Tips from Globe reporter Meghan E. Irons

by January 9, 2012
Life on the Line: Bus 19, Lifted briefly by the tide

This photo from a Boston Globe video shows how “the first of the month is a boom time for the Save-A-Lot grocery store in Roxbury,” a Boston neighborhood.

I loved Meghan E. Irons’ piece in the Boston Globe about how business in one neighborhood picks up significantly at the first of the month as government checks roll in. She takes us into that neighborhood and introduces us to people in their “moment of relative prosperity.” The story was part of a series “chronicling the people, and the world, of Bus 19.”

Meghan starts the story on the last day of the month, when business was slow. She then writes about what happens on the first:

“…when $8 million in public assistance began to flow in a neighborhood where poverty and unemployment are among the city’s highest, and every other person receives some form of government assistance.”

She gives readers great details as we watch people’s money go as fast it came. We hear the story of the “DVD man,” who earns about $200 selling bootleg movies and CDs, and the Save-A-Lot grocery store that has to restock shelves every half hour.

By the end of the story, I remembered a phrase my grandmother often used: “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Meghan gave me lots of tips to pass along. Today, I’ll focus on the reporting tips; tomorrow, the writing tips.

  • Look for something new.

“When I first started out, I had no idea what I was looking at. I just saw people going about their normal business, and I was thinking how was I going to write an in-depth story about people buying bread or milk,” Meghan says.

Meghan E. Irons, reporter, The Boston Globe

Meghan E. Irons

So, she focused the story as a marketplace piece, asking questions about what she was seeing: mothers with two grocery carts; crowded banks at the beginning of the month; people looking sad later in the month, and then happy around the first, she says.

Meghan says it took several months to find sources because many people didn’t want to talk. “We never gave up. We stood outside local stores, banks, and outside at the bus stations,” she says. “We walked the streets, took the bus, begged and pleaded with people. We kept coming back.”

In the end, she and reporters Patricia Wen and Billy Baker along with photographers and a videographer, talked to more than six dozen people on the record, she says.

Her tips for getting people to talk:

  • Be honest and sincere when approaching people.

“I found that the more people saw me on the bus, the more relaxed they were. The longer I stayed in the Western Union, the more people opened up,” Meghan says. When they started talking, she says she told them up front that their lives would be in the paper.

  • “Use what’s in your power: charm, persuasiveness, lunch,” she says.

“Working on this project, I realize how many people in the neighborhoods I covered felt that the rest of society had abandoned them,” she says. “There was genuine appreciation that we were taking the time to get to know them and to write about them with a level of care and authority.”

She got some sources to talk by buying their products or taking them to breakfast. “I talked to any and every one who would talk to me,” she says. “If they could be persuaded, I teased, smiled, and pleaded with them – and they opened up.”

  • Get contact information in case you need elaboration.

Often when interviewing people on the street, reporters don’t collect contact information, partly out of fear that they won’t want to talk. But, as I learned from my days of being edited by Linda Austin and Hank Klibanoff at The Philadelphia Inquirer, there’s always a question that you didn’t ask.

Last week: Roben Farzad of Bloomberg Businessweek tells how to find telling economic stories that many never see.