Jim Steele on reporting

A copule of weeks ago I went to workshop organized by the National Center for Business Journalism. In the morning (which I missed a chunk of), Michelle Leder of footnoted.org gave a stellar workshop on financial documents, chock full of resources. The afternoon featured Jim Steele of the Barlett and Steele reporting team.
Steele is a slight man, about 5′ 10″, with salt-colored hair and a prominent nose. When he speaks he’s somewhere between Walter Cronkite and Jimmy Stewart, and he has the same kind of humble authority. There’s no arrogance in the man, despite his two Pulitzers, two National Magazine Awards and seven books. “Every lesson in journalism I ever learned I forget and have to learn all over again,” he said at one point.

Steele says he works in a ‘document state of mind.’ He assumes the information he needs is out there, he just has to find it. That style has worked really well for him and Barlett — as he tells it, much of their reporting is keyed by finding the hard copy of court cases, depositions, statistical records and the like, and they have found many pivotal sources through documents. They also find contrarian perspectives by weighing what’s in the documents vs. how it’s being filtered.

At the same time, he cautioned us not to expect too much from the paper chase. “A lot of people think you’ll find a blockbuster document,” he said. “Usually, it’s just part of a puzzle. No one document is particularly Biblical.”

(He does heartily recommend tax legislation as an excellent cure for insomnia.)

Barlett thinks that documents are invaluable even for small stories, and cited a Philadelphia Inquirer story on a story about a piece of property that contained rich details about its history, including specific furnishings. The reporter had found these in an estate proceeding in the county seat’s probate records.

He told us that it’s so much easier to get information now than it was when he was reporting in the 1960s and 1970s that it’s “a golden age for information.” Instead of having to write to the SEC, for instance, and hope it would respond, he can now just go online and dig through copious records on many businesses.

The downside to the rise of the Internet is that it lets people do their own digging, which means that they don’t need some of the things journalists do. “Half the Washington press corps has been rendered obsolete by the Web, only they don’t know it,” Steele told us, saying nobody really needs reporting on routine releases. He does think that “there will always be a role for people who do what we (he and Barlett) do — connect the dots and you will be paid for it.”

On the other hand, when someone asked him about the future of journalism, he confessed he had to punt. “I have no idea,” he said. He deferred to Bill Myers, author of the brilliant book
Precision Journalism (now out of print), and more recently
the Vanishing Newspaper.

He does in his heart believe that printed newspapers will survive, staffed by professional journalists. “An army of citizen journalists just won’t get the whole rope,” he said.

Driving home that night, I heard on the radio that another reporting legend, David Halberstam, had died. I saw Halberstam speak at the Nieman Narrative conference a few years back. The thing I remember most was Halberstam answering a question about how much money he made by saying he made enough money from one book to write the next one. That was sobering.

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