Joe Nocera, the Times’ business columnist, Tuesday presented a primer on reporting to Tim Harper’s Craft Class. The veteran business writer and columnist has covered everyone from Boone Pickens (from his Texas oil-patch days) to Steve Jobs (who called Nocera a “slimebucket”). He’s also explored issues from Google’s daycare problems to the extraordinary financial meltdown and bailout of the past few weeks.
Here are Nocera’s nuggets on reporting:
• Make the first phone call. The hardest thing to do in reporting is to make the first phone call, when you don’t know much. It’s like an insurance salesman making a “cold call” on a customer.
• Keep them talking. Once you’ve got them on the phone, ask simple questions, “I don’t mean to sound dumb but how does a ‘credit swap’ work?” The only stupid question is the one you don’t ask.
• Luck matters. Creating your own luck matters more. After some persistent reporting, and a lot of questions to Apple PR folks, Nocera got “lucky” when Jobs called him names and, yep, gave him some great stuff for the column he was writing.
• Don’t be afraid of what you think. If you’re outraged by something, your reporting can show readers why they should be outraged, too. Do the reporting, then trust yourself to tell the reader what you found.
• Don’t be afraid to go against the grain. Just because Treasury tells you the banks are spending all that government money to ease credit doesn’t mean it’s so.
• Get specific storytelling details. Make yourself so familiar to your sources you become a fly on the wall. Nocera years ago immersed himself in Pickens’ deal-making sessions and captured the image of Pickens in a bathrobe eating a Granny apple. In a story with a lot of financial numbers, that image is the one Nocera and readers most remember. (OK, Nocera also copped to sharing a few drinks with Pickens along the way).
• Make your writing a conversation, not a dissertation. Don’t write to your sources in the jargon they use. Write to readers as if you were telling them a fascinating story.
• Follow the “5 Moms” rule. When a source hooked up Nocera with a Google mom, she unloaded to him the problems she was having with the company’s vaunted daycare program. She enlisted four other Moms for Nocera. When that many people tell you something’s wrong, you’ve got a helluva story. You’ve also got the reporting evidence to rebut the official company line.
• Learn the rules well so you can break them later. The need for strong reporting, accuracy and fairness never changes. But there are guidelines – rarely use questions and quotes leads – that can be broken by wise heads, as Nocera’s columns show.