Friday, July 17, 2009

The Reporting Life, Part Five

By Kathleen Miller.

6:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Now’s the time when you send your story over to an editor for review and let your mind rot a bit while you surf Facebook, Perez Hilton or Media Bistro Fishbowl D.C. - if you’re me. It’s also a good time to scan your competitor’s websites, make sure there was nothing major that broke and they’re already reporting while you wrote your story on something entirely different.

The editing process usually is fairly painless. The boss reviews your article, catches any glaring typos and asks you for more detail if they feel like there are some holes in your work.

Most days, I look at my stories afterwards and thank God for editors. The good ones will make your story flow 100 times better than it was before, slice out extraneous information and make sure you spelled George Leventhal’s last name as Leventhal, and not Levanthal.

There are bumps in the road, however, even with a good editor. A few years ago, I pitched a story about county fair woes, including the fact that they seem to attract gangs and nobody I know goes to fairs anymore. My editor loved it. He lived in Montgomery County and heard much of the same from his friends and neighbors, nobody takes their families to the fair anymore, largely because they’re worried about crime.

The greenlight was given. I started reporting and spent four days talking to police, fair operators and residents. The people I stopped on the streets of Rockville said exactly what my boss and I had predicted: essentially, “We don’t go to the fair anymore, we used to but our friends were robbed last time we went and it’s just not safe.”

Except I had a major problem: the stats didn’t back up that sentiment. In fact, the Montgomery County fair had record attendance the year before, and while police had detained an armed, known gang member outside the entrance gates, there hadn’t been a major incident inside the fairgrounds.

I had informed one supervisor of this, and said I was going to have to write the story differently, focusing on how despite record attendance there are new concerns for fairs. I.e., police have to be more vigilant about crime and with the economy tanking, many vendors can’t afford to travel to as many fairs as they used to do.

The other editor, however, read the final version of my story and found it totally unacceptable. He wanted the original idea we’d discussed. I told him I couldn’t write that because the facts didn’t back it up.
We fought. And fought and fought and fought. In a weaker moment, I walked outside and sat in a park near tears. There was no way I was going to let the story appear in print with my name on it if I didn’t agree with the underlying premise. On the other hand, he’s the boss. He has the final say.

I debated playing the reporter’s only trump card: I could pull my name from the story, tell him he was free to run it as he wished (which he can always do without my permission anyhow), but I didn’t want my byline attached to it. It’s an approach that makes everybody unhappy, but it is the last thing a reporter can do when battling with an editor.

I’d never done it before, and it didn’t get that far that day. I’m not sure either of us was ecstatic about the final version of the article, but I felt it was fair. We talked about the crime concerns, used anecdotes and quotes, but also noted the record attendance and that the biggest local incident had been averted by cops outside the Montgomery County fairgrounds.

There is often a natural tension between reporters and editors. We’re hired to write and report stories, and they’re hired to question them and improve them. It is literally their job to correct what we do. The system probably functions best when they’re comfortable challenging our work and we’re comfortable standing up for it, but it does require a thick skin on both ends.


Once the editing’s done, a reporter is free to go home - where, as I’ve noted, they’ll often continue compulsively checking facts long after the day is supposedly over.

Then, it’s time for bed, when the worries sink in that another publication will have a story you didn’t or have dug deeper than you on a given topic.

Trust me, there is nothing worse than getting beat on a story. It can happen in all sorts of ways. You can be flat-out oblivious to something. In my case, see Washington Post reporter Ann Marimow’s “County Executive to get $65,000 Bathroom” story. I was clueless there was any sort of bathroom brouhaha whatsoever. Or similarly Post reporter Miranda Spivack’s scoop “Report on Water Quality Withheld.”

You can be looped-in on a topic and miss a major development that another reporter catches. In my case, see Janel Davis’s “Disability Retirement Review Nets Another Employee.”

And, perhaps most painful of all, you can have the story but be holding out for one more comment, one more fact and lose the whole thing in the process. This happened to me in Marimow’s “Montgomery Disability Practices Under Fire.”

It works both ways, however - I received friendly emails from other local reporters congratulating me on a story I broke that there was a federal investigation into the disability retirement packages of two former Montgomery County assistant police chiefs.

This winter, other news outlets followed a story I broke at the AP about a congressman from the Bronx that had collected thousands of dollars in property tax credits over ten years by claiming his primary residence was in Montgomery County although he was registered to vote and drive in New York. Bloomberg and the Post followed the story shortly thereafter, noting that a high-ranking California congressman had similarly exploited the Homestead Property Tax credit for his Anne Arundel home.

Again, competition should work both ways - and when it does everybody benefits. Reporters work harder when they know somebody is chasing the same story, and the audience gets more-informed articles.

This area is lucky to have The Washington Post as the paper of record - however, that’s generated a sense of entitlement among many local folks that complain when the Post doesn’t cover this county issue or that county issue. The Post, like most media organizations, is dealing with financial strains that don't allow them to run every story their reporters pitch. In many newsrooms right now, there is a battle for space that pits reporters against other reporters and editors against editors at the same paper every day to score a spot for their article.

To those in the community who feel slighted, I say cry me a river - you’ve got plenty of other places to go to pitch stories and read local news.

Make use of them. The Gazette has dozens of reporters covering Maryland, the Examiner sets aside space for at least six Montgomery County stories a week. This blog itself is read by most insiders, activists and reporters in the area.

You never know. Bob Woodward got his start at the Sentinel, and Maureen Dowd covered some of the issues surrounding Robin Ficker’s first ballot referendum victories on landfills and sewage sludge for the now-defunct Washington Star.

If it’s a good story, it will capture the public’s attention no matter who covers it.