Credit: Wesley Tomaselli
January, 2013 MEDELLÍN – Only now do I realize the value of being part of a newsroom. It’s critical. To tell a story well, first you’ve got to know whether or not to tell it, when to tell it, and how to tell it. This is a process. What I learned right away during my first week in the Colombia Reports newsroom is that it is a fiercely social process at best. And you’ve got to be rigid with yourself.
I was assigned a story on the Hay Festival – a literature and arts festival with Welsh origins that happens once every year in Cartagena, Colombia’s Caribbean port city. It’s important. But we had already written a piece on it earlier.
So the first question was whether or not to write the story. I went to Adriaan and asked him how relevant Hay is to our readers. “It’s a huge deal,” he said. “Write it.”
Solved. With efficiency.
The second question was when to publish the story? That was a harder question to answer. We decided to publish it on a Sunday, considering most interested readers would set aside time for an article on literature and arts during a Sunday morning over coffee rather than in the midst of week day chaos. We shot for Sunday.
The third question, though, was what’s the angle? Like I said, we’d already published a piece on Hay. So we needed a fresh angle. I went to Adriaan again. “Get an interview with the Director,” he said. “Ask her why Colombia and not another Latin American city. See what she has to say. If she says something interesting, we’ll publish.”
This is the painstaking process with every article. It’s fiercely social. And it’s got to happen fast.
Now that I report solo from my desk in Bogotá, the newsroom is still present – virtually, but the effect is not as strong. What I realized is that being in a newsroom surrounded by your peer reporters makes sharpening an article more efficient than ever.
You can kill an article with a quick question across the desk to find out whether or not there’s a conflicting story already written. Or you can get a quick run-down on the history of a beat that someone else has covered but you haven’t. You can get ideas on angles from the newsroom in a flash. And the pressure, of course, is on. The virtual equivalent works, but it doesn’t cut it like the real deal.
I learned that you’ve got to be extremely rigid with yourself before writing an article. And a strong skepticism with questions like Do my readers really want to read this? is probably the hardest question to answer well and quickly when you’re starting out.
Then again, I realized that once you confirm an article, you have to be bold. You have to get a source as fast as possible. Picking up the phone with immediacy is easier now. It wasn’t then.
Finally I got a hold of the director of Hay via a skype call. She was in London at the time. Then I boldly faced a 30 minute interview in Spanish. Not Colombian Spanish. Catalan Spanish. The Director is from Barcelona. That wasn’t what I expected. Then again, it never is what you expect when you’re a journalist. In fact, I think it’s usually better not to have these silly things – expectations – at all. Better to just be bold, listen, and try to understand your sources. A story will come.
Read the article I wrote on the Hay Festival at this LINK