Reporting

“Reporting is more of a talent than a trade — people who have a knack for it (I don’t) can pick it up very quickly. It does not take years of training, and certainly doesn’t require journalism school.” —  Jon Chait

The quote comes from Jon’s riff on a silly-ish Politico article on how journalistic wunderkinds are trying to replace their aging counterparts in a time of media turmoil.* I’m not so sure Jon’s entirely right in creating a dichotomy between reporters** and opinion writers, as someone who straddles the line every day — I’m an “opinion journalist” — I’ve always found the two techniques mutually reinforcing. The information gathering makes my opinions more robust, while the act of forming an honest opinion focuses my reporting on the most important questions.

All that is prelude to my point: Reporting is more of a trade than a talent. While I think j-school is one of the most overrated institutions on the planet, reporting isn’t a ‘have it or you don’t’ kind of thing. You do need serious attention to develop the sort of relentlessness — and restlessness, really — needed for good reporting. I tend towards introversion and really have to force myself to do the constant networking, small-talking, phone-calling and e-mailing that make good reporting happen; the close-reading and attention to detail come a bit more naturally. Your technique will improve over time. Of course, if you lack the necessary curiosity, you won’t get it, but what are you doing as a journalist without curiosity?

There’s an old saw that strikes me as true: You can turn a good writer into a good reporter, but you can’t make a good reporter into  a good writer.  This is the real reason that reporters often fail as columnists, where half the battle is making your point in a way that is entertaining and incisive.

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*Sillyish because, as one friend puts it, the only thing example-kind Chris Cilliza proves is that you can do the same crappy political horserace coverage three times a day, on the internet, that one used to do for a newspaper.

**Of course, I have a broad definition of reporting, which consists of  gathering any kind of information at all. Matt Yglesias  and I have a long-standing argument about this. Ygelsias — and Chait, actually, in this great piece — deride what I call “Washington reporting,” attending press briefings and interviewing officials, then doing the ol’ he-said she-said. There isn’t a ton of added value in that, but the fact is that talking to people and observing them is important: the back-and-forth of a conversation is revealing. I’d simply make the point that the more raw information you have, however obtained, the better off you generally are.

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