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Question of the day

Friday, Jan 4, 2013

* The Daily Herald’s Mike Riopell posted this on his blog the other day

Today we add another reporter to the Springfield bureau team until the end of lawmakers’ spring session in May … or however long it takes them to approve a budget this year.

Doug T. Graham is a graduate student at the University of Illinois Springfield and an alum of Eastern Illinois University.

We recently gave some solid advice to incoming legislative freshmen, so I thought maybe we could do the same for the new crop of Statehouse PAR interns.

* The Question: What advice would you give these new Public Affairs Reporting interns?

And no snark, please. Thanks.

- Posted by Rich Miller        


34 Comments
  1. - walkinfool - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 11:08 am:

    Make friends with the secretaries, and visit with legislators in their offices for a few minutes to introduce yourself. It will make your job easier over time.

    They’re not afraid of you yet.


  2. - UISer - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 11:09 am:

    Take as many classes with Ron Michaelson and Kent Redfield as possible.


  3. - Andy M. - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 11:22 am:

    I’m paraphrasing another PAR alum, Kevin Lee, who told the class after mine to memorize the flow chart Charlie Wheeler hands out showing how a bill becomes a law… and then throw it away, because there are things called “Shell Bills…”

    On a less snarky note, take care of yourself. Get plenty of rest when you can. Eat healthy, get exercise, and when you can, spend quality time with your classmates. Some of these guys will be your friends for life.


  4. - Cincinnatus - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 11:25 am:

    Go back to school and get an MBA.


  5. - Are Ya Kiddin' Me? - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 11:26 am:

    Go out with Rich Miller one night….you might have a huge hangover the next day, but you will get the best tips, quotes, insight, ect.


  6. - The Captain - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 11:28 am:

    Nurse a beer in the beer garden at Boone’s, you’ll overhear and learn more about what’s really happening than any newspaper will tell you.


  7. - Advice - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 11:28 am:

    Become friends with the spokespeople.


  8. - W13 - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 11:29 am:

    Be nice to gatekeepers - secretaries, pages in the House, staff on the floor and at the LRB, junior media staff who take messages.

    Learn the Capitol geography. You don’t want to get lost trying to find an interview.

    Find a niche and become an expert (or figure out who they are).

    Follow Bill Holland’s advice: Be skeptical, not cynical.


  9. - CircularFiringSquad - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 11:35 am:

    Try writing without the context of some grand political struggle.

    Don’t quote an academic who has no real world experience.

    Have some fun.

    Always check the real credentials of “experts” quoted elsewhere ( i.e. one new group made a expert out some out of state prof who wrote one paper — a cut and paste job on state laws — on state pensions) Usually thin stuff.


  10. - Reality Check - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 11:36 am:

    It’s all here, from Philip Seymour Hoffman as legendary rock journalist Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HpISLkb5L5E

    In short, Don’t make friends with the band.


  11. - Yossarian Lives - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 11:42 am:

    Don’t parrot the governor’s press releases when he takes credit for a bill he signed. Unless the governor’s office initiated the bill and worked it, they weren’t behind it. Take the time to figure out who was.


  12. - Dan Vock - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 11:44 am:

    Don’t be shy. Ask questions. Tell people when you don’t understand their answers. Then make them explain it again. (One of the greatest lines for reporters goes something like: “For my readers / listeners who aren’t experts, what does this mean?” It helps you understand AND leads to better quotes.)

    Remember that your audience (most of it, anyway) is not in the Capitol. Describe things simply, like you would to your family. Use examples of everyday people. The palace intrigue is fascinating, but most Illinoisans care less about the gamesmanship between the governor and the speaker than about their taxes going up or their schools falling down.

    Lose your ego. Practice, practice, practice. Listen to advice (especially from your bureau chiefs). Take thankless assignments. Develop sources. Write features. Soak it up.

    Get back to Charlie quickly when he asks you for your update for the Christmas newsletter.


  13. - Past the Rule of 85 - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 11:44 am:

    Use the lesson from Woodward and Bernstein: Follow the money.


  14. - Barton Lorimor - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 11:47 am:

    Everything that has been said here plus:

    Get the quotes you need, and then put the recorder or notepad away and see if the person you’re interviewing is willing to talk to you on background. If they give you information, it’s not for print. Consider it a little assurance you won’t produce anything wrong or misleading.

    Always have more than enough extra batteries, a spare pencil, and a few granola bars.

    The best stakeout spot when your chief wants a quote from the leadership during budget negotiations is along the 2nd Floor Rail opposite of the Governor’s ceremonial.

    The best way to get your story linked to on Capitol Fax is to have something unique.

    Happy hunting this semester!


  15. - Joe Bidenopoulous - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 11:48 am:

    Figure out which lobbyists are in tune and make nice with them. Some know much if not all of what’s going on, even if they’re not involved, and could be good sources.


  16. - Joe Bidenopoulous - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 11:49 am:

    Oh, and definitely follow CFS’ advice


  17. - PARalum - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 11:54 am:

    Don’t take anything personally! If you don’t have thick skin, fake it ’til ya make it. You should always be polite and address lawmakers & officials by their titles - but you’re not there to make friends. (If you haven’t ticked someone off by the time you leave, you probably didn’t do the best job you could.) Also, making sources out of lobbyists can be just as beneficial as trying to get anything out of staffers. Finally, no matter what, take comfort in the fact you are going to leave with an awesome group of actual friends that you made in your class.


  18. - walkinfool - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 11:57 am:

    Listen and learn the difference between:

    a “hedge” — (I’m keeping my options open)

    a “dodge” — (I don’t want you to know)

    a “babble” — (I haven’t a clue)

    and a “statement” — (I’m hoping this will sound good)


  19. - Yossarian Lives - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 11:58 am:

    – Also, making sources out of lobbyists can be just as beneficial as trying to get anything out of staffers. –

    Staffers should probably take that as a compliment…


  20. - Enemy of the State - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 12:00 pm:

    Learn to drink heavily, especially if some one else is buying.

    Know that when things make sense, you need to keep working.

    Be nice to the little people.

    Remember, just outside of Chicago, there is a place called Illinois.


  21. - Bill - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 12:24 pm:

    Get a real job.


  22. - Rx-PAR - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 12:26 pm:

    Don’t sleep with a lawmaker or staffer. Eat the free food and drink the free booze at open receptions while you’re broke enough to justify it, but don’t let a source but you anything more than a beer. Leave rown with five good clips and a recommendation from your bureau chief,


  23. - Kirsten Adshead - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 12:34 pm:

    You’re not there to make friends, but don’t treat everyone as the enemy, either. Be courteous, respectful, fair.

    Watch and learn from other, more experienced reporters. But find your own reporting style and writing voice.

    Anytime anything makes you go, “Huh,” “That’s weird,” “Really?”, etc., it’s probably a story. Even if it seems minor, chances are 1. No one else is going to take the time to follow-up on it, so you’ll probably have an exclusive story, even if it’s a minor one, 2. Half the time, it’s not a minor thing, it’s just something that’s being glossed over, and 3., Even when it is a minor issue, asking questions about it will lead you down a trail toward a story/issue you otherwise would not have known about or covered.

    Appreciate Charlie. He keeps the program running and watches over the PARs like a proud and protective dad. Remember to thank him for that.


  24. - Not It - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 12:37 pm:

    Don’t automatically believe what you see in someone’s press release, but that is a no-brainer.

    Know the difference between a real bill and a shell bill, committee amendment and floor amendment, and how they all move through the process.

    Don’t take it personally if people don’t want to have a conversation with each other while you’re standing there. Even if you say, “I’m not working” too many of us have been burned by reporters who later forget they weren’t working, either on purpose or by accident.


  25. - wordslinger - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 12:40 pm:

    Read, read everything. You’ll be a lot smarter than the average bear and it will inform your reporting.

    Start with the U.S. and Illinois constitutions, every word. Then, everything that the Auditor General puts on paper. That’s a crew of serious people who know everything and don’t spin.

    Read the papers, especially the downstate papers. They follow state government a lot more closely than Chicago does.

    Ignore TV and blabbermouth radio. They can drive the process for a few days, but they’re not in it for the long haul. It’s just noise.

    Cultivate a couple of goombahs, folks who will let you know what’s really going down. I had Hastert and Ronan, and those dudes gave me an education that money can’t buy.

    Earn Steve Brown’s trust. If I have to tell you why, you don’t understand what I’m talking about.

    Every chance you can, engage with Charlie Wheeler and Mike Lawrence. Don’t talk, listen.

    John O’Connor is the Marlon Brando of his time. Let him know that, and he might throw you a crumb now and again. The dude is a killer and one of the best guys you’ll ever know.

    Rick Millard knows everything. He won’t tell you everything, but if he trusts and likes you, he might tell you something you need to know, at just the right time. He’ll look out for you. The coolest of cool cats.

    Whenever you can, travel the state, preferably in a car, and especially on state and county roads, where you can see how the folks live. Go to the Wabash, the Rock, the Kankakee, the Ohio, the Mississippi, everywhere.

    When you do, don’t eat at fast-food chains, find the local diners and taverns and engage with the folks (I have recommendations from Galena to Cairo). The state is brilliant, beautiful and rich and you have to see it to appreciate it and know it.

    Park your POS college car in the governor’s spot at the Dome on weekends. Take a picture. It’s hilarious.

    Explore and enjoy the Dome. It’s magnificent.

    Here’s the tough one: check your cynicism at the Dome. Watching sausage being made is ugly and brutal. But it’s real and it’s necessary.

    Be cool to everyone you meet. It’s just the right thing to do. But in your own self-interest, understand the Dome runs on trust and friendship. You’re in the information business, and everyone you meet knows something important that you don’t. They might share it if they like you.


  26. - Sunshine - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 12:51 pm:

    People do business with people they trust; not necessarily with people they like. Earn their trust.

    Before telephones, a person used to have to lie to a person’s face. Try face to face when you can. It helps reveal the truth.


  27. - Quizzical - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 1:27 pm:

    With regard to most of the important issues, only a few people really know what’s going on, and they got to their positions by not being the type of people who share information willy-nilly.


  28. - Publius - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 1:41 pm:

    Know that many of the people you meet now will be around for years and years. Then they will disappear and pop up some place else in other roles for the rest of your life


  29. - Dean Olsen - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 1:49 pm:

    Realize how important the job of a journalist is, and resist the urge to jump ship for more money in public relations. So many PAR grads become flaks, a fact that is so frustrating, though I know the current state of journalism is accelerating this trend.


  30. - Langhorne - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 2:16 pm:

    Read “mostly good and competent men, at least from of ogilvie forward. ESP if you are from out of state

    Don’t sleep with anyone who can help you, or hurt you.

    Cynical/skeptical–right

    Get your sources right–Charlie’s how a bill becomes law flow chart is likely from the LRU


  31. - D.P. Gumby - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 3:32 pm:

    Learn the law! Don’t think that you can understand the bill by reading it. Take some legal studies classes.
    Read Understanding the Illinois Constitution–
    http://www.isba.org/sites/default/files/teachers/publications/constbook.pdf


  32. - anon sequitor - Friday, Jan 4, 13 @ 3:34 pm:

    Don’t follow the usual cynical pack journalism in Springfield. There are far too many predictable stories that anyone could write. The story behind the headlines is always more interesting.

    Study the writings of the late Bill O’Connell. No one has ever covered the Capitol better than he did. He told simple, informative and accurate news stories.

    And if someone wants to buy you a beer and a burger, let ‘em. You’re being paid poverty wages. Besides, if anyone thinks you can be bought for a beer and a burger, you’re either selling yourself cheap, or they are a fool.


  33. - Rich Miller - Saturday, Jan 5, 13 @ 11:06 am:

    When spokespeople tell you something, make sure to take it with a grain of salt. For example

    ===As a side note, Phelon also refuted a report in Wednesday’s Capitol Fax political newsletter that her chamber was close to cutting January’s possible eight-day session by more than half. “There hasn’t been a clear-cut agenda, a to-do list emerge yet [for the lame-duck session],” she said. “I suspect once that’s clear, we’ll know whether days should be knocked off our schedule. I suspect if there are, it could be one or two days off.”===

    One or two days off, eh? OK. Whatever. Totally refuted.


  34. - Dan Vock - Tuesday, Jan 8, 13 @ 9:10 am:

    While we were doing this, folks in Minnesota were offering advice to Capitol newbies there. Many of the same lessons apply: http://storify.com/rachelsb/tips-for-capitol-newbies


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