Learning the Hard Way
The first few times I edit something a new intern has written, I inevitably have many questions.
Sometimes it’s because the material is not presented clearly, but more often, there are gaps in information because the intern neglected to ask key questions in the interview with the person who was the source for the story.
When that happens, I repeat my mantra about how to prepare for an interview by writing down questions. I also talk again about the importance of follow-up questions and the fact that there are no stupid questions. And I tell this story:
In my first week on the job at the Springfield Morning Union, I was assigned to write a story about a grant that the Granby Fire Department received. My editor gave me a short and sweet press release to get me started, and he told me I’d need to interview the fire chief.
I waited to call the chief until all the seasoned reporters had gone to dinner so no one would hear me on the telephone with him. I was certain I would say something ridiculous or ask a dumb question.
When I finally dialed, I was terrified. And, of note, I had not made a list of questions to ask. I was acting on impulse alone.
I introduced myself to the chief and explained that I was writing a story about the grant. I asked him to spell his name, and I asked when the grant was received. I thanked him, and we hung up. I read the release over a second and third time and started writing my story.
I realized as I typed that I did not know what the grant money would be used for, and I dialed the chief back. I was not embarrassed when I asked this question, and he told me the funds would be spent on a new pumper truck.
We hung up, and I started typing again and then soon realized I didn’t know where the grant money had come from—what organization had offered it up to the Granby Fire Department? I put in another call, and yes, at this point, I was embarrassed.
Suffice it to say, I called that chief a total of five times, and the last time, I had to ask the most critical and obvious question. If there had been other reporters within earshot, I may have had to just die in the center of the newsroom.
In that last call, I had to ask, “Oh, and um, I also need to know how much the grant was for.”
So, point is, we all learn by doing, and sometimes we learn what it means to be prepared by being woefully unprepared.