A couple weeks ago, I spent two or three days tracking down the directors of a Netflix documentary (trailer below) for an article I wrote for the HowStuffWorks website. Not two or three full days, of course. That’d be stupid. If I did that, my freelance efficiency rating (in the language of advanced metrics they use in sports these days, that’d be MM / HOP + HOEM + HSS) would be in the toilet.*
I spent parts of two or three days to finally get the two directors on the phone, after being promised they’d talk with me at such-and-such a time only to be pushed back, promised again and pushed back a second and third time.
This is the life of a so-called reporter. Every legit newspaper, magazine and internet hack knows it. Full-time, part-time, freelance, whatever. If you’re writing for a “news” site — and, boy, “news” is about as broad a category as there is when it comes to media — that’s your life. Track down sources. Interview. Write.
That used to be how things were, anyway. That used to be what was expected of every reporter, pretty much every columnist, every op-ed writer. Get your sources. Do your interviews. Write.
It was, in a nut graf (“We’re talking journalism now!”), the job description
At the risk of sounding all “In my day,” though, things have changed. A lot. And this is not a recent change. We’ve been this way for more than 20 years now, ever since the advent of the modern internet. (By that, I mean not back in the CompuServe bulletin board days, necessarily, when computer programmers and stamp collectors gathered on their fancy Commodore 64s, acoustic couplers connecting them to each other, and tapped the night away. Just after that.)
Not long after the internet moved into most people’s homes — before, even, it snuck into our pockets — things drastically changed with how a “news” story is reported and written. Now, too many news stories are plucked from other news stories, which are pieced together from still other news stories, which come from … well, the genesis of these pieces gets lost somewhere around the third or fourth step. Sometimes there’s a legitimate source. Sometimes — Fake News! — there’s not.
Now, “news” stories are gathered from other “news” organizations as a matter of routine, with no tracking down sources, no original interviewing, no real writing even. The New York Times reports this. The Washington Post is saying that. Or, worse yet, “news reports” say.
This is what these places are really saying:
“We’re not telling you anything new. But, remember, you read it here first.”
Man, this is sounding awfully “In my day,” isn’t it?
Many in the business trace this nasty twist back to the rise of web logs (we know them now as “blogs”), many of which did nothing but aggregate material from elsewhere (we’ve known that always as “stealing”). They didn’t even have to be right. They could just blame the original material if something went wrong.
Blogs — whole sites, well-known sites — lived by that model. Many thrived. Many still work that way.
The only good part about this steal-with-no-conscience brand of “reporting” — and you have to look hard to find it — is that it makes real reporting, real interviewing more valuable. All those places stealing from each other have to find someplace to steal from, you know.
I’m not pretending that my bit on the Netflix doc is earth-shattering or particularly newsworthy. In all honesty, it isn’t. You can read interviews from the directors everywhere. I could have lifted quotes from them from any number of places.
Still, it was important to my editors, and important to me, to get these guys on the phone, even if they were going to put me off another day or three. The reason is simple: Even sports stories, even feature stories, even the mundane city council meeting or the third story on orange juice futures that’s been done this week will turn out better by talking with a source who knows the subject and can offer something fresh. That’s the business. That’s how the business should be.
To be fair, it’s not the only way. Sometimes, the subject you need to talk to is uncooperative but the story still needs to be told. Sometimes, time just runs out but the story still needs to be told. Sometimes, the source is untrustworthy and shouldn’t be interviewed.
Sometimes, a subject has nothing to say. Sometimes, they’re boring. It happens. All that.
(Though, as an old journalism professor of mine used to say, “It’s never the interviewee, it’s the interviewer.” That goes up there with
- “If Your Mom Says She Loves You, Check It Out”
- “If All Your Sources Like You, You’re Doing Something Wrong”
in the Journalism Cliché Hall of Fame.)
The point remains. You gotta at least try. Track down expert sources. Interview well. Write precisely.
It’s the right way. And, really, it ain’t that hard.
* Money Made / Hours on Phone + Hours on email + Hours Spent Scribing
Three points about the doc “Wild Wild Country,” which is definitely worth the binge.
1.) It’s a crazy true story, featuring a Rolls-loving guru, his power-mad wannabe-lover right-hand woman, red-neck Oregonians, assault rifles, poisonings, murder plots, free sex and love and a bizarre tie-in to the Jonestown massacre just a couple years earlier.
2.) The directors, brothers Chapman and Maclain Way, were very accommodating in the half-hour I had with them on the phone. They wouldn’t say, but if they had to take a side in this crazy culture-clash story they’re telling — if they had to — I’m guessing they would’ve been there with the guru and his ball-o’-fire sidekick. Until the sidekick, Ma Anand Sheela, started spreading salmonella all over the place, anyway.
3.) Where the hell was I in the early 1980s? I don’t remember any of it.