I’m a reporter at heart so being told I can’t publish usually means I have to. Even if you genuinely don’t mean any harm, be prepared for conflict and enemies if your story strikes a nerve.
I walked up to him cavalierly. As I drew nearer, I noticed his eyes glowed with anger; his fist clenched. In my mind I was innocent, but I knew I had made an enemy.
The pain I had caused him sat deep. I had sweet-talked him into setting up a call with his boss, I had assured him of my professionalism, I had convinced him that there was no danger in talking to me, but I had wrecked it all.
What did I do to cause this guy so much distress? I was doing my job and published an article. I published an article about a deal that his boss shouldn’t have talked to me about. That’s not all. I released the story after he called me and pleaded with me to hold the story as it may put the deal in jeopardy, losing months of hard work and millions.
My story ran. The deal closed. Nothing happened — end of story. The wheels of capitalism kept spinning, I thought. So, seeing him that day, red in the face and full of fury, I saw no danger in approaching him to touch base. (Luckily he was an even-mannered guy and we were at a five-star location, not the right place for a brawl).
I had conducted an on-record and scheduled interview with his boss, and there were no restrictions on the information. His boss spilled the beans and gave me some juicy details. He didn’t say anything was off-record. The story was accurate and true and came straight from lead dealmaker. I had an obligation to provide our readers with the intel.
So, I got my story ready and sent the company a quick line that the story would run and was about to hit publish when his call came.
The only agreement I had in place with these guys was to tip them off about the headlines before publishing. For whatever reason, I had agreed to that just to get the interview in the first place. Not ideal but some companies and PR agencies in Germany only give access on these conditions. It’s only a courtesy call, not on an opportunity for them to change or stay the information. What was said, was said.
My contact, matter of factly, told me flat out that the company did not sanction the use of the information for publication. Really? Too late buddy, not my problem. You can’t tell me to hold a planned and on-record story. It’s not my fault your boss spoke too freely. That’s your problem.
Why would I wait? If I wait there might not be a scoop (the deal will close or another outlet will beat me to it), I won’t have the knock-out story. No. I alerted compliance, sent out emails to my editors to make sure I’d followed due process. I didn’t for a second consider that my contact would pay the price with the full weight of responsibility resting on his shoulders for my conduct.
His anger was justified: his job and millions on the line. He had put his faith in me, and I had misused his trust. Could I have waited a few days to hit publish? Possibly, but I’m a reporter and being told I can’t, usually means I have to.
With the full awareness of the backlash, he’d face I may have shown more empathy but I didn’t have that insight. Usually, a sleight of hand means a contact may dodge me for a while but they often come around after a few weeks or months — not this guy.
I was never out to harm this guy, following my instinct on a good and true story that was slipped to me by someone who should have known better. I had done nothing wrong process-wise but I did neglect the human element and some empathy. I'm not without fault.
Was that scoop worth the pennies it earned? I honestly don’t know but what I do know, once a reporter, always a reporter and sometimes you’ll end up making an enemy.
“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything is public relations.” - George Orwell
I choose this career for different reasons: impact, love of the process and glory but I didn’t always want them.
We’ve all heard this before somewhere: journalists shouldn’t become the story. Not only did I write my first story, but I was also the star of a story that ignited my passion for journalism.
My diary replete with pictures of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer made a print run and was distributed nationwide in Switzerland. I was embarrassed because my sweater drew substantial ridicule at school (it didn’t help that Gerard Depardieu was on the cover). Here’s the proof (please, at least smile):
Despite the initial embarrassment, that 13-year-old kid tasted the sweet nectar of seeing his name in print and some temporary fame. A little pride and inward glory befell me. I’m not sure why it took almost over a decade to get published again. Fear, I suppose.
The first time you see your name in print, your face on TV at the media outlet of your dreams, it will make you feel like you’ve conquered the world. I promise. So, if you’re not there yet, don’t give up.
There is an intricate and subtle but beautiful craft in putting together your pieces. Sometimes you stand by them with pride, sometimes you question their impact or raison d’être (reason for being) but making your work go live is exhilarating no matter how big or small the impact.
You envision bringing down a despotic regime (which might not be a suitable bucket list item, I might add), change someone’s life (doable, sometimes, you won’t know if it has), move stocks (ding, ding, ding, ding, ding… winner) but whatever it is, you want to stir something up.
If you’re privileged enough to be making a living as a journalist, you know money isn’t everything. You talk to and explore the world from multiple perspectives every day; you can be a polymath. Your impact will depend on how much and how deep your knowledge reaches and what you can unearth.
Sure, some journalists become experts in one area of knowledge, stick to it, niche down but there are others who are generalists, flitting from one scene and topic to the next. Neither is perfect.
That’s when you fall in love with the process of creation. You plan a beautiful feature, television or radio segment and then watch it soar. Being tightly bound in the process becomes immensely satisfying. I didn’t know it could be.
Beyond glory, impact and the love of the process just let people marvel at the fact that you can make a living by meeting and talking to people.
The world needs more journalists to care about the issues that you care about. The world needs more of us to pick up a torch and ask (sometimes) dumb questions to make sense of things.
If you don’t do it, who will?
If today you’re feeling like a failure on the job, or you’re not there yet remember why your moth-like instincts keep you hovering around the light that journalism carries.
What I didn't think about starting out was this: the follow-up begins before that first conversation ends.
You've met someone you think can help you advance a story, job prospects or help you learn something new. First off, don't hide the fact that is your agenda. Be upfront about that. “Hey, I'm looking for a career in journalism” or “I’m blogging about making contacts, you seem to know a thing or two about that. Care to have a chat?”
That's how the initial email or conversation should go. Upfront and transparent. Once you've exchanged pleasantries, asked your gazillion questions and before the conversation ends ask the person if it is alright to get in touch down the line. Make sure the follow-up is okay. If the discussion is going well ask when it would be best to chat again. Avoid all weirdness because it’s everything is out in the open.
Grab their business card. Yeah, how many times did I not do that (see here my article on why you need a business card even if you are a student, freelancer or job-seeker) or ask to jot down their email or to connect over LinkedIn. Whatever you decide, find some way to connect with them. I've forgotten to do that so many times.
Take some notes. Now the conversation is over, and you've both moved on, make sure to take a few notes on what you both talked about — just a few keywords. I usually jot down a few words directly on the person’s business card. That little tidbit of info is critical.
Following-up boils down to developing a pro-active attitude that you care about the person. People will respect that, and if you're clear about being a student, or a journalist interested in a story, that has already set you up.
How much time do you let pass before harassing (erm, I mean follow-up with) the person? Here's the whopper: pick a day two weeks out, put a reminder in your calendar and forget about it, seriously. The reminder will pop up two weeks later and then just reach out to that person.
How you eventually decide to get in touch with the person is irrelevant, whether that's over LinkedIn, email or social media. I prefer email, but sometimes after meeting someone for the first time, I like to use LinkedIn (you’ll need to have a look if there are active).
Share a tidbit from the conversation, that always helps. Remember that note on the business card? Use it. I try to remember something non-work related like a holiday they went on. “How was your holiday in France? Hope you had a great time.” That's enough, don't overplay it.
How formal, or informal can you get in your next communication? That's a cultural thing; I’m far more formal with German contacts then I am with Americans. Since I’ve spoken to the person already, you might have a feel for whether you can be casual. If you feel uncomfortable about being relaxed, don’t do it.
Remember I'm talking about getting touch with people in a business context and of course the personal and business can mix but probably not on first meeting unless you've met your soulmate, in which case none of this applies.
I went around for a year without one trying to be cool but it just ended up being a nuisance and made me look unprofessional.
For a year I chose not to get a business card as I ramped up my freelancing and author activities. I’m going to be a renegade and stop using the little credit card-sized paper, I thought. That was a mistake.
If you’re employed, chances are you can print as many business cards as you want. Great, do that but if you’re looking for a job or just starting your freelancing, you’ll need your own. It’s not a cost worth saving on. Here’s why:
I still think business cards will become a thing of the past but until then, I’m going to play ball and have one. I’m still experimenting as I don’t have my email on the latest batch. You’ll know I like you because I’ll take the time to hand write it out (sometimes with a smiley) adding a personal touch to something that feels antiquated and old-school.
Resources (no affiliation, I might add):
Wisestamp www.wisestamp.com (ca. $25 for 50 cards) I use the Wisestamp email signature, and since all my info was in there, I just grabbed a simple design and ordered 50.
Vistaprint www.vistaprint.com (ca. $16 for 100) I’ve used them in the past, and they’ll have more designs to choose from. If you’re cost-conscious but want tons of options, try this.
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