Number one journalism tip: Get out and meet real people

Every journalism veteran who has spoken to our students at Algonquin College have shared a philosophy that seems to me has been lost as newspaper companies demand more tech-saavy skills.

That is, tear yourself away from the screen, leave the building and meet and talk to real people.

But by all means, take the smartphone with you.

That may be self-evident to those of us who know that the best stories come from conversations, either by phone or in person. But it’s worth repeating as technology threatens to be an all-consuming method of operation for the modern reporter.

Ironically, technology should be freeing journalists from the tyranny of the static newsroom. Smartphones are now so sophisticated that it’s no longer necessary for reporters to be chained to a desk. A smartphone can now do everything a desktop or laptop computer can do, and often, more efficiently.

But avatars don’t count as real people. Social media is important, vital, in fact. But it is not and should never be all-consuming. People will say things face-to-face that they would never say or write in text form, especially people who may have information that’s sensitive. But beyond that, the best story comes from a good conversation, a connection that has been directly made face-to-face.

Body language, gesturing, posture, voice intonation — these are really visable cues and signposts in the course of a conversation. The journalist has an option whether to include those cues in their story; they can’t by using any other tactic of reporting. The (regular) phone has made it easier and more efficient for reporters to get the information they need, but it’s really the second most desireable way to conduct an ideal interview.

The worst is what I’ve heard some people refer to as an “email interview”, where the reporter posts questions and the source sends back answers. This is an information exchange, not an interview, and the reporter may as well quote a website.

That great post-modern commodity called “time” is usually cited as the reason reporters say they can’t get away from their desks. But a self-audit of how much of it is wasted in the course of a regular work day would surprise the average scribe working at any level and at any salary.

By all means, use the technological tools at our disposal, and use them to full exploitation. But there continues to be no substitute for the face-to-face interview. Er, conversation.

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