The Old Guard loves its shoe-leather reporting. I’ve worked at some of the largest metro newspapers east of the Mississippi – “legacy media,” as digital snobs call it – and am now attending my second journalism school. And if I’ve heard one consistent rallying cry from editors and professors alike, it’s that leaving your desk, walking your beat and chatting up people on street corners, stoops and the subway is key to any piece of Good Journalism.
But there’s the problem: Shoe-leather reporting isn’t what it used to be. And journalism schools have been slow to catch on.
Medill’s undergraduate program focused on this: Go out, talk to people on the street and come back to the office to write your story in the space of a few hours. We later graduated to beat reporting, working out of a Chicago storefront and writing extensively about specific neighborhoods. The Columbia Journalism School starts its Master of Science students in a similar fashion, albeit at a much more intense pace.
It’s essential to know how to talk to strangers. Good reporting requires that you establish at least nominal trust with your interview subject – sometimes in the span of five minutes. That’s not only incredibly important to do, but also incredibly difficult to learn.
Shoe-leather reporting in the digital age, however, is something more than that. Convincing people to tell you their life stories after a brief introduction is and always will be paramount for reporters. But digital tools have transformed the 21st century’s social geography. Facebook has become the digital stoop on which friends sit and shoot the shit. Twitter has become the corner on which they meet passersby, share gossip and talk politics. Those and myriad other Internet tools have both morphed how we interact and where we do so.
I spoke with a Yemeni political activist today. I was in New York and he was in Sanaa, 6,926 miles away. No amount of classical shoe-leather reporting would have ever landed me that interview. Instead, I stumbled across his Twitter profile after perusing search results for “#Yemen.” A link on his page led me to a statement he gave to Congress in May – through a Vimeo clip, no less – in which he detailed the residual effects of the U.S. drone program.
His argument was tailor-made for my current story, so I asked for his email address via direct message. After a few notes back and forth, we Skyped this afternoon. That’s shoe-leather reporting in the digital age.
It’s disconcerting when journalism professors remind students “the need to create a [insert social media here] profile.” Yet both journalism schools I’ve attended – and both claim to be the best in the business – don’t go much further than that with their Internet instruction. They characterize social media as a means of distribution, not a means of reporting.
I don’t think this is necessarily a calculated decision. And perhaps other journalism schools do the Internet justice. But from what I’ve observed, instructors – mostly of the Old Guard – put the onus on students to develop these skills. And sadly, many don’t.
Good journalists have to be too smart to die. But the margin for error in today’s hyper-competitive market is especially slim. Shunning digital tools as some sort of subconscious protest against “an industry changing for the worst” makes you a Luddite, not a purist. Ignoring them, meanwhile, is even worse.
Any animal must adapt to a changing environment, lest they go the way of the Dodo. Likewise, if reporting is about communication, reporters have to adapt to changing social geography.
That’s not to say the Old Guard’s idea of shoe-leather reporting is dead. On the contrary, it’s still the best way to understand what’s going on There, wherever There is. But as business, politics, culture, sports and any other news topic moves online, it’s less about wearing through the bottoms of your sneakers than it is about wearing down your mouse pad.