Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

21 Dec 2008, 15:11 p.m.

On Reporting

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2008 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

How do reporters manufacture the news? I don't mean the investigative stories, but the other 95% of the content in magazines, newspapers, TV, radio, & newsish websites. When I was a kid, I thought that reporters somehow just kept up with current events by keeping in touch with important and interesting people, and thereby found stories to write about. These days I see that sort of story and think My 3 friends = trend piece.

Reporting carries sheer epistemological challenges. Part-time or newbie writers haven't built their networks or domain knowledge yet. All reporters face a world of six billion people and tight deadlines. To help reporters find sources, Peter Shankman founded HARO. For a few months this fall, I received the Help A Reporter Out email thrice daily, and saw instances of several models of reportage. In HARO I also saw writers at all the stages of network development, and of story development.

Primarily, I saw writers who already had a topic in mind, whether assigned by an editor or chosen on their own, and asked for sources who know a lot about it. Some sent out a survey-style set of questions right away instead of getting the source's contact information and then starting a conversation. So they had somehow observed enough to come up with a general idea for a story, some incongruity or trend to explain, and simply needed to flesh it out.

I also saw writers who asked for press releases and pitches. They specifically ask publicists for that sort of "news," including low-res photos of the advertised products. Some writers say they want anti-procrastination tips, tips for simplifying the holidays, diet tips -- filler that anyone could find in two minutes using Google. Instead of planting a seed and growing a story, they want plastic pellets to drop into their injection molding rigs. Roald Dahl's automatic grammatisator would put them out of work.

I take my cues on news industry critique from Scott Rosenberg and his crowd. Scott, do you have any particular opinion of HARO? And do any of my other readers have tales of being contacted by reporters who obviously had or had not done their homework on the stories they were reporting?