Elsewhere in this issue you’re going to read about a war correspondent and reporters engaged in “out there” kinds of reporting that you figure has little to do with your journalistic world. But as you read about their exploits, consider what you can learn if you start to think of yourself as an embedded reporter.
The most formative years of my career were the 10 years I spent as the police reporter at The Oregonian. The success I had later in my career can be traced directly back to the time I spent in the pressroom at the old police station at Southwest Second Avenue and Oak Street.
I’d just arrived at the paper from a midsized daily newspaper in eastern Washington. At the time, the police beat was seen as a place for rookies or older reporters on their way down. I’d been at the paper for a couple months when the city editor sent me a memo that would change my professional life – he was assigning me to be the day police reporter. There couldn’t have been a less glamorous beat at the paper.
I showed up and found the pressroom on the second floor of the police station. I was truly embedded, cut off from the newsroom – the gossip, the office politics and the jockeying to catch the eye of the editor for good assignments. My job was simple: Listen to the police radio, check records and run out to cover car crashes, fires and other assorted crimes.
The police had a terrible relationship with the newspaper. For years, we’d been cycling reporters in and out of the beat. During one stretch, we had an older woman who covered fashion listening to the police radio. I was going to be the first full-time day cops reporter since the 1950s.
The police didn’t think much of the paper or this new reporter in their midst. A couple of grizzled robbery detectives gave me a bad time for wearing a pink shirt to work one day. I asked a detective a question, and he wanted to know when I fell off a turnip truck.
When I’d come to the paper, I spent a day with a veteran reporter who had to cover cops one day. He spent the whole time complaining about the city editor. His day consisted of checking in with the editor and then going over to a nearby coffee shop where he’d drink cup after cup and tell me how he’d do things if he were running the paper.
The truth was, not much was expected of the day cops reporter. If I wanted to, I could coast and follow the lead of my competition, a tired reporter who worked for the afternoon paper. He spent the day at his desk in the pressroom reading old paperback mysteries. I faced a choice – a choice that every young reporter must make. You can follow the pack or find your own way.
My world became the police station, the detective squad and the precinct house. Each day, I wandered around that world – curious, asking questions and slowly becoming aware of how rich that world was for storytelling. Previous reporters had seen a brief assignment to the police beat as a form of punishment. They grumbled, and in doing so, failed to take advantage of a wonderful opportunity.
I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it then. There really wasn’t even a word for it, but I realize now that I considered myself embedded. I hung out in the police station cafeteria where people became familiar with my face. I had coffee at the same place the detectives like to hang out.
Over time, the police stopped thinking me of as “The Oregonian.” I was simply Tom. And once they made that transition, their world opened up to me in ways it never would for an outsider.
My time on the police beat taught me several valuable lessons: I learned how to report, not just take handouts from politicians who wanted to see their name in the paper. I learned how to get people to open up when there was no reason for them to talk. If you can get a street cop to talk with you, then you’ll have no problems when you decide it’s time to try your hand at dealing with people who might form the foundation for a narrative feature story.
At the start of your next work week, think of yourself as an embedded reporter.
If you’re a school reporter, get out into the schools and learn what’s going on. Don’t sit at your desk talking with school administrators on the telephone. Look back at your stories and ask yourself if they reflect the world of a writer who knows the world, or one reporting from a distance.
Wander around city hall just to talk to people. Start thinking of yourself as a part of that world. And then try and find the stories and people that will help your readers understand that world.
Too much of our reporting is distant. We don’t capture the sights and sounds of the worlds we cover.
If you think of yourself as embedded in that world, you’ll begin to find stories that have power and resonate with readers.
Tom Hallman Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior reporter for The Oregonian.