Why do some journalists break more stories than others?
Is it good luck? Some kind of strange alchemy? Or is it the result of a systematic, methodical approach?
I submit that it's the latter.
The following essay is a compressed version of a talk I delivered on Saturday, October 27, to a conference of the Atlantic Region Canadian University Press.
I spoke on the topic of How to Break News Stories at the day-long conference, to an interested and engaged audience. It's the first time I had spoken about this subject since leaving journalism, and the material was surprisingly well received. I thought there might be some value in bringing it to a wider audience, since many of the principles that applied back then remain relevant today. So I have been reworking it from bullet points into text, and tweaking for a different audience.
I started my career as an entertainment editor with a weekly magazine. They say you should write what you know, and entertainment bands and bars was what I knew at the time.
The stories came easily because people wanted coverage. The phone was ringing constantly with people wanting a "write-up" about their new album, band, play, book, or whatever.
If I broke these stories first, it was usually by accident. We didn't ask for or expect exclusives.
In 1988, I went to work at The Sunday Express, as entertainment editor (and became managing editor within a year). This was a muck-raking, investigative newspaper that was breaking a lot of major stories.
The paper's Editor in Chief was Michael Harris, formerly of the Globe & Mail. Michael was a Newfoundlander and one of the best investigative journalists in the country.
I learned more from Michael during those three years than at any other time in my career.
The Sunday Express had a policy of only breaking stories. If you were working on a great story and it broke in The Telegram during the week even on a Saturday that story was killed unless they had it wrong or you were able to advance it somehow.
This happened to us many times, in fact. We had great stories written and in the can, only to see them blown out at the last minute by the competition. That's one of the perils of being a weekly.
That said, we did succeed in this mandate. There were usually about 5 reporters on staff, and they broke between 4 and 8 stories each, so we managed to fill the entire paper with all new material, week after week.
This was not easy. And it put a lot of pressure on the reporters who, I have to say, were damn good at what they did. If someone had a bad week and didn't turn any stories, that was excusable. But if you had two bad weeks in a row, you were pretty much put on notice.
Needless to say, not everyone could cut it at The Express.
When I started there, I was surprised to learn that this same policy applied to my entertainment section.
Every story had to be about something that no one else had. If we didn't get it first, there was no story. It took me a while to fully grasp this. I actually thought I might talk Michael out of it. After all, entertainment was different Artists and entertainers are constantly calling the media looking for stories. How do you get them to shut up long enough to give you an exclusive?
Michael could see I was having some trouble with this. After a week or two on the job, he called me into his office to talk about the art of breaking stories. It was an eye-opener.
He asked me who I had on my contact list.
I said My what?'
He said Your contact list! The people you call every week to get new stories.'
I explained that I knew a lot of people, and called them sometimes, but wasn't nearly as systematic as that.
Michael explained that I needed a contact list of at least 20 people, who I should call once a week. He said a good contact list never stands still. I should always be adding new people and occasionally dropping people who don't produce or just call them less often. But without a contact list, I was essentially just waiting for the phone to ring.
Without a contact list, I wouldn't break stories and if I didn't do that, I wouldn't keep my job for long.
Michael sent me back to my desk to start a contact list of my own.
He assumed, correctly, that I already knew a lot of people. And it didn't take long to compile a list of about 20 key people in the local arts and entertainment scene.
I'm a little bit shy, but that didn't stop me. I began calling them whenever I had a quiet moment.
I overcame the awkwardness by playing to their vanity a little. I told them that I'd like to call them once every week or two, just to see what was going on, since they moved in such interesting circles and were so well connected.
To my surprise, every one of them agreed to it.
And almost immediately, it began paying dividends. I soon started breaking stories all over the place. I usually reached artists while they were working on a new play, album or show, and promised them a great story if they would save it for me first. Most of the time, they agreed.
I also developed a list of entertainment contacts on the mainland. On one occasion, I received a media advisory, informing me about a major concert event that would be announced on Monday - the day after our press date. I called the local promoter, who refused to spill. In fact, he taunted me, saying "If you were any good as a reporter you'd find out."
Even more motivated, I called Donald K. Donald, then the best known concert promoter in the country, who told me who was coming. I pulled a photo from the files and we had the story on Sunday - scooping Monday's event and thoroughly vexing the promoter, who learned a simple lesson in media relations (always treat reporters with respect).
Tomorrow: Part 2