career (not long after he’d ascended to a higher office), and he was trying to talk me out of it. We argued and it got heated, with Joe uttering some words my mom would soap my mouth for when I was a kid. Already, Joe’s voice was slightly hoarse from his yelling.
“I have a lot of power in my new job,” he reminded me. Then he told me again he’d sue me and the newspaper if the story ran.
“You’ll get nothing out of me, and the newspaper has plenty of lawyers,” I said.
Over the course of a 75-minute conversation, Joe tried every tactic to scare or cajole me into doing his bidding. He then offered me work with his office, which would be tempting for a full-time freelancer, if I didn’t know he was difficult to work with. Nothing he said scared me, because I am from the community affected by the story I was writing.
Not really. I grew up a couple rivers and hills away from this town, and it’s not exactly the same culture as my hometown. But as a reporter covering this particular town for years, I developed a feeling of kinship with it. Still, why emotionally invest yourself in a community you don’t live in, when covering that community is just a job?
Because good reporters aren’t just in the beats they cover, be it a town, high school football, commercial real estate, or whatever the topic—good reporters are from there. They bond with their readers’ interests and try to protect them. I’ve published thousands of newspaper, magazine, and news service stories, stayed awake more than a day covering the Sago Mine rescue, ran from police with G-20 protestors in Pittsburgh, and covered hundreds of council and school board meetings over the years. I’ve learned tricks and sometimes, editors offer them.
“Become a cheerleader of the topic you’re writing on,” one prominent national magazine’s editor advises freelancers.
When he told me this I knew he meant you have to get excited about the topic, feel a real interest in it to get to where you find the details that make for interesting stories. But if you are worried about pleasing people rather than being a good reporter, you won’t attempt (or complete) the difficult stories that sometimes make political or business leaders squirm.
Muckraking is not the intent of journalism, but acting as a representative of the readership is part of being a reporter. Some articles, though, defy the professional logic that tells a reporter it’s safer to go for easy, uncontroversial stories. Still, the tough stories often are the ones people talk about around the water cooler and email to each other, or post in chat rooms.
Readers now have more choices than ever for learning about their communities, but those sources are diverse. Many publications are more concerned with advertising dollars and more conservative in their coverage than in the past. And many reporters are justifiably concerned with writing some things that are unpopular, when it might make the boss angry.
Even so, readers know to take their gripes about issues needing scrutiny to the locals—the reporters from their community. It takes time and work to build that rapport with readers, but the best reporters always have it, partly because they show some guts on occasion.
By the way, I wrote a few stories on the topic which made Joe uneasy. He didn’t sue.
Former daily newspaper reporter Jonathan Barnes is a freelance writer who has published more than 2,300 stories in newspapers, magazines and with news services including Engineering News-Record, Fortune.com, and Reuters. He can be reached at email@example.com.