Whose Job Is it, Anyway?

By Kitty Bennett

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.


Variations on this theme are played out in many corporate libraries around the country, as shrinking staffs desperately attempt to fulfill a growing and insatiable lust for information. If your organization is anything like mine, information-needy folks employ many techniques to work around a small, harried staff and get what they need. Some of our reporters, for instance, are fond of suggesting "keywords" that we can "just plug in" to what they envision to be a universal, monster database of information.

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?"


I'll be attached to the library's rolling shelving and drawn and quartered by outraged information visionaries for saying this. But what I think is "tired"--or at least the very idea is tiring--is the notion of "coaching" hundreds of my coworkers in the game of research, a game that's taken me years to learn.

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.


I'm writing this late at night at the end of one of the best days at the end of one of the best months of my working life. What's made it so satisfying is that my work, plus a reporter's work, has again been greater than the sum of our parts. I talked about this with one of our editors recently and he tells me this is nothing new. Hyman Rickover called it "parallel work," and built some pretty great submarines this way. Specialists--whether their area of expertise is nuclear physics, urban planning, or writing or gathering information--can accomplish important work faster and better together than any can alone.

Consider these examples:

  • When the federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed, there seemed to be little we could do from Florida until our reporters arrived at the disaster.

    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.

  • The same week, I worked with a reporter to find Timothy McVeigh's family here in Florida. While he worked the phones, I worked the databases. We messaged each other constantly to trade information. ("She used to live in the trailer park!" "Her first name's Mickey!") At the same time he interviewed one person after another. We were the first paper to show up on the mother's doorstep. The decision to make the four-hour trip across the state ridiculously close to deadline to interview her was based largely on the confidence editors have in our research. As the reporter hightailed it over there, we continued to collaborate. How he talked to me, took notes, and drove through a storm all at once I'll never know.

  • Recently, we were the only news organization, other than the newspaper in her home town, to find and interview the mother of Baby Theresa, the anencephalic baby whose parents tried to donate her organs before she died three years ago. The American Medical Association had just said it was "ethically acceptable" to remove the organs, and she was news again. Along the way, the mother had acquired a different last name and an unlisted phone number. We found her anyway.

    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.


    Personally, I've been on the news side of the equation, and I know I have it better. I suspect reporters feel the same way. I admit I'm down here in the information trenches and don't have much time for the vision "thing," but I question whether reporters really want to be "empowered" to do their own research, especially five minutes before their deadline.

    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
    Carolyn Edds