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The basics of guerrilla journalism

July 23, 2014

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Our calling is inhabited by three kinds of news organizations.

Let’s use the Sergio Leone scale:

• The Good are ones that practice serious, aggressive journalism, value business news, encourage constant learning by journalists and believe their readers are smart people. At one time, these were called “destination newspapers.”

• The Bad are those with plenty of sacred cows, where good journalism happens by accident,  the newsroom is full of lazy deadwood, and dominated by a metro culture. As a result, business news is both misunderstood and belittled.

• And the Ugly: Places that actively discourage quality journalism while chasing flavor-of-the-month fads. While the value of the fad is never objectively assessed against, say, investing in quality journalism, questioning it gets you labeled as stuck in the past and unwilling to change. Obedience is valued over skill. Hidden agendas abound. Business news is largely fluff. These institutions think their readers are idiots.

No names here. You know who you are. Indeed, in the life of a newspaper it may go through all these phases. Good places have their blind spots and have been ravaged by cutbacks. Bad and Ugly organizations sometimes commit good journalism. But given the relentless changes of the past 20 years, the landscape is full of Ugly. And your options for finding a job at a better place are constricted today.

Pop quiz: What do you do?

Answer: If you are marooned at Bad or Ugly,
one option is to practice what I call
guerrilla journalism.

Here are some of the basics.

1. Understand your running room. What is the hidden culture and boundaries? Which companies and institutions are sacred cows? What makes a valued employee? How much latitude do you have on suggesting stories?

2. Respect your boss. Understand that he or she faces pressures from above and below. Make your boss’ life easier.

3. Be self-directing and highly productive. Execute the flavor of the month well. This helps buy a bank of trust and goodwill from above.

4. Find mentors. At good newspapers, training and mentoring is in the DNA. Not so at the Bad and the Ugly. They probably hired you for your callowness and seeming malleability. You will be on your own. So push yourself to keep learning. Take advantage of every training opportunity. Even if you have to build relationships with experienced journalists elsewhere, find mentors who help you grow.

“So push yourself to keep
learning. Take advantage
of every training opportunity.”

5. Make dumb stories better. Part of this goes back to point No. 1. How much ability do you have to negotiate with a boss, taking a poor story idea and turning it into something substantive while still giving the boss what she wants. Thus, instead of arguing and being labeled a malcontent who is nostalgic for the past and refuses all-important change (however misguided), you find ways to make ordinary assignments or non-stories better.

6. Always use multiple sources, authoritative voices, and add context. These are the IEDs of guerrilla journalists.

7. Don’t shy away from sacred cows. Write stories that bend over backwards to be “positive” without embarrassing yourself by writing untruths. This will create a bank of goodwill with these executives. Then you can tiptoe into tougher stories and leaven your coverage with serious issues without being attacked for being — gasp! — negative.

8. Become highly proficient with technology, social media and multi-media. None of these are a substitute for serious journalism, but they are shiny objects that captivate the folks that run the Bad and the Ugly. You get extra points and often the latitude and time to tackle the good stuff.

9. Never write fluff. The most brain-dead feature idea can be turned into a decent story if you write well, interview the right people, have great quotes, include tension and stakes, unearth previously unknown information and provide history and context.

“Keep your name out there,
using social media,
attending training,
cultivating relationships
with other journalists.”

10. Go for scoops. Even the Bad and the Ugly understand the value of exclusive new news.

11. Keep your name out there, using social media, attending training, cultivating relationships with other journalists and seeking your employer’s support in gaining a fellowship. This is how you can move to the Good, or at least better.

12. Practice good self-care. Talk quality journalism with others who “get it.” Don’t be put off by editors who shoot down your ideas or say, “We already did that” (sure, 10 years ago). Have a life outside the newsroom. Keep reading quality newswriting and learn from it. Find outlets for your frustration, from friends and lovers who are good listeners to mixed martial arts. Hold to your ethics. Be open without being bamboozled by the fadmeisters.

What are your guerrilla journalism tactics? I’d love to read them in the comments section.


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