Gene Roberts on the Best Way to Learn to Be a Good Reporter

There is no perfect way, no wallet-sized guide to great reporting. The newsroom that becomes a shrine to one type of reporting is in danger of keeling over, out of balance. The editor ought to applaud the person who wrote the well-crafted brief as readily as the one who did the definitive nine-part series. Thanks, sure, to the reporter who single-handedly detects the next trend; but hooray, too, to the one who succinctly and accurately reports the news conference. Hosanna to the film critic, but hot damn to the beat reporter.

If, in fact, I must confess a prejudice, it is one in favor of the beat reporter, who operates on grit, determination, string-saving, sourcing—and distance from an editor. Coverage of a beat, whether geographical or subject, is only as good as the reporter and his initiative. The beat reporter cannot wait for someone to decide what to cover, especially when that someone—the editor—is sitting inside a newsroom.

If I were to confess to another prejudice, it would be one in favor of the reporter who cut his professional teeth doing everything under the sun on a small newspaper. That is because reporting, like anything else, is a learned process, and if you blow a story on a big paper, you’re probably going to be benched or sidetracked or not thrown back into the fray for a while. Whereas, if you blow a story on a small paper, chances are you’re all they’ve got, and they don’t have the luxury of benching you. And if you’re a reporter on a paper of, say, less than 20,000 circulation, during the run of a year you’re probably going to cover every conceivable type of story—trials and floods and politics and crime and breaking news and nonbreaking news and features.

By contrast, I have known reporters who started out on big papers, and while the level of professionalism around them was probably higher, they did not get that diversity of experience. They may have spent five or six or seven years in journalism and never covered a trial, or done a records search in some dusty courthouse basement. And one day someone says, “Go cover a trial” or “Pull the records on this guy,” and the seven-year veteran is coping with a whole new world than he has never coped with before, under pressure.

—From a story, “What Makes a Great Reporter,” by Gene Roberts in the Washington Journalism Review.

(The Washington Journalism Review was started in 1977 and in 1993 was renamed American Journalism Review. In 2011 the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland took over ownership of AJR. It ceased publication in 2015.)

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