After 23 years of reporting from such far-flung spots as Rochester, San Francisco and Hong Kong, Amy Wu now covers politics and government at The Californian, a Gannett paper in Salinas, Calif. Wu, who earned her master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, finds that while the media landscape has changed profoundly in the last two decades, new challenges lead to new rewards. This roundup of her tips for navigating a shrinking newsroom is the third of a five-part series.
In the new newsroom I found it increasingly difficult to get old-fashioned photographers to embrace new technologies. One colleague told me he refused to take any “30-second videos and do low-quality work.” But a good friend who is the photo and video editor at a large news outfit gave me a boost of confidence. “You can totally do this on your own,” she said. She was right. I took our staff photographer to coffee, and he gave me basic tips on shooting, including the “rule of thirds” and how to hold the smartphone steady (it helps to hang a purse on your arm). He gave me a primer on using the Canon Rebel—basics from locking the lens to how to check the ISO and aperture to the importance of getting as close to the subject as possible.
Walk the streets
Shoe-leather journalism has fallen by the wayside in this age of text messaging, emails and smartphones. I’ve had sources who ask me to text over my questions so they can respond. Instead, I pick up the phone and call them. I do email, but my emails are requests to meet sources face-to-face. If that’s impossible I at least push for a phone call. Insurance salespeople can work from emails, but journalists need responses in real time. Only accept email interviews as a last resort. It puts the interviewee in the driver’s seat and frankly, it’s lazy.
Man-on-the-Street roundups were very popular when I was a reporter for my college paper eons ago. Whether it’s tapping the masses for their thoughts on the rising cost of avocados or how they feel about the most recent elections, the Q&A is an easily digestible format that readers enjoy. There will be days when you just have to feed the beast, knowing your editor’s daily mantra, “What do you have for me today?,” is just hours away. A trick that has worked for me is a weekly column called “Snapshot,” in which I profile a county or city staffer using the Q&A format.
Stay on top of sources
One of the most important ways to maintain your credibility is regularly reaching out to sources. In reporting, especially on complex investigative stories, make sure you leave a voicemail, send an email and follow up with a text. Be specific in telling the source when you need to hear from them; for example, by the end of the business day. This sounds obvious but is critical. You don’t ever want a source feeling they have not been given the opportunity or the time to respond. And if you or your editor are ever accused of unfair reporting, you can prove that you tried.
Meet your chamber
Business associations, especially chambers of commerce and rotaries, can be hotbeds of stories that explore the intersection of local government, economic development and the community. Perennial questions—how projects are funded and who stands to benefit—often elicit interesting discoveries. Make a list of the associations and organization in your community and get their membership directories. Identify their presidents. Follow them on social media. Invite them for coffee and let them know you’re keen on the buzz.