OH in the Newsroom by Leah St. James:
You know you’re talking to a reporter, don’t you?
People who call a newsroom all have a story to tell. They’re either trying to get someone in customer service and presume someone will always answer the newsroom line, or they want publicity, either for an event coming up or to get help in righting a wrong in their lives. In both latter cases, it might be a story, but it might not.
Sometimes, even when it’s not a story, reporters will nibble on the caller’s bait just to see what happens.
Just the other day a man called and asked to speak to a reporter about a “crime” that was taking place in his neighborhood. The grievance: His monthly rent was raised $50.
Yes, $50 is a lot of extra money to come up with every month, but coming from New Jersey where monthly rents were raised at least $100 each year, I must confess I kind of thought he was getting off easy. Still, the fact that he thought it was illegal intrigued me.
I put the caller on hold and yelled across the newsroom to the reporter who covers that beat, “Stan (fake name to protect him from my ramblings), do you want to talk to some guy who believes it’s illegal to raise his rent?”
“Stan’s” eyes popped open, and he straightened in his chair, then said, “Patch him through.”
“Okay,” I said, the tone my voice conveying my doubt of his wisdom, and I transferred the call. “Stan” proceeded to have a 20-minute conversation with the man about the neighborhood and underhanded landlords and the skyrocketing cost of living. When he hung up, I asked (since I’m really new to the news business), “Was that really a story?”
“No,” he said, “but anytime I can get a guy to spill his guts for that length of time, I want to keep the lines of communication open.”
Ahh…so that was his angle. (See, this is why I don’t have a journalist’s mind. I was trying to get the guy off the phone while the reporter was drawing him out.)
It reminded me of another conversation I’d overheard a couple years earlier. One of our reporters was conducting a lengthy phone interview. After a long silence (while she listened), I heard her say, “Ma’am, you do know you’re talking to a reporter, don’t you?”
Seemed this woman was spilling more than her guts. She was sharing others’ secrets that, if made public (as in, if a newspaper reporter wrote about it), probably wouldn’t endear her to those whose secrets she was revealing.
I don’t know whatever happened, but I image this reporter’s warning did the trick.
I learned from both those experiences: You never know what you might say that will pique the interest of an inquisitive-minded reporter, whether you intend it or not.