ITL #533   News gathering: in search of a “conversation”

7 months, 1 week ago

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Getting comment has become easier, yet there are more barriers to digging up information that has depth. By James McQueeny.



Writing a column for an online news service is quite different from the ways and days I gathered news for newspapers when they stuffed newsstands, and even for television.

 

The phone has always been the principal tool to get stories, and that’s not changed—except for the phone itself. 

 

Reporting used to be done from newsrooms or bureaus, and reporters would be tethered to phone cords, often bent over their desks or idly leaning back in their chairs doing what was called in journalism “working the phones.”  

 

Now, news gathering is done with smartphones in the palms of their hands, almost never in a newsroom, and as likely in a gym or while walking their dog.  

TV reporters still go out into the field, but even they will take video sent to their phones by sources ranging from officialdom to coincidental eyewitnesses to events.  This has become a fortuitous boon for PR people.

 

It’s still amazing to see the younger “one-man-band” field reporters go as the reporter/camera operator/editor driving their own van or car. The editing can be done from their vehicle, sent to the studio and aired in minutes.

 

I used to go out as a TV reporter with a “shooter,” sound tech, driver and sometimes a field producer. 

 

The biggest change to me is the online repository of research on any topic with the almost universal access to published topics and e-mail contacts.

 

Yet, therein lies a rub.

 

Conversations yield information

Working the phones in traditional news gathering came upon MORE information much of the time because you ended up literally talking to people in an anachronistic exchange called “a conversation.”  

 

This was especially so when, as a reporter for The (Newark, New Jersey) Star-Ledger and freelance writer for The New York Times, people were so eager to be recognized as experts to talk about what they knew in hopes of being quoted in the story.

 

I can’t tell you how many more stories evolved from chatting with those people who, delighted to have been called by such widely circulated outlets, often never knew what or who they were giving up!  

 

Also, at a minimum, a conversation usually led to deeper insight on the story you were calling about. 

 

Quotes are easier to get today because of quick smartphone research and email inquiries. 

 

But, nearly all the time you get back a thin and literal answer to your literal question. That may sound great and responsive but it’s usually innocuously crafted pablum.   The reporter is stuck with it because hardly anyone actually answers the phone anymore!  Follow up questions just rot in the vine.

 

Profiting from schadenfreude

Public relations counselors love this conundrum for the media, and the smart ones delight and profit from this schadenfreude. 

 

I ran into this dilemma just the other day.

 

Media reports about a fire in Jersey City called it a “seven alarmer.”  I was curious what the heck that even means anymore.

 

When fire engines were pulled by horses rather than horsepower, it meant how many alarm boxes were pulled by people in the neighborhood. But who sees alarm boxes anymore? 

 

Research on my phone was quick enough, several sources were identified in state government, different firefighter associations and even one of New Jersey’s largest cities.

 

Emails were sent…and ignored till past deadline. It was tough to find phone numbers, by design I suspect.  All except the city fire Department had taped messages and extension phone trees offering up areas irrelevant to what I needed.

 

That city fire Department number happened to be the emergency line. And I quickly got bucked—-to someone who wasn’t allowed to speak to the media. 

 

So, the tools to get news are impressive, the websites appear to be working hard to be your best friend, but the barriers to get to something called “a conversation” seem higher than ever. 

 

As if today’s shrinking media needs yet another headache.


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The Author

James McQueeny

James McQueeny, senior advisor, EFK Group is a member of the IPRA Board.

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