Brian Stelter on writing a book: ‘I suspect it will be excruciatingly hard’
But as he sets out to write his first book, "The Top of the Morning," he expects the writing experience will be "excruciatingly hard." Stelter, who announced the book deal this morning, said in a phone interview that writing long-form about morning television will force him to grow as a writer.
Since he won't be limited by the restraints of a 1,000-word article, Stelter said he'll have more time to develop characters and to explore the beginning, middle and end of the stories he tells.
I talked with Stelter about what he hopes to learn from writing the book, how he plans to use social media to tap into his audience, and why he's decided to focus on morning television.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
You've been covering TV news for a while now. What made you want to write about morning TV in particular?
I was in a meeting with my agent and the editor at Grand Central Publishing, Ben [Greenberg], and we were talking about television. Someone mentioned the word “morning” and a light bulb went off. Ben scuffled through Amazon trying to figure out if anyone had written this book and we were shocked that no one had.
Is that the main reason you wanted to write about it, or were there other reasons?
The fact that no one had written about it is a small piece. Morning news is the most energetic part of the television day. It’s growing at a time when most other segments of television are shrinking, and people feel really invested in the personalities they watch in the morning. We turn on the television in the morning to make sure that the world hasn’t imploded.
Some of us also check Twitter for that, but the reality is most people turn on the television before they read Twitter or Facebook. Facebook is valuable to make sure your hometown is OK, but to make sure your country and your world are OK, we still depend on “Today” or “Good Morning America.”
I think most people really depend on these shows for reassurance as well as entertainment and news. And the basic premise is that after 9/11, morning shows really became the axis upon which the TV world turned. That makes them really interesting, and that remains true to this day. The fact that these shows still draw 5 million viewers at any given time in a morning -- that’s astounding in an era of fragmentation.
I’m also really interested in the ethics and the morals and the values of morning TV. What do the priorities of morning television tell us about our priorities? ...
I did that story about licensing fees with Bill [Carter] while working on this book, knowing that it wasn’t going to necessarily make me any friends at the networks but knowing it was critical that we get it in the Times.
You're great at writing succinctly on Twitter. You also write on Tumblr and for the Times. How will the experience of writing a book be different?
You’ll have to ask me in a year and a half. I suspect it will be excruciatingly hard. I expect that at times I will hate it. I expect a lot of sleepless nights, but I haven’t thought at length about it beyond that. I’m doing it because it’s a challenge and because I don’t know if I can do it. ... It’s the same as when I started at the Times. I didn’t know if I could write for a daily newspaper.
What challenges, if any, do you think you'll face when trying to write something more long-form?
I worry less about the time and more about the mechanics -- the structure, the characters, the storytelling. Any time you’re setting out to do a narrative, you’re going to have to have a beginning, a middle and an end. I think I know where those markers are, but they’re subject to change in the reporting. That’s a part of this process I’m pretty sensitive about.
Who knows what I’ll get out of the reporting? I’ve been covering morning TV for four years [at the Times]. When I dig down into it, who knows where I’ll find a beginning, a middle and an end?
What do you hope to learn as a writer during the book-writing process?
I hope to learn how to tell better, more true daily stories. Sometimes, in books, you get a very different version of the story than you get on day one or two of an event, or an incident, or an announcement. There’s the story and the after story.
Maybe this process will make me more skeptical of television. Maybe it’ll make me more affectionate or more optimistic, but I‘ll come away with a greater depth of knowledge, and I hope that’ll improve my day-to-day reporting. How will we make tweets and daily stories and chapters tell the same truth? That’s a cool, hard thing to do.
Can you say more about why you think you get a different version of the story in books?
I’m just guessing, but I assume that more people are willing to talk later and that more people are willing to give more details later. Let’s take a very specific example from my book -- Meredith Vieira leaving the “Today” show. We wrote normal stories about her leaving and tried to explain to the best of our knowledge why she was leaving. We tried to explain who was replacing her. We didn’t write a story the day after she left. We didn’t write a story about how she felt the day after, or the week after. That’s not how a newspaper structure is set up.
Hopefully, I’ll gain insight into the arc of a story like that -- beginning, the middle and the end. Really, the announcement that she’s leaving is really the middle. The beginning is probably her sitting in her living room starting to contemplate wanting to leave. The day she leaves and the day after -- that’s the end and that’s never written either. In a book, you try to write all the different parts of that story.
It’s the restraints of daily journalism. There are reasons for those restraints, and I’m not sure New York Times readers necessarily care or need to know how [Vieira] felt the day she left the “Today” show.
Is what I put in the paper true? It was true to our best abilities on that day, but was it still true a week later? Was it still true a month later? I’m sure these are issues that dozens or hundreds of other writers at this paper have already thought through and experienced. This is nothing new; it’s just new for me. I’m going to try to do it out loud on Twitter in a way that others haven’t.
You created a Tumblr to go along with the book, and said it will be part reporter's notebook, part scrapbook, part personal journal. Why do you think that writing about the book-writing experience will be beneficial?
I don’t know whether the Tumblr will be about writing. It may just end up being a place for my scraps -- literally my photos and links and quotes that I want to hold onto and that I want to save. I may end up writing about writing the book, but I want to have that spot reserved for whatever it wants to be. I suspect what it will be is a running journal for the morning shows. If I take an Instagram in the control room, it won’t end up in the book, but it should be in the Tumblr.
I’ve written other book proposals. I think everybody has. ... The feeling that we all had when we circled around this idea about morning television was remarkable because it was in a way so obvious.
You tweeted this morning that you were looking for feedback from your audience. What kind of responses have you gotten so far?
I got a ton of responses on Twitter. More importantly for me it’s seeing follows on Tumblr and feedback through the Web page that I set up. I’m experimenting with how much reader interaction I can have before I write a single word. I love the Tumblr sign-up because they’re signing up for the duration of the book.
And I have my Twitter followers. I’m going to milk that for all its worth. I’ve gotten more than 100 questions on Twitter, so I’m saving all those on a file that I can read later. I’ve gotten a couple dozen emails via the feedback form on the website. Together, I think they’re going to give me a lot of guidance about what to write about. People who follow me are already interested in TV, so I can tap into that knowledge and wisdom.
In a few cases, I’ve had sources come forward. More frequently, it’s readers who have questions for me. I briefed all the anchors I know, so it’s not surprising the anchors today, but it’s surprising to the readers.
What did the anchors say when you told them about the book?
Generally speaking, the reactions have been really positive. The anchors that I’ve emailed with clearly see the value and clearly see the interest in a book about this. I’m setting up appointments with them already. That was the value of that weekend email. I told the ones I know -- not everybody -- just so they knew before it became public so I could start setting up meetings.
What kind of research and interviews will you do for this book? Are you drawing on a lot of your interviews, and doing some new ones?
It will be little bit on what I’ve already done, but it will be largely new reporting. It will also be determined by what kind of access I have.
What are you looking forward to most about writing the book?
My joke answer, which is partly true, is I’m looking forward to watching a lot more morning TV. I tune in as much as I can, but now I have to set my DVR for a buffet of these shows. I do think morning TV has been an under-reported subject among media reporters.
In the same way, I started Cable Newser because people weren’t covering it enough. Morning news hasn’t been subjected to enough coverage. The “Today” show has been no. 1 for more than 800 weeks. It’s an extraordinary feat. We probably don’t write about the “Today” show often enough.
It’s early in the morning, and the ratings don’t change a lot. It’s easier to focus on the ratings that do change. Morning TV shows are a mix of news and entertainment, and that makes it difficult to approach them. And yet, “Good Morning America” is challenging the “Today” show in a way that it hasn’t in probably a decade. If “Good Morning America” can’t beat “Today” now, it’ll never beat “Today” even though “Today” has been changing.