Lessons from a Journalist’s Farewell

Ron Fournier’s take for The Atlantic on the fundamentals of political journalism — attained over an almost 30-year career covering the political beat for the Associated Press — is truly an instructive read for any writer dealing with living human beings. There are a few key takeaways, though, which I found especially worthwhile — universally so — for the developing journalist:

1. Take Yourself Seriously

I mentioned a particular journalist known to be an easy mark inside the White Houses of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Afraid of confrontation, eager to please, and lazy, this reporter printed whatever minor bits of news and color aides fed him, without skepticism or criticism. I didn’t respect the guy. Nor did most other reporters forced to compete against a patsy who benefited from a policy of mutual-assured promotion.

“He’ll gobble up what we feed him,” I told my partners.

One groaned. Another winced and said, “Yes, but nobody will buy it. Nobody respects him. They’ll know it’s just a press release.”

Until that moment, I assumed the people we covered in politics valued pushover journalists. I thought this particular reporter got ahead by going along. That might be true on the small stories, but not for the stuff that matters.

You don’t need to work in hard news to deserve to be credible. Particularly in the lifestyle, arts and entertainment, and even some business fields, there can be an incentive to work PR for sources. But critical advocacy for a good product — and critique of a poor one — should never have to be synonymous with repeating everything one is fed. Access should not be bound to a willingness to shill. Your most valuable readers, and your best sources, should respect you more for the principle, and your work actually carries the weight of honesty.

2. Out With the In-Crowd

You’re not working for your editors, other reporters on your beat, or your sources. You’re working for the public, your audience, which is why you don’t slip acronyms, anonymous quotes, and other insidery detail into your stories just to impress folks on your beat.

It’s fun to feel like an insider. It’s also irrelevant to the quality and validity of your content, and primarily serves the cause of irritating a readership who should value news and insight above cliquishness or the alienation of impenetrability.

Related to this, as a range of fields go, is the matter of cultivating relationships with sources, something else Fournier stresses as good practice. It is indeed good policy to create, and maintain, solid lines of communication with inside parties, and certainly normal to develop positive, even friendly professional connections with some sources — but that’s a separate matter from establishing and flaunting relationships that can be perceived as liabilities to your objectivity, or playing up such relationships as part and parcel of your reportage. A good connection is one in which your source knows you’re not beholden to pleasing them and your audience doesn’t assume you’ll do so — and in which positive or negative reporting is not a tit-for-tat matter of who properly meets whose demands.

3. Your Vision is Your Ticket

The way to advance in journalism is to be distinctive, which means telling stories that nobody else is telling, which starts by asking questions nobody else is asking, which can only be done if you ignore the convention wisdom and group think, which takes guts. Take a chance. Take control.

If your questions and ideas don’t neatly overlap with everyone else’s, congratulations: you can run with that. You might have a unique story pitch that gets an editor’s notice or an original way of perceiving the common; you may even have such an off-the-wall story bent that you venture out on your own and create your own established niche. It’s in knowing — and trusting — your perspective.

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“Clowns in the dusty arena of everyday life”

by Jacquelyn Thayer

“There will be no ceremony today.”

Word of the cancellation of the January 2 wedding of Chicago society scions Mary Landon Baker—daughter of Boston transplant and influential stockbroker Alfred Landon Baker1—and Allister McCormick—of the city’s legendary Harvesting Machine McCormicks, son of inventor Leander Hamilton McCormick—was delivered to a full house at the grand Fourth Presbyterian Church at Michigan and Delaware. The story had legs enough to hit wide outside the Chicago press circle, no small matter in 1922. The New York Times weighed in with a quote from Mr. Baker, offering assurance that delay was simply down to Mary’s illness, while McCormick pater stressed Allister’s own good health—and lack of contact with Mary, who was, in his words, “too ill to see him.”

Mary Landon Baker and Allister McCormick as attendants at a summer 1921 wedding. Photo from the Chicago Daily Tribune.
Mary Landon Baker and Allister McCormick as attendants at a summer 1921 wedding. Photo from the Chicago Daily Tribune.

But as with any story of such vast significance, conflicting or incomplete reports readily arose. Rival paper the New York Evening Telegram declared the day of the failed nuptials that Allister, too, had been taken by a vague illness. More sensationally, the Telegram was the first to serve up a small but quite relevant bit of backstory missing from other early reports: “The announcement of Miss Baker’s engagement to Allister McCormick, who served as an aviator during the war, was no surprise to her friends who knew the close friendship between the two families. But Miss Baker’s persistent postponing of the wedding made it necessary last May for members of both families to deny rumors of a broken engagement.”2
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