Monday, July 13, 2009

The Reporting Life, Part One

By Kathleen Miller.

A reporter’s day starts with a pit in your stomach as you trudge to the end of your driveway or turn on your computer to see exactly what the competition has that you missed.

Our day often ends hours after we've climbed into bed, awakened with a start from a dead sleep, eyes wide open, palms sweating and mind racing about whether we triple-checked a figure, spelled a name like Schwarzenegger right or are going to be screwed by the headline an editor sticks on our story.

Most of us care about what we produce and we take our work seriously. We know people’s reputations are at stake and that if somebody is kind enough to call us back, they deserve to be quoted accurately.

I know. You probably don’t believe me. According to the recent Pew Center Annual Report on American Journalism, less than 50 percent of people think news organizations are moral or helpful to democracy. Adding insult to injury, the majority of people surveyed also said they believe our stories are often inaccurate.

My name’s Kathleen Miller and I’m a former reporter for The Washington Examiner and the Associated Press. For the past three years, I’ve paid the bills as part of the so-called mainstream media, the past two years of which I’ve covered Maryland, most of that time focusing on Montgomery County.

Now, I’m one of the unemployed masses, a healthy chunk of whom, it seems, hail from the news industry these days.

I’m self-aware enough to realize a common perception among many people - PR types and government officials especially - is that journalists are lazy, biased, blood-sucking leeches or something along those lines. Let me tell you how I see it.

We’ll start at the beginning.

7 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.

Contrary to popular belief, a typical day working in the media does not begin with any sort of axis-of-evil collaboration between reporters and their editors about how to bring down a particular political party, interest group or advance a given agenda.

Rather, it starts with reporters absorbing each other’s work and following blogs like this one.

Print reporters tend to show their faces in the office a little on the later side, like 9:30 or 10, unless you’re working for a wire service that has a specific staffing schedule. This does not mean most of us are sleeping in or watching the Today Show. While I’m downing my breakfast, I like to devour everything other news outlets have put out that relates to my beat - praying/wishing/hoping that there’s nothing the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, MPW, WTOP, WAMU or the Gazette has that was going to totally blindside me.

Like it or not, I think it’s better to know what other media outlets are reporting as soon as you wake up in the morning - both so you can think of what you’ll say to your boss if you got beaten on a story and so you can get a jumpstart on putting calls in to follow any of the competition’s work with your own second-day look at the issue.

You learn a lot from other people’s articles: sometimes you kick yourself for not tracking an issue or calling a certain person the day before and sometimes you scratch your head and wonder who thought that story would make for an interesting read. Regardless, it always expands your knowledge of the area you cover.

Reporters, like readers, are drawn to different kinds of stories, and if say, wetlands or the Purple Line don’t make your pulse race, it’s still good to read articles about them from people who naturally gravitate to those subjects.

Tomorrow: Around 10 a.m.