These tips will make you a better reporter

December 20, 2019

As the business and demands of journalism continue changing rapidly, one constant remains — reporting. It still pays to meet people in person. Cultivating sources still takes time. And you still should get the name of the dog.

Here are some reporting tips from our archives. (They still work.)

RELATED TRAINING: Conducting interviews that matter

How to cultivate sources: “If you find someone you think will be a goldmine of information, check in with them regularly, even if you don’t need to interview them. This is another good time for small talk, and to ask if there have been any developments on a topic you’ve discussed before. Look through your contacts and see if there’s someone you haven’t heard from in a while. Give them a call; they might just have a scoop for you.”

How to conduct better interviews: “The best questions are open-ended. They begin with How? What? Where? When? Why? They’re conversations starters and encourage expansive answers that produce an abundance of information needed to produce a complete and accurate story.”

How to use a press release: “Press releases are often promotional. It’s up to you to make sure you’re not simply furthering an organization’s or person’s agenda. When reading press releases, look for gaps and try to fill them. Are the facts in the release correct? Are names spelled correctly? Is there a local angle that would be relevant to your audience? What is missing from the story? Does the information in the release line up with what you know/have heard? Who else should you talk to for more information? Is there any chance this release could be a hoax? Asking smart questions can help inform your reporting.”

RELATED TRAINING: The art of the interview

Get out of the office: “The stories I remember best created an opportunity for me to experience an emotion, a realization, a sense that I was there. And the reporters who created those opportunities had one thing in common: they were there.”

How to find story ideas: “Read the classifieds. Weird things pop up.”

Get those public records: “Don’t start off with guns blazing. Even though you may know the law well enough to use it as a cudgel, don’t start off with guns blazing. Simply ask for the record; there are officials who know their obligations and will readily comply. So don’t immediately whip out a copy of the law and beat a clerk over the head with it. Try this: Instead of sending an email requesting a record, go to the agency’s offices and ask to look at it. Often a personal visit is more effective than a virtual request.”

RELATED TRAINING: The power of public records

Use your notebook like a camera: “Stand back to capture the setting in which the action will take place, describing the world that the reader is about to enter: “Within seconds, as dusty clouds rose over the school grounds, their great widths suggesting blasts of terrifying force, bursts of rifle fire began to sound, quickly building to a sustained and rolling roar.”

Get the name of the dog. And the nickname: “Nicknames are ancient, applied to people from all walks of life. Even kings and tyrants acquired extra names, from England’s unfortunate Ethelred the Unready (aka Ethelred the Ill-Advised) to the figure that inspired the Dracula legend, Vlad the Impaler.”

RELATED TRAINING: Introduction to reporting – beat basics

Bonus tips: “Start writing a little earlier than you think you can. It will teach you what you know and what you still have to learn.”

Kristen Hare covers the transformation of local news for Poynter.org. She can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare