Reporting advice that changed my career
Top journalists share their favorite words of wisdom

The Reporting Advice That Changed My Career

We revisit a feature by the Columbia Journalism Review featuring prominent journalists on the best career advice they have received. For many, the right words of wisdom at the right time had a lifetime of impact on their careers. Here's what they had to say.

Wesley Lowery, national correspondent at the Washington Post

"One of the first editors I worked for after joining The Washington Post in 2014 was Terence Samuel, who at the time ran the paper’s congressional coverage (now he’s deputy managing editor at NPR). He told me that he wanted me, at all times, to be thinking of story ideas and writing them down. After every interview, what were two new leads? After every staff meeting, what tidbits were mentioned that would work as a stand-alone piece? When reading coverage by colleagues and competitors, what fact, statistic, or concept—often mentioned in the middle or end of the story—cries out for its own story, or series? What themes are surfacing in coverage by smaller, or more locally or regionally focused outlets that would benefit from coverage from a larger outlet with more time and resources?

Making these lists became an obsession of mine. The key, for me, was being unafraid to write things down, and stimulate that side of my brain. I still keep the first list that I wrote at [Samuel’s] urging, on my nightstand. As you can see from the picture, it was just a list of disjointed thoughts and overly broad concepts. My lists now strive for razor precision. But I did end up writing a thing or two from the bottom of that first list, and dozens more from the lists that have followed.”

list of story ideas from Wesley Lowery
Wesley Lowery's list, courtesy Lowery.

Laila Al-Arian, '06 M.S, senior producer and investigative journalist for Fault Lines, Al-Jazeera’s award-winning documentary show.

“The best advice I’ve gotten about reporting is, ‘Do the reporting, and the story will write itself.’ The source is Sandy Padwe, my reporting and writing professor at Columbia Journalism School. I took his advice to mean that if you thoroughly and deeply report a story, do all the research and interviews you need to do to make it good, writing it will be easy because your material will be so strong that the story will write itself. I think a lot of reporters can suffer from writer’s block, but he was advising his students that will be much less likely if your source material is strong. And you’re more likely to get strong material if you thoroughly report a story.”

Steve Coll, Dean of Columbia Journalism School and staff writer at The New Yorker

“When I was starting out at The Washington Post, I once asked Bob Woodward how to ask government officials to share confidential or possibly classified documents or written materials. I thought that he must have some carefully sequenced strategy, arriving at a subtle request. ‘Just ask them,’ he said. ‘Don’t hesitate.’ Oh. That turned out to be very helpful as the years went by.”

Ben Smith, editor in chief of BuzzFeed

“In my first reporting job, as a summer intern for the Forward, I passed on gossip a source in local New York politics had told me off the record, to another source. The second source told me: 'If you’re telling me his secrets, you’re probably telling him mine. Now I know never to trust you.' I’ve been hyper-aware ever since that part of being a reporter is being genuinely trustworthy, and that you need always to be intensely aware of the status of information and of the agreements you make around it. (I recently read a version of that same story in Jake Adelstein’s book Tokyo Vice, which is a great reporting manual; he learned the lesson from a crafty cop in the Tokyo suburbs.)”

Jaweed Kaleem, national race and justice reporter, The Los Angeles Times 

“Write every story as if it is for page one.”

He says that advice was given by Reginald A. Stuart, a journalism recruiter, mentor, and diversity advocate who has worked for McClatchy and Knight Ridder, and was formerly a reporter for The New York Times.

Tom Cole, arts desk editor, NPR

Cole says he received advice from former NPR cultural desk editor Sharon Ball that was “a matter of due diligence.”

“It was very simple: ‘Make ’em tell you no,’” Cole says. “Maybe we’re doing a story on a museum that has a supposedly looted work of art, and the reporter will say, ‘Well, the museum is not going to comment,’ and I’ll say, ‘Make ’em tell you no. Go back to them and ask them.’ And I think that’s the best bit of advice I’ve ever been given.”

David Fahrenthold, reporter, The Washington Post

“The advice I remember most is from Deborah Nelson, who’s now a professor at the University of Maryland. When I was an intern at the Seattle Times in 1998, she was an investigative reporter at the paper, and she did a little seminar on investigative reporting for us neophytes. I remember her advice about a big story: Imagine your story as a set of concentric circles, with the subject at the center. Start at the outer ring—with sources only distantly connected to the subject, and with documents—and work toward the center.”

For more great journalism advice, read the full article at Columbia Journalism Review: Top journalists reveal the best reporting advice they have received