Everywhere I turn lately people are asking me for advice on how to be a good local news reporter. Colleagues, journalism students, people who interview me for articles (the latest appeared in March on the outside.in blog) all ask me how I do what I do. They want to know what’s the best way to do things.
And many of those conversations focus on skills. And I’m not talking about interview skills. I’m talking about technical skills. And they want to know what software people should be using. Or what type of camera I use.
But the problem here is people are focusing on the gear more than the basics. It doesn’t matter what kind of camera you carry or if you have Final Cut on your computer if you’re lacking a basic curiosity. If you can’t ask the hard questions or you don’t have observation skills, the rest of it doesn’t matter. If you don’t have a good pair of walking shoes, it doesn’t matter what gear is in your bag.
That’s why I keep saying what I do isn’t that different than what reporters have been doing for years. It’s that curiosity and the need to question everything that’s super important, especially when you’re a local reporter. Because I walk the streets (and drive around town), I can tell when something has changed. And change is a story. Or I can spot trends. Or I start asking why something exists like it does.
An example of the latter is the story I did several months ago on why Millburn Avenue is one way. Every day I’d hear the symphony of horns when someone attempted to drive the wrong way down the street, so I wondered why it was one way. I found my answer in the historical archives and did a story.
Paying attention and observing things closely also pays off when you’re covering something simple like a public hearing. It’s how I found out the Paper Mill Playhouse wouldn’t host the New Jersey Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” this December, a relationship that’s existed for decades.
So this is my advice: Forget the gear. Get out of your office. Get out of your car. Slip on your walking shoes. And meld with your beat and look around for a few minutes. Not only will you find stories, you’ll build an important relationship with the people on your beat.