It’s not ‘to change the world’
When you ask students what the best reason is to go into journalism, they may offer any one of a variety of answers. Two common replies are “to make a difference” or “to change the world.”
While good journalism can do both of those things as a byproduct, that isn’t the best answer. The best answer is that you’re insatiably curious and journalism gives you a great excuse to ask questions, get answers, and ask more questions arising from those answers.
For instance, let’s start out with the bold question, “How much money do you make?”
That query is generally considered rude coming from a stranger. When journalists ask it, folks tend to at least hesitate before saying “buzz off.”
They hesitate because they know there could be a legitimate reason for asking that question.
Maybe the journalist wants to know because there are taxpayer funds at stake.
Maybe the journalist wants to know to better understand the industry you’re in.
Maybe the journalist wants to know because the stockholders of your company are riled up about compensation.
Whatever the case is, the point is that the journalist wants to know and is willing to do things to get answers.
Getting those answers can be difficult at times. Yet many of our institutions have been set up in such a way as to answer, often with some positive spin thrown in.
For instance, most governments, agencies, school districts, public and private universities, and publicly traded companies employ the services of a press officer. A large part of this person’s job is to answer queries from you, the insatiably curious journalist.
How cool is that?
Let me give you an example of how this can help you in practice, when you get a wild hair of an idea.
The other day I was on a flight flying to Washington DC. At cruising altitude, I became curious about what K-12 public schools are doing to teach kids emotional regulation.
So I asked them.
To be precise, I sent out nearly identical emails to school districts in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Chicago. From 30,000-plus feet in the air.
The letters read:
Subject: Requested quote for deadline story
Body: What, if any, curriculum does [name of school district] have that teaches students emotional regulation?
Most of the school districts did not reply, but one of them did. We’ll get into that response in my next column, because the process is worth lingering on. Here’s how it went down:
1. Struck up a burning question
2. Puzzled out who might be able to help answer that question
3. Googled “press officer,” or variations, for several school districts
4. Wrote a simple query letter to a press officer of one district
5. Templated that and sent it to several other districts
6. From 30,000-plus feet in the air
7. Got an answer
There are other ways of getting at answers, of course. You can scour documents; call sources; take a notebook, a recorder, and your camera phone and go see what’s out there. But I’ve gotten some of the best answers over my career by simply sending and receiving emails.
I had questions, put them out there, and received some marvelous answers. You, too, can do this. What’s stopping you?