We’ve got summer interns at the Fortress of Employment right now, eager young folks who, for some reason or another, want to be reporters. None of them are old enough to drink, as far as we know, which is too bad, as drinking and reporting have been married longer than steak and taters. We’ll not say that too loud, lest the mother of one of our young charges overhears and insists they make a course correction as to their career.
In addition to the young and barely paid running around, we’ve also got a couple of promising new folks just starting their sentence as scribblers, among them Will Stephenson, whose recent story on the Jacksonville power line vandal we really admired. The Observer is nearly the oldest of old hands on the AT Ranch, and we’ve seen folks come and go through the bunkhouse. It always warms our shriveled heart to see new faces around.
The Observer has been a reporter for a long time. We’ve reported in the snow. We’ve reported in the driving rain. We’ve reported in churches so silent we could hear the echo of our breathing, and we’ve reported on street corners where sirens wailed. We’ve reported under conditions that required a dust mask and a towel wrapped around the head, and in hollows so far back in the mountains they have sunlight delivered parcel post. We’ve yet to do any underwater reporting, but give us time.
Over the years, we’ve managed to accumulate some advice that we wish we’d known back when we started. Nothing too high-handed, you understand. Nothing in the ass-backward syntax of Yoda, or that’s ever going to wind up on one of those gatdamn inspirational posters at the dentist’s office, featuring photos shot through Vaseline of people fly-fishing and breaking marathon tape over the word “PERSISTENCE.” No, this is just nuts-and -bolts stuff.
Even if you’re smart enough to have chosen a profession other than Reporter, you might find something here of use.
1) They can cuss you, but they can’t eat you.
2) Follow the money.
3) Follow the condescension.
4) About 85 percent of the time, you can find a phone number for any person in America by Googling their name in quotes, followed by the area code, in parentheses — (501) for example — of where they live.
5) When reporting in a small town, talk to the woman at the laundromat. They’ve got nothing but time, and they seem to know everything. Some of the most insightful quotes The Observer has ever published were collected while socks and boxer shorts spun in a nearby dryer.
6) The story is not about you, stupid. Shut up and listen.
7) At the end of the answer to a particularly hard question, count to five, medium-slow, before you ask the next one. If it’s a REALLY hard question, count to eight. Sometimes the whole truth gets stuck behind a person’s teeth, and it takes a little silence to coax it out.
8) Record the interview, or take good notes. Sometimes a sentence that doesn’t seem important enough to bother writing down turns out to be the key to a person’s whole life when you step back and look at them in full.
9) Even if the guy’s name is Dave Johnson, get him to spell it. There aren’t many D’havf Geonsaans floating around out there, but if you’re a reporter, you will eventually find one.
10) When they offer, accept the glass of water. Water’s close enough to free for gubmint work, and besides: It’s not really about the water.
11) Don’t take that smartphone in your pocket as an excuse to avoid stopping for directions. You can get a lot of good stuff while asking for directions.
12) When reporting on something that seems unfathomably big, the trick is to focus on something very small. Few people want to read long, War College dissertations on troop movements. Lots of people, on the other hand, want to read about a soldier praying in a foxhole — how he survived, why he stayed, how he found the thread of his life again once the war was over.
13) Buy your photographer breakfast every once in awhile, and keep your ass out of the shot.
14) Even crazy people are right sometimes. Resist the urge to hang up when they start talking about conspiracies.
15) Write the correction, get drunk and move on, penitent.