The basic rules of good journalism are fairly simple: tell the story right, tell it well and, in the words of the late New Yorker editor, Harold Ross, ‘if you can’t be funny, be interesting.’
Journalism is to thought and understanding as the indictment is to the trial, the hypothesis to the truth, the estimate to the audit. It is the first cry for help, the hand groping for the light switch in the dark, the returns before the outlying precincts have been heard from.
Serve not as an expert but rather in the more modest and constructive role of being the surrogate eyes and ears of the reader. Consider yourself a guide who has traveled this trail several times before and thus might remember where the clean water is to be found, the names of some of the rarer plants and possibly even a shortcut home.
Help citizens tell their government what to think instead of helping government tell the people what to think. Serve your readers, not your sources.
The greatest power of the mass media is the power to ignore. The worst thing about this power is that you may not even know you’re using it.
Contrary to the view of many editors, most people still like finding out who, what, when, where, why and how more than hearing in the first sentence how it all affected Roberta Mellencamp, 46, of East Quincy. Try to sneak the news as near the beginning of the story as your editor will allow.
News is something that has happened, something that is happening or something that is going to happen. News is not what someone said about what is happening nor what someone perceived was going to happen nor what the editors thought the impact of something happening would be on its readership
One of the traits of a good reporter is boundless curiosity. If you can pass a bulletin board without looking at it, you may be in the wrong trade.
Reporters don’t have to be smart; they just have to know how to find smart people.
Strive to match A.J. Liebling’s boast: ‘I can write faster than anyone who can write better and I can write better than anyone who can write faster.’
Objectivity, it has been said, is just the ideology of journalism. I’ve never met an objective journalist because every one of them has been a human. Try going after the truth instead. It’s an easier and more fulfilling goal.
The best way to get past writer’s block is to write crap. Then, the next morning, save what isn’t crap and finish the story.
Don’t be afraid of seeming a bit dumb. It’s a good way of getting both the kind and the pompous to open up to you.
Think of journalism not as a profession but as a trade, a craft or an art. Your copy will be a lot better as a result.
Avoid the rituals of journalism whenever your boss will let you. For example, news conferences are just a way to keep large numbers of journalists away from the news for awhile. Eugene McCarthy once said that reporters were like blackbirds on a telephone wire. One flies off and they all fly off. If you have a choice, do something else.
Study anthropology. The greatest unintended bias in journalism comes from being a part of a culture different from that about which you are writing.
If something happens that makes you say, ‘Holy shit!,’ it may well be news. Check it out.
Act like a homicide detective. Follow and report the evidence but only as far as it takes you. Be prepared for lots of unsolved stories.
I.F. Stone noted that most of what the government does wrong it does out in the open. Don’t assume that the story is buried. It may just be on page 27 of the report.
Repeat what people say to you as a question and often they’ll think you haven’t understood and will try to explain it better to you.
Find an easy shorthand on the web or elsewhere and learn it.
G. K. Chesterton said that ‘journalism consists largely in saying ‘Lord Jones died’ to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive. If you’re writing well about Lord Jones that will no longer be true by the end of the story.
Learn to hear the real story and best quotes as you interview someone. If you approach an interview just as a stenographer, you’ll be so busy writing you may miss your own story.
Some of the best stories out there are numbers. Most journalists are educated in the social sciences or English and so tend to ignore numbers. Some even treat them as just another adjective. Go after numbers as if you were an IRS agent and you’ll be surprised how many scoops result.
Follow Ernest Hemingway’s advice: write drunk, edit sober