One of my partners asked about a Washington Post political correspondent known for his tough, insightful coverage. “You think Dan Balz would buy this?”
“I don’t know,” said another. “But if Balz loves Hotsoup, we’re golden. If he hates it, we’re toast.”
Balz never did write about the project, and we were toast. But I left the meeting knowing that if I ever returned to journalism, I didn’t want to be taken for granted liked the first reporter. I wanted to inspire in my sources what Balz had earned from my partners—respect and fear.
Now that I’m leaving political journalism again, I’d like to share a few other things I’ve learned since joining the profession 30 years ago in Arkansas, where I covered Bill Clinton.
Don’t lose sight of your mission. A reporter’s job is to get as close to the truth as possible, overriding personal biases and sifting through a rising churn of spin and lies to explain what happened and why it matters. At its highest levels, journalism informs (via scoops and insights that would otherwise be unknown), provokes (via new thoughts and action), and holds powerful people accountable (with no fear or favor).
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. Also, remember for whom you work when you’re rewriting a press release or broadcasting a spoon-fed story for the wrong reasons—“because I’ve got to keep them happy” or “I’ve got to show them I’m relevant, that I’m the reporter they come to.” That’s how you become a patsy. It’s not how you develop sources.
You develop sources by building relationships. Draw up a list of the people on your beat who know things your audience needs to know. Call or email every one of them and ask them out for coffee or lunch. Keep lists. Keep calling. When you’re meeting a potential source for the first time, keep the conversation informal. Get to know him or her. Where’s she from? How does she get along with her family? What are her hobbies? Write a thank-you note after that first meeting, and follow up for a second and a third and a fourth. Don’t consummate the relationship until you’ve built one; it might take weeks, months, or even years to accumulate enough trust for a source to give you information that is valuable for your audience to know and dangerous for your source to convey. (I conducted workshops at The Associated Press that compared source development to the rituals of dating.)
Don’t hesitate to hurt a source. One of the reasons to build relationships with people you cover is so that they understand your mission, which means they shouldn’t expect favors when they find your job in conflict with theirs. Fairness and honesty are central to any relationship, and nobody likes surprises, which is why I tell sources, “I’ll never stab you in the back. I’ll always stab you in the chest.” In other words, you’ll know when I’m writing about you or your boss, you’ll know exactly how negative the story will be, and you’ll get a chance to argue your case—but you’ll still get the sharp end of the knife. A reporter’s job isn’t to make friends. It’s to build relationships that inform and provoke readers, and to hold powerful people accountable. Remember the Balz lesson: Your sources are more likely to respect you if they’re a little afraid of you.