Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Reporting Life, Part Two

By Kathleen Miller.

Around 10 a.m.

Sometime around 10 a.m. every day, an editor would saunter over to my desk and hit me with the inevitable: what’s going on Kathleen?

Editors have to tell their bosses what to expect, to give them an idea of the number and the magnitude of the stories that will appear in the next day’s paper and coordinate the layout and need for photos or graphics. There’s no grand conspiracy_it’s basically as simply as a reporter telling their editor a handful of things going on in the area and the two of them hashing out what’s worth covering.

And, I hate to break it to you but hard news - i.e. breaking developments in policy changes, a crime, a vote on a controversial issue or investigative reporting into a potential scandal, cover-up, conflict-of-interest or ethical lapse - is always, always, always going to win out over “fluff,” i.e. a story about a group of kids cleaning up a highway or a fundraising effort for a local shelter, no matter how nice and inspiring the fluff is.

My mom - a first grade teacher at a Catholic elementary school in Northern California - disagrees with this approach. She used to send me e-mails when I worked for the AP in Cheyenne, Wyoming, suggesting I do a feature on a group of nuns in a remote part of the state that were making their own all-natural soap. “You never write about anything positive, Kathleen…..”

One day, feeling particularly empathetic to the need to highlight good over evil, I mentioned her line-of-thinking to my boyfriend, a reporter who covers Virginia for the Examiner. He paused for about one second and totally dismissed the idea.

His take: we cover counties that employ at least ten people each for the sole purpose of promoting the region’s image. They’re called public information officers. On the other hand, how many people get paid to bring questionable or controversial acts to the public’s attention? Most counties have an inspector general. Montgomery’s IG Tom Dagley does great work - you need no more evidence than the fact that many county officials chafe at the mention of his name. However there are probably more county council members than IG office staffers. So that leaves the media, a shrinking group these days.

Perhaps it’s grandiose to see it as our mission to be the public’s watchdog, but when we don’t question or investigate enough - i.e. Bernie Madoff scandal, economic collapse or oh, say the Iraq War - we’re also the public’s favorite punching bag. You can’t win. I’m siding with the boyfriend over Mom on this one.

Every morning, I’d try to have three or four story ideas ready-to-go. There’s usually a give and take between the reporter and the editor. My bosses would let me know what sounded like the biggest story to them. If I felt passionately that something else was more important, I’d fight for it. You try to wind up with a story you’ll shoot to deliver and a back-up you can guarantee you’ll deliver.

Why? Because every reporter knows what it’s like to have a story fall-through on them. Occasionally you’re working with inaccurate information, sometimes you can’t get an essential call returned or access to a necessary document and at other moments you’ve just simply bitten off more than you can chew in one day.

On top of that, every reporter knows what it’s like to have an editor approach their desk around 3 p.m. and say, “We’ve got another hole in the paper, what can you give us?” Sidenote, for people looking to get media coverage, this is where press releases and friendly relationships can be very handy.

There definitely were times when this happened and stories that I never would have pitched at 10 a.m. and editors certainly wouldn’t have accepted before lunch time start to sound real good.

10:30 to 1:30 p.m.

From that moment on, it’s all about working the phones and sending emails. I try to make as many contacts as possible before lunch because frankly, you never know if/when people will call you back or if you’re even contacting the right people.

Sometimes, in the course of a conversation about a totally unrelated topic, a source will mention something that beats all pre-conceived story ideas and you have a new focus for your day.

In Montgomery County, residents should rest assured that - love them or hate them - you guys have an unusually hard-working, motivated bunch of elected officials. And sometimes just giving one of them a call to press them on a point would lead to a much bigger and better story. They really do know what’s going on and they can certainly back up the positions they take with anecdotes, facts and logic.

I realized you can learn a lot just by shutting your mouth on occasion and giving people a chance to tell you why they felt a certain way. I called now-Council President Phil Andrews once in spring 2008 to discuss some relatively wonky concerns he had about the collective bargaining process. In asking him why your average resident should care, he gave me a fascinating tip that was probably common knowledge inside Montgomery County government, but surprising to me and many readers.

He noted that the county was eight years late on a promise to equip cop cars with video cameras, a promise made by Montgomery officials as part of a settlement brokered after an unarmed black man was shot and killed by police in the ‘90s. The victim’s family had accepted a smaller settlement if the county agreed to install the cameras, but conflict between county and union leaders meant the agreement had never been fulfilled.

To make the story even better, the late Johnnie Cochran had been involved in negotiating the settlement. I hung up and googled the story. There were links to the agreement but nothing about the fact it hadn’t been followed. I called the local attorney who’d worked with Cochran on the case and he was astounded. He’d never thought to make sure the county had lived up to their end of the deal, nor had the victim’s family. Yet eight years had gone by without the cameras that were common in many neighboring counties.

Moral of the story? Sometimes, just giving people a little time to explain their views will yield far better stories than the reason you called them in the first place. It doesn't matter if you side with Andrews or organized labor (who argued the agreement violated the Maryland Wiretap Act, which requires the consent of all parties before conversations can be recorded), it's an interesting - and I think still unresolved - story.

Tomorrow: 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.