Commentary: On Reporting
June 2003

by Mark BvS Monsky

I did it in a Primetime one-hour Indie and in the noon-5-6-11 Affiliate. I not only did it well, but I wound up as a group VP for two of the biggest O&O groups.

I went to an Ivy League college that had a grad J school, but my only contact was to return years later to lecture there, and at a less conventional school with J courses.

I learned the basics and the business of journalism as a copy boy, then caption writer for photos, and stumbled into a few really good stories. And I did well with them.

But I had editors. Tough New York City newspapermen. They'd go over every inch of my copy: " What's this crap? Where'd you get this 'fact'?" Bring it back when you know more. Your lead is buried.!"

When I went into radio and then TV, the business was filled with older guys. They were editors or producers. And I got more of the same.

It was called apprenticeship and it was bruising, ego deflating, work. Done again and again. But by the time I could turn in a copy story, or a radio report or a TV story...I had it right.

The men and women who battered me into a good reporter are long gone now. In my time as a news boss at varying levels, I did it a little differently, but with the same concept of "passing it on." I once sent a young female reporter back to a murder crime scene FIVE times until she could answer all the questions. Next time, I didn't have to. She got it right the first time. And then I put her in cultural beats, which was where her heart was.

During all this time, I was on committees, panels, forums, etc. on the subject of J school. And once, I even got agreement out of the President of Yale, Benno Schmidt on this point.

My thought was that J-School should be reserved for young reporters who have had three-to-five years of real experience; and who have shown willingness to put in the 18 hour/7 day work to make their story better. And who have demonstrated an understanding in a specific field of reporting such as Cops&Courts, Health& Medicine, Politics, and official corruption, to name a few.

Then those reporters should be given three-month paid leaves each year for five years. They would then go back into the graduate student bodies at universities with really solid J studies (Syracuse, Columbia , Missouri, Texas, Ohio, etc.) and specialized courses should be crafted for them, drawing on the widest range of university resources. If it's a Cops & Courts woman, she should have a detailed study of criminal law; examples by field examination of how lawyers get to be judges, taught by a law professor who knows; how the law looks to the felonious two-time looser who's ajailhouse lawyer.-clerk with a hardworking judge (like in arraignment parts)- spend a few weeks with a detective squad and see what that means. Work on a case from bust to verdict with a public defender.Pound the stairs and try to find witnesses.

You can take the same model to foreign affairs reporting, military affairs, and how the state legislature actually works. The top Universities with good J schools, also have other departments that bear on a special knowledge

Somewhere along the line, that reporter is going to change. He or she won't be quite so ready to swallow the bull and nonsense passed out at "news conferences." Remember that "allegedly" really is something more than a word to cover a lawyer's ass.

Most importantly, we need to get back to the point where men and women who were reporters are actually running the newsrooms. I mean no offense to the breeds in our business who come in as go-fers, get a shot at writing a late newscast on Saturday, do fill-in work on the assignment desk. And then they become producers and executive producers. But except for a few feature pieces, election night remotes, etc. they've never been out on the streets where stories happen, never had to stand with a woman sobbing over her dead baby. The ultimate truth -that when the show is over, those people out there keep on living their lives.

The same goes for the breed of "anchors" who've never actually made their living in the field, telling stories. Sure, regular features,some cosmetic charm and a nice voice helps in peddling the product. But until they, too, know what our stories mean to the people whose lives we "cover," they're just collecting big paychecks by becoming superannuated models.

I became a journalist a long time ago. My Father was a career Newspaper editor, and a respected national columnist. My mother had pushed a pencil around for a living too. In the days when I got my first press passes, all on my own and because I could kick-ass on a story, my father asked me a question. It haunted me then and over the years, stuck with me.

"If you want to know if you're a journalist, ask yourself how many times, long after the story value is over, do you call the folks you reported on and ask them how things were turning out for them? Maybe it's grist for another story, more likely not. But you keep on learning about people. And it keeps you from forgetting that journalism should be for them- about them. That way, you can look in the mirror in the morning and see a fella who's part of the solution. If you just use them for the story of the moment, forget that they're your neighbors, you're a part of the problem."

© Mark BvS Monsky

Mark BvS Monsky has been a reporter for newspapers, radio and >television. He was News Director of Ch.5 and Ch.4 in New York; VP of News for NBC & Metromedia Stations and President Metromedia News until it was bought by News Corp and renamed Fox. He's been executive producer of network and syndicated programs and a writer of novels.


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