My Register Experience

Street Reporting: Can it work in the digital newsroom?

Posted in Preparation Week by Michael Bugeja on November 1, 2009

watergateWatergate-era reporters and photographers were energized by the street reporting of Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Alfred E. Lewis at the Washington Post–so much so, in fact, that we typically embraced a romantic vision of journalism that may be at odds with the digital newsroom.

Dennis Chamberlin and I belong to that generation of journalists. We admit that we may have glorified those times with the questionable belief that any person, employee or official on the spot of a story–from crime scene to courtroom–was placed there serendipitously for the sole purpose of our assignment.

That is why we called it “spot news.”

The googlization of news is hardly romantic. Often it is the chief tipster in the digital newsroom, providing databanks and open sources that kill as many ideas as the search engine spawns.

Case in point: In researching crimes associated with the new poverty, we theorized that domestic violence statistics in Iowa would have spiked in the past, difficult year of recession. Financial hardship is often the cause of divorce and abuse. But the state Department of Public Safety reports that such abuse actually declined by 3.2 percent between 2007 and 2008.

To be sure, latter months of 2008 might yield more abuse instances on closer inspection because the subprime scandal and market collapse happened then. But that is not the point; such theorizing is a vivid example of computerized thinking.

Watergate-era journalists would search out domestic abuse data in person, meeting with and interviewing state officials after visiting shelters for victims and other venues and learning anonymously or on record about their plight or situation.

By doing so, we will not have googled a false but a telling lead, recording personal narratives, perhaps that of a white-collar spouse hiding from an otherwise prominent person furloughed under the budget-cutting directive of Gov. Chet Culver. We’ll be looking for that spouse and that official not only at shelters and unemployment or public safety offices but also at Des Moines parks, bars and lonelier places whose visual backdrop provides the theme to make memorable powerful enterprise.

And even if we didn’t locate such a spouse or official, street journalism would all but ensure we’d still come away with anecdotes from shelters and other venues as well as interviews and photos at 215 East 7th Street, Des Moines, with the public safety official who compiles, stores and/or has an opinion about the data or our anecdotes.

The googlization of news suggests that state officials providing online data are only good for that data. Street journalism believes those officials have something to confide that nobody took the trouble to ask. By the mere act of showing up to gather statistics, a reporter might earn the story of a lifetime.

If that sounds romantized, read my account “Flu Deja Vu” in the online Washington Post of how I broke the 1976 story out of Pierre, S.D., of all places, concerning the swine flu vaccine causing Guillain-Barre syndrome. I showed up at the state Office of Communicable Diseases to get the latest data on the number of South Dakotans immunized and was approached by an employee who gave me the scoop off the record, all of which eventually checked out.

Had Google existed back then, and I thought about reporting as many of our high-tech student journalists do, I’d have accessed the data without the visit and overlooked what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had kept hidden.

I can hear the demurs already about how new media journalists using e-mail, blogs, Web sites, Twitter, Facebook and iPhones are accessible 24/7 to the news-tipping public. Yeah? Try contacting a reporter managing all those marketing applications and gadgets in addition to processing leads via Google and then compiling, interviewing and composing stories in a productivity model that rewards the number rather than quality of reports.

That said, mobile technology would have made reporting much easier in my era. Dennis Chamberlin and I hope to use it in our enterprise about “The New Poverty,” or how this recession has decimated the ranks of white-collar workers, as much as blue, and employees with seniority as well as new.

Terry Anderson, former hostage and Iowa State University journalism alumnus, teaches at the University of Kentucky and plans to bring digital natives to Lebanon to show them how to street report more accurately than is being done now in the typical newsroom. See this article about that in The Huffington Post

Anderson, one of my best friends, wished he had cell phones when he served as the Middle East bureau chief for the Associated Press in the 1970s. Often he remarks how he had to run back and forth from the bureau to the scene of spot news. Doing so he missed some aspects of the story. Had he a cell phone, or the visual components of an iPhone, he would have been even more accurate in documenting news.

(Anderson and I were brought together by the poetry of journalism, which you can view in my interviews with him on YouTube.)

What puzzles me in this tweeting age is how we waste time in what passes now for spot news, informing others where we are and what we are doing, moment by moment, play by play, rather than dictating stories to the desk (assuming, of course, the editor there hasn’t been furloughed).

Bill Elsen, an editor at the Washington Post for 33 years, now retired,  once told me that good reporters “see stuff that wouldn’t have happened if they stayed in the newsroom.” He often recalls Alfred E. Lewis, the Post police reporter known as “Uncle Al,” who helped break the Watergate story.

“Some reporters never wrote stories,” Elsen said in our interview. “They just dictated them. ‘Uncle Al’ probably never wrote a story in the Washington Post, and yet you’d find hundreds of his bylines. He would say, ‘Get me rewrite.’ He’d wear a police sweater and wander around police headquarters, and everyone thought he was a cop. So during Watergate, when everyone was being briefed about the break-in, Al wanders into the Watergate building — right past the cops and the crime-scene tape — and calls in with more details than anybody except the cops.”

The online era has its own romantic features. You can read Uncle Al’s notes compliments of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas-Austin, documenting what he found sidling into the Watergate hotel, including “6 mace guns (pocket pencil variety) … one set of blank keys plus a number of other keys … 15 lock picks … key wrench tools … a lock, rubber gloves, batteries, flashlight, bugging devices.”

Lewis’ also got a quote from an FBI source about how the arrests unfolded, thanks to the unsung hero of the break-in, 24-year-old security guard Frank Willis, who contacted police. I’m sure that Uncle Al, as well as Elsen at the copydesk, believed Willis was the source placed serendipitously at the scene so that the Washington Post could scoop The New York Times. 

Dennis Chamberlin and I don’t know if “the digital street” contains such magic anymore. We’re about to learn that lesson next week at The Des Moines Register.

2 Responses

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  1. Terry Anderson said, on November 2, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    we’d better hope that “street reporting” can work in a digital newsroom as well as any place else. otherwise we’ll all just end up swapping spit – regurtitating the same web data, the same official information, the same whistle-blower stories – as everyone else. there will be no real people in our stories, and those stories will mean little to real people. while i acknowledge the wonderful work done by data-base reporters and thorough-going file searches in places like the county court house (see the continuing series of reports based on expense-account searches by the lexington herald-leader, and the very real consequences of them), i believe that 90 percent of the most compelling, most affecting, most important reporting is done “on the street,” by people like uncle al. at the risk of sounding like some kind of fanatic, which i am on this subject, tools are tools. good tools, well used, are a great help and sometimes a joy. but they are not meaning, or purpose. the meaning and purpose of journalism is about people. you can’t tell their stories if you don’t get out and talk to them.

  2. Chuck Kuster said, on November 2, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    Digital tools are great. But I hope people keep in mind that street reporting is about relationships. Relationships support good stories and good stories result in good relationships.

    Relationships are based on mutual trust between the people and the reporter. Developing such trust involves time to learn about the community, its issues, its leaders and its detractors. The reporter needs to be seen on the street so citizens understand he/she is invested in the community. It is a two-way investment.

    It concerns me when publishers/editors today don’t or can’t support the investment in strong street reporting relationships.


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