5 journalism tips from Mark Leibovich
Mark Leibovich says his 2013 book, "This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America's Gilded Capital," did not make his job harder.
“Its actually been easier," The New York Times Magazine's chief national correspondent said in a recent phone interview. "One of the interesting things about the book is everybody seems to think it’s about everybody else."
The book certainly didn't seem to affect his relationship with former GOP nominee Mitt Romney. In fact, Romney — who himself gets 11 mentions in "This Town" — recently invited Leibovich into his summer home for a nearly 2,500-word profile that ran Sept. 30.
So how does Leibovich maintain access to contacts like Romney in a town he spends his professional life turning upside down? Liebovich offered tips on running a precarious beat, conducting productive interviews and holding onto his outsider status while chasing insider information.
- To get access, think carefully about your pitches
- During interviews, keep your options open
- When writing, 'keep your ass in the chair'
- Hold on to your independence
- Focus on the next story
Leibovich still remembers scoring an interview with Sen. Marco Rubio in 2012, when rumors abounded he was mulling a run for president. Rubio was a highly courted interview subject back then, due in part to the presidential hype, and so was stubbornly "resisting a blitz of news media interest". Like the rest of D.C.'s press corps, Leibovich wanted access. But unlike them, he had an edge.
“I knew he loved football," Leibovich said. "And not only did he love football, but he had this incredible, obsessive interest with the Miami Dolphins.”
So, Leibovich reached out to Rubio's camp and asked: Would the senator be interested in attending a Dolphins game with him? To sweeten the deal, Leibovich agreed to a ground rule not to ask questions about politics. Rubio agreed, and the trip resulted in a 2,500-word takeout that added personal dimensions to a national political figure.
When Leibovich snagged an interview with Romney for his recent profile, the strategy was similar. Knowing that he and the former GOP nominee shared a sense of amusement over the unforeseen demand he'd found himself in as the election creeped closer, he reached out to Romney's people with a pitch along those lines and got a green light.
The lesson? When crafting pitches for sought-after subjects, do your research and think of an angle they'll be receptive to, Leibovich said. They might not agree, but there's a chance you'll get lucky.
“It’s hit or miss," he said. "Many, many people say no. And I’m always surprised that as many people say yes as they do.”
When Leibovich agreed to take politics off the table during his interview with Rubio, he was making a rare exception, he said. Leibovich tries to go into interviews with as much freedom as possible.
When handlers or press people ask him whether he can submit questions in advance, Leibovich demurs, preferring to see where the interview goes. Though he researches his subjects in advance and has some idea of what he wants to ask, Leibovich leaves his conversations open-ended in the hopes he'll find something to seize upon.
“I’ve always been, for better or worse, a big proponent of winging it and sort of trusting that your experience or your holy terror will lead to something that’s worthwhile,” Leibovich said.
Take, for example, the time he was watching the Dolphins game with Rubio. Right before an important play began, Leibovich decided to ask the senator point-blank whether he was running for president, clearly flouting the one ground rule for their conversation: No questions about politics. Although Rubio didn't announce his electoral plans then and there, he didn't abort the interview, either.
“Trust your inner wiseass if it feels right," Leibovich said. "Because you never know what it's going to yield.”
Leibovich's writing process — if it could be called that — goes something like this: he sits down to a blank screen without an outline, confronted by the empty space in front of him. Then, he writes the top of the story, something he's perfectionistic about. After that, he pounds away at the keyboard until he has a draft.
Although he prefers to be immersed in a busy newsroom while reporting, Leibovich says he likes to be left alone while writing. And he resists giving his editors a sneak peak at his work before it's ready because early feedback will "stick in his head" and make turning out a draft more difficult.
“Don’t be afraid of a really really shitty draft because it’s always preferable to empty space,” Leibovich said.
When writing, he tries to cut down on distractions, leaving only dictionary.com and an online thesaurus open on his browser, rewarding himself with the occasional peek at Twitter or ESPN.com. This simple act — "keeping your ass in the chair" and gutting out a story — has "never been more important from a pure, getting-over-procrastination standpoint," Leibovich said.
Leibovich frequently acknowledges that he belongs to the media-political class he's made his professional bones dissecting. In his 2010 profile of Mike Allen, Politico's chief White House correspondent, Leibovich fesses up to being part of the insider-y Playbook community, having once alerted Allen that he "spotted" former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner at an organic Chinese restaurant.
And in the beginning of "This Town," Leibovich writes that he is "part of this culture" that "reinforces my worst tendencies at times — vanity, opportunism, pettiness."
Journalists everywhere battle to separate their own values and allegiances from those held by the people on their beat, and that battle can be particularly difficult in D.C., where there's "so much cross-pollination between the media class and the political class and the PR class and the business class,” Leibovich said.
The solution? Struggle against it, Leibovich said. Yes, there are basic rules: Don't accept outrageously valuable gifts you can't pay for and avoid conflicts of interest. But ultimately, remaining independent is "more a matter of psychic discipline than anything else."
One of the most common myths of reporting is that the work is easier for the journalist in the cubicle next to you, Leibovich said. In fact, it's a slog for nearly everyone.
Even with a well-received book, a portfolio of trenchant profiles and a job at The New York Times, Leibovich says he constantly fears doing crummy work. And that — combined with an appreciation for the fun he gets to have — gets him into the office every day.
“What gets me out of bed is the next story," Leibovich said. "I live very much in fear of not doing good stories. So I guess there will always be that.”
The best journalists are restless, never satisfied, and thirsty to prove that their record of accomplishments isn't just dumb luck, he said.
"On some level, all of us tend to believe that every success we've ever had in the field has been a fluke," Leibovich said in an email to Poynter. "We need to work even harder the next time to prevent this fraud we're perpetrating on the world from being exposed."
Mark Leibovich is the author of the forthcoming book "Citizens of the Green Room," due out Nov. 13