From our overstocked archives
Sam Smith, 2007
The basic rules of good
journalism are fairly simple: tell the story right, tell it well and,
in the words of the late New Yorker editor, Harold Ross, 'if you can't
be funny, be interesting.'
Journalism is to thought and
understanding as the indictment is to the trial, the hypothesis to the
truth, the estimate to the audit. It is the first cry for help, the hand
groping for the light switch in the dark, the returns before the
outlying precincts have been heard from.
Serve not as an expert
but rather in the more modest and constructive role of being the
surrogate eyes and ears of the reader. Consider yourself a guide who has
traveled this trail several times before and thus might remember where
the clean water is to be found, the names of some of the rarer plants
and possibly even a shortcut home.
Help citizens tell their
government what to think instead of helping government tell the people
what to think. Serve your readers, not your sources.
power of the mass media is the power to ignore. The worst thing about
this power is that you may not even know you're using it.
to the view of many editors, most people still like finding out who,
what, when, where, why and how more than hearing in the first sentence
how it all affected Roberta Mellencamp, 46, of East Quincy. Try to sneak
the news as near the beginning of the story as your editor will allow.
is something that has happened, something that is happening or
something that is going to happen. News is not what someone said about
what is happening nor what someone perceived was going to happen nor
what the editors thought the impact of something happening would be on
One of the traits of a good reporter is boundless
curiosity. If you can pass a bulletin board without looking at it, you
may be in the wrong trade.
Reporters don't have to be smart; they just have to know how to find smart people.
to match A.J. Liebling's boast: 'I can write faster than anyone who can
write better and I can write better than anyone who can write faster.'
it has been said, is just the ideology of journalism. I've never met an
objective journalist because every one of them has been a human. Try
going after the truth instead. It's an easier and more fulfilling goal.
The best way to get past writer's block is to write crap. Then, the next morning, save what isn't crap and finish the story.
Don't be afraid of seeming a bit dumb. It's a good way of getting both the kind and the pompous to open up to you.
Think of journalism not as a profession but as a trade, a craft or an art. Your copy will be a lot better as a result.
the rituals of journalism whenever your boss will let you. For example,
news conferences are just a way to keep large numbers of journalists
away from the news for awhile. Eugene McCarthy once said that reporters
were like blackbirds on a telephone wire. One flies off and they all fly
off. If you have a choice, do something else.
anthropology. The greatest unintended bias in journalism comes from
being a part of a culture different from that about which you are
If something happens that makes you say, 'Holy shit!,' it may well be news. Check it out.
like a homicide detective. Follow and report the evidence but only as
far as it takes you. Be prepared for lots of unsolved stories.
Stone noted that most of what the government does wrong it does out in
the open. Don't assume that the story is buried. It may just be on page
27 of the report.
Repeat what people say to you as a question and
often they'll think you haven't understood and will try to explain it
better to you.
K. Chesterton said that 'journalism consists largely in saying 'Lord
Jones died' to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive. If
you're writing well about Lord Jones that will no longer be true by the
end of the story.
Learn to hear the real story and best quotes as
you interview someone. If you approach an interview just as a
stenographer, you'll be so busy writing you may miss your own story.
of the best stories out there are numbers. Most journalists are
educated in the social sciences or English and so tend to ignore
numbers. Some even treat them as just another adjective. Go after
numbers as if you were an IRS agent and you'll be surprised how many
Following some of the above may get you fired. Find out which before it happens.