One of my first jobs in journalism was as a fact checker for Newsweek magazine. Like Time, its bigger and more successful rival, Newsweek took an assembly-line approach to news. Correspondents in bureaus around the world did the reporting. Writers based in New York — at East 49th Street and Madison Ave. back then — penned the stories. A senior editor, then a “top” editor polished the prose. Fact checkers like me made sure the stories were accurate: Names correctly spelled, titles properly rendered, statistics duly confirmed.
News as team sport.
The first cover story I ever fact checked was Newsweek’s first cover on AIDS. Mountains of “files” poured in from a dozen or so national correspondents: Atlanta on the CDC’s dire epidemiological assessments. D.C. on NIH’s nascent research efforts and the tepid policy debates in Congress and the White House. New York and San Francisco on the growing anxiety and activism in the gay and public health communities and on the bathhouse scene.
All that field work, all the details and perspectives and personal stories gathered from dozens of interviews and field trips and scientific papers and public health reports and off-the-record coffees and lunches and hallway chats made that cover a deep, rich, human narrative about an ominous threat we were ignoring at our peril.
Was it worth it? Was the value of that investigation to Newsweek’s readers and bottom line worth the dollars spent on correspondent salaries and bureau overhead? If you consider that Newsweek and many other top-flight news organizations have since gutted their news-gathering corps and budgets, the answer would seem to be no. And that is a tragedy.
In the ecosystem of news, reporting is the most essential and most endangered species. Assembling a news story, a good news story, is an arduous process. Writing is usually the fastest part. For days and often weeks, Newsweek correspondents would work the phones and hit the pavement, scaring up sources, tracking down leads, finding the story that its writers would often spin into 110 magazine lines in less than a day.
I don’t mean to diminish the hard work of writing. But solid reporting makes the writing process easy. A well-known journalist was asked once if he'd ever suffered writer’s block? No, he replied. Whenever he got stuck writing, it was usually a reporting problem. He simply hadn’t reported that part of the story thoroughly enough.
In most news organizations, the reporting and writing are done by the same person. Many of those journalists are freelancers these days. Without the luxury and security of a fulltime salary and benefits, they have to be smart about how they allocate their time. When you’re getting paid by the word — as many are — skimping on the upfront research and reporting (the story R&D) is often the only way to make an assignment cost effective.
Better to take a quick inventory of what’s out there on line, make a call or two to freshen it up, apply a bit of spin and call it good. An experienced writer can do a lot with a little. But the result is more an echo of news coverage. Less depth, less insight, less originality, less impact.
At Crosscut, I’ve watched our staff reporter Bill Lucia file public disclosure requests with Ed Murray’s office, the Seattle police and fire departments and the Washington State Department of Transportation, then spend weeks combing through the resulting deluge of emails and budget documents to break stories on police discipline and overtime, on our preparedness (or lack thereof) in the event of an oil train disaster and on the labor union disputes that shut down Bertha in the summer of 2013 and could wind up costing the state $17.6 million additional dollars.
Whenever I nag Bill to hand in his story and he tells me he just needs to make a few more calls, I don’t know whether to hug him or slug him. I need that story now, but the fact that he won’t let go of it until he’s talked to all the key sources and run down all the relevant facts makes Crosscut better — a source of genuine news.
Reporting is a science and an art. It is mastering the complex particulars of a beat — be it city budgeting or solar panel technology — and the rhythms of conversation. It is worshipping at the altar of accuracy, and building relationships, and sniffing out agendas, and listening, respecting and protecting every source.
Good, professional reporting is essential to making sense of the world. It takes time, and it costs money — and it is worth every minute and every penny.
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