October 25, 2010

The New Yorker’s George Packer has written about disaffected voters in Ohio and beleaguered homeowners in Florida; the massive city of Lagos, Nigeria, and the cloistered, oppressed country of Burma. He has described the dangerous predicament of Iraqis who translate for the U.S. military and the abstruse practices of senators who do everything but deliberate on the important issues of the day.

How does he learn enough about these widely divergent subjects to discuss them at happy hour, much less write about them for The New Yorker?

Packer, who will be at Poynter on Tuesday night for a talk entitled, “Is America in Decline?” spoke with me by phone about how he enters unfamiliar territory to report on complex subjects. Although most journalists do not spend months on national magazine stories as he does, his techniques can be applied to all sorts of reporting.

Don’t go in cold

Although Packer relies on old-school, shoe-leather reporting for his stories, before he goes anywhere he spends a lot of time reading background, from news stories to history books.

“Ignorance and playing catch-up are not useful tools of the trade,” he said. “It means I have to do a lot of intensive preparation, a lot of Web searching, a lot of talking to people before I can even travel.”

Before he traveled to Tampa in late 2008 for his story on the housing crisis, he spent about a week reading news stories and background material, seeking out contacts and talking to academics. He spent between two and three weeks in Florida.

“I think maybe the most important thing is to know something about the history of a place — which the locals often don’t know themselves,” Packer said. “History is destiny; everywhere is a product of its own past.”

Find a guide to show you around

Because he often finds himself reporting on places that he’s not an expert on, Packer said, “I need someone who can provide me with the introduction to the place and give me sense of the landscape.”

For his recent story on the U.S. Senate, Packer relied on the expertise of beat reporters who knew the ins and outs of the institution, from the staffers to the obscure rules.

When he decided to go to Florida to investigate the roots of the financial meltdown, he chose Tampa in part because a friend there could show him around. The two canvassed the Tampa Bay area, driving through subdivisions and taking to people randomly. What he learned in those interviews became core to the story.

He continues to seek direction when he’s interviewing people. “Once I get there, I’m constantly saying, ‘Who else should I talk to?’ ‘Do you know anyone in this situation?’ ” Packer said. “And people tend to be quite generous with that information, and most people want to tell their story.”

Go in with a guiding question

Packer prefers not to approach a story with a thesis, but rather a question to guide his work.

His guiding question for the Senate story was, “What is the culture of this place?” He was initially struck by how the modern, fractured Senate seems so different from the collegial body of the 1950s, represented (not altogether accurately) by the movie “Advise & Consent.”

“I wanted to feel like — in fact, I probably exaggerated this a bit in my own mind — like a foreigner, a field anthropologist going to a little tribal culture and trying to learn its ways and its language and its norms and rules,” he said.

For the Florida foreclosure story, he said, the key question was, “Why did the economic crisis begin here? … That had the vibration of a big story to me, something starting in a small place and spreading around the world and becoming a huge historical event.”

A good guiding question, Packer said, leads him down a path. It’s a thread or a clue “that I know is going to lead me into interesting things — and then I go down there and follow it.”

Capitalize on your outsider status

While it’s tough to figure out a place as you’re reporting a story, Packer said being one of the uninitiated helps him “see things that people steeped in it may not see.”

For his Senate story, an Obama administration official advised him to “cover Washington as if it’s a foreign capital.”

He started by spending days in the press gallery — generally alone — watching the proceedings. Aside from a few staffers and the presiding officer, the senators, too, were alone as they delivered their speeches. Packer said it looked like they were talking to themselves.
 
“I saw how crazy it is that when senators give speeches, no one else is listening,” Packer said, “And even though that’s the norm, to me it’s a very strange norm. It means they’re not debating; they’re not deliberating.”

Journalists who cover the Capitol already know that, Packer said, but the average C-SPAN viewer doesn’t. “That required me to be a newcomer, to have never seen it before, in order to be struck by that,” he said.

Alex Blumberg told me that his ignorance was an asset when he sought to understand the arcane business of mortgage-backed securities for the award-winning story “The Giant Pool of Money.” Financial reporters were too close to see the big picture: “If you knew more than I did,” Blumberg said, “you could have it explained away to you more easily.’ “

Capture those fleeting thoughts

Packer was the first person to blog for The New Yorker, posting two to three times a week. But he’s posting less frequently now.

On the one hand, blogging enables him to speak directly and more naturally to readers. And it helps his magazine writing “because it allows me to work out ideas as they come to me, in a way that I can’t do over a three-month incubation for a long magazine piece.”

Spacer Spacer

Yet he said the interaction that follows these postings can become a distraction from his work — particularly when he is still working out his thoughts. Sometimes, he said, “I don’t want to be answerable for it yet; I don’t know what I think about it, I don’t know what I’m going to use it for.”

So when he’s working on a book, like he is now, he uses an old-fashioned notebook to save his thoughts. Whatever the method, it’s essential to collect your ideas in one place. “Our thoughts don’t stay with us if we don’t write them down,” he said. “They start to dematerialize and dissolve and suddenly they’re not there anymore.”

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Steve Myers was the managing editor of Poynter.org until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens,…
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