My business card says, “Margo Pierce, Staff Writer.” However, the moment I introduce myself as being from CityBeat or sit in on a meeting, I’m a “reporter.”
Other than the stories shared by long-time local journalists, I’ve had no formal training to prepare me for the trappings that go along with my press credentials — politicians trying to pass off partial truths as the “whole” story and getting snippy when I ask hard questions, suspicious sources who begin with hostile accounts of past experiences of being misquoted, cops painting me with the same disdain they have for my employer, family members who place me in the camp of the “enemy” because my stories and perspectives aren’t conservative.
So what qualifies me to write for CityBeat? Beyond college courses and 20 years of writing for my employers and for fun, I’m a good storyteller, curious as hell and I have an insatiable desire to get behind the scenes. My editor tells me I have a low bullshit threshold; I’m finding that’s another essential. These are the things any writer needs to survive being a reporter. Can’t nobody teach that in a classroom.
Journalism is about negotiating the task of finding interesting material that readers (and my editors) will like, fitting it into a specific word count (no, I can’t have another 200 words, no matter how much I plead; and yes, I realize the daily papers sometimes give only 200 words), relating as much accurate information as possible and hopefully inspiring the reader to go learn more (read: all the stuff I couldn’t fit in). Writing is the easiest part of the job. Here’s a short list of why the non-writing skills are needed for collecting material:
• Getting a source to consider me as a person, not as the reporter who already burned him
• Treating people fairly and being honest in the face of being treated like shit
• Figuring out who is in any given room and the significance, if any
• Sorting out PR from fact and figuring out what information is being withheld
• Using “off the record” in a way that doesn’t damage my credibility or the story
• Being fair when it’s impossible to present all sides of a story (see word count)
• Maintaining an “adversarial” relationship with sources — politicians, cops, government agencies or anyone who wants me to write about them — that lets people know I want their stories but the sound-bite-approach to information sharing doesn’t fly.
Having learned all this, why would anyone get a degree in this field, let alone build a career doing this? I can only answer for my apparent insanity. There’s more to what goes on than makes a television news broadcast. I want to know what’s really going on, and I think most reasonable people do, too. Being threatened with lawsuits — my count is two threats so far — and writing about the ugly things people do to each other turns my stomach. But if we don’t look at things like the death penalty, emotional abuse, sex offender notification programs, developers who fail to do their jobs, then we aren’t dealing with this thing we call reality.
It’s not my job to win a popularity contest. It’s my job to do the best reporting and writing I can. Ask the people I’ve interviewed, I’m not a jerk — I’m a journalist.
— Margo Pierce