A group of reporters and editors, brows furrowed in earnest contemplation, gathered around a conference table at the Very Serious Journalism Institute. The topic? News Reporting for the Millennium.
"We can't continue to cling jealously to the tools of our trade," suggests the Burnt-Out Cops Reporter. "By giving others word processors, spell checkers, and police blotters, and teaching them our sources and our expertise, we can empower them to write Pulitzer Prize- winning articles, too."
Reporters teaching the rest of us to write news articles? A ludicrous scenario? Perhaps, but no more so than news researchers being told it's hip, it's wired, it's where it's at, to teach others how to find information and do research. It's becoming increasingly de rigueur to hear that we information "intermediaries" get our kicks from standing guard between information and the people who need it. It's a vision, I believe, driven by corporate tough times and a need to rationalize the downsizing of the library. I'm dismayed to see how many of us are convinced by the rhetoric.
In our newsroom, one of the most popular methods is the non-request, usually made in the form of "just point me in the right direction." The goal is to avoid making a formal research request. Grounded in the 1950s, the belief of most information seekers seems to be that their answer is easy to come by and resides in a single printed document sitting on a nearby shelf. Well, that was then--this is now. In our library, all sorts of things don't live on the shelf any more--the U.S. Code (it's on CD-ROM), telephone books (also on CD), the Florida Administrative Code (online), and Books in Print (also online), to name just a few.
Another variation on this theme is, "I could do this myself if I just had time (and I intend to prove it as soon as I get access to the Internet)." And then there's its counterpart, "Surely you could teach me how to do anything you do in five minutes. So, won't you please stop what you're doing and quickly tell me how to download five election cycles' worth of data from the Federal Elections Commission, create my own database, and draw meaningful conclusions by deadline?"
Some of you who've been to St. Petersburg may have encountered a massive castle of a hotel on our beach known as the Don CeSar. Every now and then our paper has a picture of some painters who have just spent a year giving the thing a coat of its famous Pepto Bismol-pink color and are poised to start all over again. Painting the hotel never ends. I always think of those painters when I think of "empowering" our entire reporting staff to become me, to do news research. Yes, I could teach them--or teach the people who flip burgers in our cafeteria, I suppose--to do news research. And they could teach me to do reporting. But I still don't get why either one of us would want to do this. Why am I thinking, "Abort, Retry, Fail" here?
Sure, I do a little reporting and they do a little research. No problem. Do you think I care if they look up a tag number or a corporate record themselves? Send their own e-mail? Read their own LISTSERVs? Not this harried person.
I have boundless respect for the work reporters do, and the knowledge and skills they've acquired. And, I'm convinced the reverse is largely true. However, I'm dismayed that we have so little respect for ourselves and our profession that we suggest that others in our organizations can acquire adequate research skills in a few E-Z lessons. Don't misunderstand, I think reporters need some training. But let's start with how to read a financial statement, a corporate record, or a vehicle registration. That's their job, mine is to find the items.
Consider these examples:
Then, once they got there, they could barely find hotel rooms and coffee, much less information. Sure, we faxed them the lyrics to "Oklahoma" and other arcana, but we also supplied them with much more, like an endless stream of experts that included the medical examiner for the Waco victims.
Call me embittered, pathetic, old-fashioned, or egostarved, but I don't see the point in giving someone else the job I love. What's wired, not tired, are those fleeting and intense partnerships with reporters where you're each doing what you know how to do best. You know, when you're feeding them information via the newsroom messaging system while they're interviewing somebody on the phone. Or the times when you're yelling into somebody's crackling cellular phone, "Something's wrong with that tag number. Go check it again," while they're still at the crime scene. It's the excitement of the tennis game of reporting, where they whack a tidbit of information to you, and you whack one back. It's when both your fists are up in the air, and you're yelling "Yes!" at the same time. You know the feeling--simultaneous infogasm.
A dismaying number of people in our organization and others haven't figured this out yet. Wait until editors find their reporters will be writing one story a week instead of one story a day from now on. After all, it takes time to gather your own statistics, find your own experts, and build background on important issues yourself, not to mention surf the Net, just because you can.
Kitty Bennett is news researcher at the St. Petersburg Times. This article first appeared in the September 1995 issue of Online.
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Last Updated: 04/9/2001