March 28, 2009

On Shoe Leather

High-tech tools are great for modern reporting. I love ’em. There’s much you can do with a computer that could not be done just 30 years ago.

But it’s never a good idea to give up on certain basic tools just because the you have new tools. A nail driver is nice, but that doesn’t mean you should toss out your hammer.

Sadly, shoes have become the forgotten tool of journalism. Try as I might, I have a damned difficult time getting my students to see that shoes can get them stories that computers cannot. They hear me say often in class: “Go downtown and talk to people.” I have to remind them that, yes, I mean actually go there in person and actually walk up to people in person and actually start talking to them in person.

But why should they listen to me? All they have to do is what I did this morning to see that shoe leather apparently matters little in today’s journalism. I opened TweetDeck and followed a Twitter link to a blog post about how “some” White House reporters found Obama’s high-tech town hall meeting boring.

Some pseudo-events are boring. Big deal.

My suggestion to mitigate boredom: Get the hell out of the White House (or any other place where reality is preempted by pseudo-events). Just walk away. Walk — on your two feet. If you find the president’s wonkishness boring, then go talk to the people affected by his policies. You know — real people, the kind who are not on TV.

I’m willing to bet real people scare these “pros” as much as they scare my students.

8 Responses

  1. Sven 

    I have to remind them that, yes, I mean actually go there in person

    Oof. That brings back memories. From my own experience, I think the reluctance has several different sources:

    – Plain old shyness. And politeness, drilled in my mom and dad: don’t be a bother. The usual sources expect to be bothered, so we feel less guilty.

    – The inanity of most man-on-the-street responses, parodied by Jay Leno, The Onion and This Hour has 22 Minutes. Again, a function of the usual sources knowing how to play the game and neatly package responses. (Which BTW reminds me of Matt Taibbi’s great anecdote describing an AP pres. campaign reporter relentlessly grilling bystanders until she got a response that fit that day’s horserace conventional wisdom). Of course its possible to elicit a non-inane response. But that’s hard.

    – The Paradox of the Average Joe/Jane. Our culture simultaneously shames and glorifies “real people.” This simulacrum Average Joe/Jane is both too stupid to understand what’s really happening beyond his/her parochial interests and wise beyond all measure. This puts the reporter in a box (ironically built by the media): portrayal of Average Joe/Jane must be condescending enough to demonstrate how impractical their notions are, and treacly enough to demonstrate A J/J’s wholesome “values.” Solution: don’t bother asking.

  2. acline 


    I’m down with the the first and third. The second misses the mark just a little only because I’m not meaning for them to do anything like man-on-the-street reporting. Rather I want them to go look for stories or go look for people involved in stories they are already covering. Another way to think of this: I want them to do what the old-style city columnists used to do.

  3. Sven 

    Yeah, that struck me just after I posted. I guess what I’m driving at is most reporters/columnists who even attempt this approach what you are suggesting – as a man on the street interview. A condiment for a story rather than the meat of the story itself. David Brooks/Broder vs. Studs Terkel.

  4. Sven 

    …. thus giving the whole idea a bad rep, and instilling reluctance amongst journalists.

  5. Tim 

    Makes me think of a press discursive with the public and off-the-grid journalism: “Who’s Ahead?” Leaves the Public Behind …

    Finding the average Joe/Jane:
    Obama Town Hall Questioners Were Campaign Backers

  6. Chris Wrinkle 

    Amen. Just get out and wear out your shoes. It’s something I’ve seen in my time as an editor. Too much Web surfing; not enough actual talking.
    People are still what make the news important.

  7. Speaking of getting out of the White House, tell ’em the one about Jimmy Breslin interviewing the gravedigger at Arlington Nat’l Cemetery during JFK’s funeral. Phenomenally original thinking.

  8. acline 

    Jay… Yes. I do tell that story and have some classes read that piece. Perfect example.