In pursuit of depth in today’s climate of journalism

By R.B. Brenner

August 14, 2014

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Studio J Photo - Jay Kelly Photo - Jay Kelly SF CA 94107The world is full of publishers now. We wear that hat each time we post something on Facebook or Twitter. What makes someone a journalist, though? I start with this list:

Verification: You’re obsessed with accuracy, with the pursuit of verifiable information.

Originality: Your reporting relies on primary sources and observable reality. You go there and see it for yourself.

Responsibility: You understand there are consequences to the act of publishing.

Empathy: Wanting to know what it’s like to walk in another personʼs shoes. In his excellent blog post headlined “What a good writer needs most,” The Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach uses the term big-heartedness.

Clarity: The skill to cut through the clutter, to tell your story clearly and with context.

Depth: All good journalism must have components of depth.

How do you achieve depth? This is a conversation I have a lot with my students. When you are starting in journalism, it’s easy to think in terms of a three-step process. You report. You write what you have. Someone else edits it.

Drawing upon a book I admire, Samuel G. Freedman’s “Letters to a Young Journalist,” I teach 10 steps:

Exploring: This is journalism’s equivalent of a topographical survey. It involves reporting with your senses (sight, sound, smell, even taste) and doing your best to pass “the presence test.” Initial reporting by phone and by harnessing the power of technology — particularly the strategic use of social networks and data analysis tools — is important and can lead to great stories. But don’t fall into the trap of doing most of your journalism at your desk. Get out into the world whenever you can. Great reporting is rooted in observable reality.

Deeper reporting: You’ve surveyed the landscape and, even at this early stage, tried to find “the heart of the matter.” What makes this story special? Why will people care about it? Now you are ready for deeper reporting that combines observation, examination of relevant documents and data, and many interviews.

Conceptualizing: Put into writing a one- or two-sentence “heart of the matter” statement. Can you describe, in a concise and specific way, the story you intend to tell? Remind yourself that flexibility is key because you are not finished reporting.

Outlining: This is the writer’s road map. An outline doesn’t need to be fancy, and you don’t want it to be cumbersome. But you do need some way to rough out the flow of your story and give it a logical structure.

Re-reporting: Most likely, the previous two steps have revealed holes in your research that you need to fill.

Thinking: In the words of my friend David Maraniss, one of the world’s greatest living journalists, “The one ingredient that’s often left out of the whole process is not the writing or the reporting, but the thinking. Take a few minutes to think about the theme and images before you start writing.”

Crafting: Also known as the first draft.

Rewriting: Your first draft is just that, a warm-up. The elevation and refinements come at this stage.

Editing: Rigorously edit your own work and then turn it over to an editor.

Time management: The mastery of this skill hovers above all. Today’s deadline-every-minute news culture can make it hard to take the steps outlined above. For journalists who manage their time effectively, though, the goal becomes realistic much of the time.

About the Author

R.B. Brenner is the director of the School of Journalism at The University of Texas at Austin, Moody College of Communication. He is also an Ex-Officio member of the Headliners Foundation of Texas Board of Governors. Brenner was most recently deputy director of Stanford’s journalism program. He was a visiting lecturer at the UT School of Journalism in the spring of 2009. That year, the Moody College presented him with the DeWitt Carter Reddick Award, which recognizes excellence in the field of communication. At The Washington Post, Brenner held several jobs, including Maryland editor, metropolitan editor, Sunday editor and deputy universal news editor. He was one of the primary editors of the newspaper’s coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings, awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2008.