In daily journalism, you often don’t get a lot of time. But in trying to cover the lives of ordinary people and make it news, your best friend is time. Being able to spend a lot of time with people is really the key. The biggest piece of advice is get as much time to spend with your subject as possible. There is no substitute for it, just none, period.
And if you’re trying to do a story on somebody who’s not a star, not a politician, not a recognizable name, you’ve got to take a lot of time and be very careful in selecting your subject. It is true that everybody has a story, but some stories are just better than others. And you need to make sure that you take the time and be very selective in determining your subject. Don’t be afraid to walk away from a subject, to say this person’s story doesn’t fit what I’m trying to say, and go out and look for somebody else.[As part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning series The New York Times did on race] I did a story on two drill sergeants at Fort Knox, Kentucky, one black, one white. And I spent a lot of time at Fort Knox before I found this particular company that I actually hung out with for a while. As is often the case in journalism, I got lucky. I found a company in which the captain was leaving the army and didn’t care about his career. So he gave me complete access, and I just got to talk to everybody and hang out, and that made all the difference in the world.
So take your time in finding your subject. And observe, observe everything, take everything in, don’t let anything pass, not a thing. But don’t then regurgitate everything you see in your story. Be very selective. You may even have a really interesting anecdote, a really great anecdote, but it might not fit your point. Discard it and go onto something else. People are interesting beings. You will come up with another one. Otherwise, your stories wander and ramble and they just don’t seem to make any particular points.
Now I’m going to say something that’s going to sound kind of contradictory: Don’t worry about contradictions. You might have an anecdote that completely contradicts the point you’re going to make. Don’t just say, “Okay, that’s just a contradiction, I’m not going to put that in because that would take people off the point.” Find out why your subject did it. If it doesn’t seem to fit, find out about it. And if you discard it later on, do so for good reasons. But just because it seems contradictory on its face, that’s no reason to forget about the anecdote.
Know the context of the people. By that I mean know what’s going on, not only in their lives but also in their communities, in their workplace, in the world, and try to connect them to it. That’s what makes a lot of these stories about ordinary people so powerful.
Also, don’t forget about your subject’s history: People come from somewhere. Go back and report and find out where they come from. They have friends, they have parents, they have family, they have wives, they have schoolmates, they have lots of things. Find out as much as you can. That will inform, and even if this doesn’t end up in the story, that will help inform your observations and your views of them, and you’ll understand why they do things, and you’ll be able to report it and write about it in a much richer way.
Obviously, respect and understand your subjects.
Let me just break and read you from the story I did on these two drill sergeants. It’s about one field sergeant. His name is Earnest Williams. He is a young, black drill sergeant from Waco, Texas, who is, if you meet him, the first thing you notice about him is, this guy is built. He’s about 5’10,” he weighs about 205, 210 pounds, it’s all muscle. The guy works out every day, he takes bodybuilding pills, muscle enhancers, he’s almost obsessed with his physical prowess.
He also had a bright, boyish smile that went well with his impish sense of humor. But in an institution that puts a premium on physical fitness, it was important to Sergeant Williams to camouflage his charm with sternness and to impress the privates with prowess.
One evening they challenged him to do 50 pushups in a minute. He accepted but, not wanting to embarrass himself, first retreated to his office to see if he could pull off such a feat. There he dropped to the floor and did 50. Naturally the effort tired him. But he would not let himself show weakness, so he swaggered out into the sleeping bay, slapped a stopwatch into a private’s hand and knocked out another quick 50. The men were wide-eyed.
That’s not a bad little anecdote, right? It shows a little bit of observation and makes a point. Let me let you in on another secret: I wasn’t there. I didn’t see it. I always stress being there, but you’re human, you’re not going to see everything. You’re going to sometimes miss stuff that you hear about later. Don’t worry about it. But that doesn’t mean you make it up. It means you go back and report it.
I heard about this time when Williams did these 50 pushups in under a minute. I thought, hmm, that’s kind of interesting, so I asked him about it. And he told me about this in one short conversation. Then the next night I asked him about it, and he told me a little bit more—he told me about going into the office and not wanting to be embarrassed. So the next night I went back to the barracks, and I talked to a couple of the recruits, who told me about it: “What did he do when he came out of there?” “Who asked him to do the pushups?” “Why?” “When he came out, did he just drop to the floor and knock out the pushups?” “How do you know he did it in under a minute?” Also, he had a stopwatch. “Who held the stopwatch?” Private so-and-so. I went to private so-and-so and asked him, “Did Williams give you the stopwatch?” “Yes” “Did he just hand it to you and say, ‘Please take this stopwatch?’” “No, he slapped it into my hand.”
So all I’m saying is that you can write vividly, in a true narrative style, about things that you don’t necessarily witness with your own eyes but, even if you do, doesn’t mean that you stop reporting. Even if I’d seen all of it, it still would have made a lot of sense for me to go back and report. Reporting is the key to good journalism, and it makes no difference what kind of journalism you’re talking about. You can’t just take something on the surface and put it in the paper. You’ve got to go back and just get at as many layers of it as possible.
And I think it’s especially important when you’re writing about ordinary people, because this is what brings ordinary people to life, these little things. And the only way you can understand them is reporting.
Again, we keep coming back to that word, time. Time begets time. And I guess one of the things that I know I did and a couple of other reporters did in their particular subjects [in reporting on this series] is that they didn’t rush to take notes.
They knew that they were handling a very sensitive subject [race] about which people are very reluctant to talk, and you wanted to be able to blend in to gain people’s trust. One of the reporters, Michael Winerip, who spent a lot of time with New York City narcotics detectives, tells this story about how when he first started hanging out with these folks he would not talk about race at all. He would just hang around and observe. They knew what he was working on, so they were a little bit wary of him. And towards the beginning, something would happen—it didn’t have anything to do with race, and Mike wanted to remember it, so he would take out his notebook and immediately they would say, “Did I say something racist?”
It’s very difficult to do anything except spend as much time, get to know them, speak to them about everything you can think of, whether or not it has anything to do with your subject—and, in fact, it might be better if you spoke with them about things that had nothing to do with the subject.
These guys started talking to me about race, at least the black guys started talking to me about race, fairly early on and then listened to what I had to say. But then I didn’t come back to that until much later. I would sometimes get away from them, go someplace and write something down, not an exact quote but basically some of the things they were talking about, and say to myself, “I’m going to come back and talk to them about that in three weeks.” At least at the beginning, I wanted to be seen just as a person, and I guess as a reporter because I felt it was ethically necessary to remind them periodically. I’d say, “Guys, don’t forget who I am.”