September 16, 2002
“Journalism With a Scholar’s Intent”
from ZONED FOR DEBATE: What’s the Right Way to Train Journalists Today
NYU Journalism, Fall 2002
Jay Rosen, editor
By Brooke Kroeger
To teach, I distill into courses thirty years of journalism experience. I draw on long days in the urgent, concise, “deadline every minute” work of an international wire service, on stints as a newspaper beat reporter and city editor and on years spent experimenting with the idiosyncratic narrative style of magazines.
I also teach the techniques of investigative reporting, but I did not learn them in the newsroom. I honed the skills in random libraries and archives doing research for biographies of Nellie Bly and Fannie Hurst. In a sense, I have done my most assiduous reporting outside the mainstream forms of journalism and this is pertinent both to the current debate over journalism education and to the larger point I want to make:
The tools of a reporter can be precision instruments in the hands of a scholar, just as what I will call “a scholar’s intent” produces the best kind of reporting and writing in the journalistic form. Everyone, but most of all the public, benefits from the interplay. Within this interplay lies the strongest argument I can think of for educating journalists in a liberal arts environment.
My work in biography presented several research dilemmas. Bly was the stuff of American legend but left no collection of diaries, correspondence or other papers and little known trace anywhere else. In the case of Hurst, abundance does not begin to describe the hundreds of thousands of pages she left behind, all vital to her story and all neatly indexed and painless to retrieve from the three separate collections that bear her name. She also is well represented in scores of other repositories.
For the work on Bly, I moved as any reporter would, on little more than a scent and a hunch. I searched national, state, diplomatic, military, city, court, church, real estate, tax assessment and school records from Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. to Vienna, Austria. This yielded the book’s most significant and surprising documentary material and actually made the full-scale biography possible. For the Hurst book, despite the easy access to most of what I needed, applying the model I developed for Bly enabled me to retrieve a wealth of less obvious but important new information from primary material culled from more offbeat venues. This, again, is a reporter’s way.
My wire service and newspaper background figured in the editing, too. For the Hurst effort especially, I stripped those thousands of documents to their essence to produce a text of 347 pages, a length I felt was appropriate to the subject. High-pressure high-jinks spot-editing for an international news agency is not the same as editing a book-length manuscript, but it is no less or more deliberate. There is nothing slapdash about slashing reports of world-shaking events in a matter of minutes to meet draconian word limits without sacrifice of nuance or context. The intellectual challenge in each case is the same. Moreover, the cablehead is doubtless the most efficient place to learn the skill.
Learning to amass, process and present newsworthy material requires a scholar’s intent as well as a journalist’s eye, ear and touch.
More germane to the discussion here, however, is the benefit to a journalist of academic-style research. The years spent burrowing in archives, libraries and extensive background reading has had as profound an impact on my journalism as my journalistic background has had on my research. My stance going into a short deadline assignment now is more reflective than it used to be, more present to the shortcomings of the form. I am conscious of trying to ensure that what I write reflects my knowledge of these limitations, even as I submit to—and value the necessity of—their constraints.
What makes journalism journalism, I think, what separates it from all other forms of non-fiction that involve the use of journalism’s techniques, is the urgency, the imposition of the immediate deadline. By deadline, I mean even those as far off as six months or a year, as in the case of some magazine and Pulitzer Prize-seeking newspaper enterprise. That immediacy accounts for the uniqueness of the form as well as many of its weaknesses. But what it should never excuse is the shallow, sloppy work of which journalists are so often guilty. I remember well those moments in my wire service days, confronting a situation with the thought, “If I had six months, I know what I would do. But I have six minutes, so I know what I am going to do.” Even under those onerous conditions, the work I always strived to produce—and the work I think students should be educated to produce—should seek to reflect a scholar’s intent, even in the absence of a scholar’s schedule.
The differences between reporting a story on any sort of deadline with competitors at one’s neck and the more prolonged and painstaking process of academic-style research might seem obvious, but I like to think that the best reporters are capable of doing both, and produce journalism by choice. They are journalists because they want to have an impact on the present, because they want to be at the forefront of conveying and interpreting information the public needs or wants in a way the public can grasp. That is certainly what brought me into this line of work. But until I moved on to life in the library, I’m not sure I fully understood how vital those fragile, yellowing pieces of newsprint and scratchy frames on reels of microfilm might be in the larger historical record of any given subject.
Here’s an example: I am clear about the differences between a 350-word biographical sketch, a 1,200-word profile, a 5,000-word profile and a work of full-scale biography. I appreciate the separate and equal validity of all of these forms. As a biographer, I have no complaint with the profile, even though I know very well that rare is the effort of six days, weeks or months than can match an earnest pursuit of six or sixteen years.
Yet I also know that newspaper and magazine profiles seek to represent and interpret a precise moment in a subject’s life and for that reason, when they are really well-researched, when they are intelligently, thoughtfully and elegantly rendered at whatever length, they capture aspects of that life in ways that correspondence, contracts and court testimony cannot. They reflect the moment in a way that a scholarly work does not. What could be better for the biographer of Fannie Hurst than to come across a 1937 profile of her in the Saturday Review by her friend, Zora Neale Hurston, a profile very specifically angled to reflect that particular moment in both Hurst’s and Hurston’s lives (both had new books to promote), in U.S. race relations, and in literary and popular culture? For a biographer, this is archeological treasure, a nugget to include and reflect upon in a book comprised of many such nuggets, a book—unlike a profile that appears in a periodical for today, this week or this month—meant to hold up for decades. Also, profiles, because they usually involve the living, are likely to include interviews with the principal subject as well as the principal’s associates. They can bring the long dead alive. As a resource, as important ephemera in the larger historical record, the work is invaluable. And of course, the better the journalism that goes into creating such profiles or news reports or detailed analyses or cultural critiques or investigative exposés—of whatever length—the better informed the public and the better the historical record this work helps to create.
“More thinking,” one of my wire service editors liked to admonish. “Less typing.”
So what is important to teach? What can a journalist learn in school that he or she cannot learn on the job? What training can a journalism department in a Faculty of Arts and Sciences provide that will equip young reporters and editors and critics for distinction in the field in a way that makes that training both desirable and essential?
Journalism education should emphasize enterprise, persistence, originality and precise expression. It should promote reading, and reading widely. Whatever finally appears on the page, the writer’s paces should include thorough background in the subject at hand, heavy documentation, a variety of sources, skepticism, contrariness, and respect for facts. Training should include the strategic use of time, the economical use of words, and thoughtful interview technique. Students need to be made aware of the importance of distancing the self from the story with a clear understanding of the role self will play. Developing an engaging, accessible narrative style is important, but that style must be able to stand up to the harshest scrutiny. Repeated rewrite is key. “More thinking,” one of my wire service editors liked to admonish. “Less typing.”
A program that fosters the best journalistic training has no reason to be set apart from its academic surroundings, nor should the academic community ignore the gifts and resources of an exceptional journalism training program in its midst. Learning to present a story in the best possible way requires more than what is ordinarily thought of as skills training. Learning to amass, process and present newsworthy material requires a scholar’s intent as well as a journalist’s eye, ear and touch. The university is the perfect place to experiment with both.
A good program should acquaint young comers with the field’s history, law, ethics, literary and investigative currents and traditions, and the work of its finest exponents, both past and present. This, they will get only piecemeal on the job and nowhere else in the university. But it should also provide an intense appreciation for the complexities of the major political, economic and social issues of the day and provide means and ways of learning about them as part of the curriculum. It should strive to combat parochialism, even when it goes local. It should encourage an easy familiarity with important movements in social thought. Especially in a city like New York, it should avail students of every opportunity to work with respected mentors. Schools should continue to provide a laboratory in which students can gain a grasp of the basics, as they would in a couple of months on the job, but this cannot be an end in itself. It further should be possible for those who are ready to have the opportunity to experiment with writing at a more challenging level, attacking more complex subjects in ways unlikely to be assigned in their internships, entry-level positions and early freelance assignments. What could be developed is a way to make the vast intellectual resources of the university community more readily part of the program, perhaps in a series of interdepartmental panels or seminars or other possible formats. An elective graduate-level course here or there is not enough.
I have been amazed at the quality of work the best students—undergraduate as well as graduate—have produced when the structure of a course compels them to do so. A recent example is the semester-long work of my Undergraduate Honors Advanced Reporting class in the Spring of 2001. This group of ten students received a large grant from the College of Arts and Sciences for their multipart series “Women in Sports: Thirty Years of Title IX” which they approached from a cultural perspective. They presented their work at the college’s Undergraduate Research Conference in May 2001 and—here is a telling fact—they were the first journalism students in the history of the university ever to participate in the event. An independent sports website linked to the package and one student was offered a professional assignment on the strength of her reporting on the sub-theme of race. It is no surprise that for members of this class, the internship list that summer included the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun and Newsday. Emerging scholar-reporters, indeed.
In the Spring of 2002, I taught a graduate class in “Writing Lives”— a format devised for the purpose of teaching in-depth, archival research technique. It produced equally gratifying results. An edited-down version of one student’s fifty-page work has already been accepted for publication in a national magazine where the fact-checker was moved to express amazement at the quality of the writer’s research and its organization. This was a superb group of students; most are graduates of top-tier colleges and universities. And yet none had prior experience with primary research of any kind. None of them knew anything about—let alone where to find—any of the most basic library reference resources not on the Web.
I can, along with others among my colleagues, envision a component of our overall program in which any of the most willing and able students will be able to graduate with a body of published—or at least self-published—work of this or even higher caliber. The Portfolio Program is just this sort of experiment and I am enthusiastic about getting it established. A conscientious and well-structured plan to provide this distinctive kind of journalism education alluded to here, I believe, would serve the wider media and university communities as well as students. Young job applicants with this sophisticated kind of scholar-reporter under-girding would have been very appealing to me in the days when I hired young reporters to work in bureaus in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. And the students who want this kind of in-depth, intensive training are exactly the ones journalism programs should be seeking to attract.
Brooke Kroeger is associate professor of journalism at New York University and the author of Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist and Fannie: The Talent for Success of Writer Fannie Hurst.