When Trudy Lieberman started a blog on health care coverage two years ago for the Columbia Journalism Review, she felt like she’d been let out of prison. Suddenly, after four decades confined to the strictures of print journalism — 5W’s, nut graf, inverted pyramid, a limited space — she found her voice, one based on her authoritative reporting of health care policy and how it’s covered.
“I could be edgy, irreverent, engaging and analytical,” said Lieberman, CUNY’s director of the health & medicine reporting program and a long-time contributing editor to CJR. “Because I know the subject so well, I could cut through the BS and be totally honest.”
We asked Trudy to share her thoughts:
WRITE STUFF (WS): How’d the blog start?
TRUDY: Two years ago, I asked CJR Editor Mike Hoyt if I could do something online about health care coverage and he suggested the blog with at least three posts a week. I gulped. Three stories a week after I was used to spending three months or longer on stories for Consumer Reports and for the print version of CJR? Suddenly, after all these years, I would be doing daily journalism again. By the second week, though, I realized I really could do this, and I loved it. An old newspaper person (I worked at the Detroit Free Press for eight years) never totally leaves the beat. I could write fast because I had great knowledge of the subject, and it was so easy to connect the dots that too often go unconnected. It was very easy for me to switch to this form of journalism. My work only got better.
TRUDY: I got looser in my writing. I realized the constraints of the (print) format, the prescriptive style, had confined my writing all these years. I always was focused on ledes and nut grafs that sometimes are still hard for me to write. When I began the blog post, the nut graf turned into a nut sentence or two high up that answered the question: What is this post about? It’s the question I always ask myself when I start to write. Instead of spending hours creating an outline on paper, it was simpler to write the main points of the nut graf and then come back and add the documentation or my take on an issue. It was still an outline but more concise. The blog format helped me find my voice as a writer. At Consumer Reports where I worked for 29 years, I wrote in the voice of the magazine rather than in the first person, which made it hard to be breezy.
WS: And now?
TRUDY: When I started blogging, it was like I’d been let out of a pen. My voice just took off. I didn’t have to worry about the 5W’s or the other constraints we’ve talked about.
WS: You’ve talked about how well you know the subject. Obviously, most of us, particularly our students, haven’t had that kind of experience. What’s your advice for them?
TRUDY: It’s not about pretty writing. It’s all about the reporting. And I don’t mean storytelling, the term of art that’s in vogue today. To me, those words mean something different and often convey to student journalists that all they have to do is find an anecdote, add a couple of grafs based on a quick web search, and the story is done. The term does not imply a thorough investigation or understanding of an issue, large or small. Reporting is about understanding what you want to say. If you don’t thoroughly report the subject, it’s hard to have a blog post that says something meaningful. Unless you can tell a reader what something means, the post can be useless.
WS: Talk more about the reporting, which is so central to what we talk about here.
TRUDY: You can free yourself from the constraints of the print format, but you can’t free yourself from reporting if you want to be a good journalist, and that means interviewing the eleventh person who may say something that blows up your story. Young reporters have to learn to make that last phone call. It can be a hard lesson to learn.
WS: Health care is a complex subject. Does the blog help you explore and explain the complexities?
TRUDY: Yes. The truth is a lot more complicated than ‘He said, she said’ journalism, a dictum that goes hand-in-hand with the tenets of the old journalism we all learned. That means blog posts should be more than two-source journalism. You’ve got to go out there and do the reporting, no matter what medium your work will appear in. You can’t sit on the Internet and do it. You’ve also got to read deeply about the topic you’re writing about. The challenge of using the new tools is to figure out how to report complicated stories in short form, perhaps as a long-running series or with context added by engaging the public. I feel like we can really invent something here, and the new digital journalism gives us a clean slate to do it.
WS: Your best advice?
TRUDY: Reporting is the foundation of everything we do. Reporting for one story helps build a base for the next one. That’s what good reporters have learned. I urge students to first do a thorough clip search before starting a story, learn what the topic is all about, and then go and report the hell out of it.