PRAGUE – When I told family eight years ago that I’d also start teaching journalism, my sister innocently asked, “Really? What’s there to teach?”
The perception, I suppose, is understandable. Grab pen and pad, ask questions, gather information. That’s worth a semester of university?
Last week in Prague, a shoulder-to-shoulder training reminded me how much there is to share about journalism techniques and strategies. In this case, the lessons learned were specific to how to “parachute” into a foreign country and – with time limited – capture enough of the necessary reportage and multimedia elements to produce a meaningful exploration of Czech education.
The key, as always, lies in the advanced preparation: from back home, before your journey even begins. I’ve written about this before, most recently for Harvard’s Nieman Reports. So I won’t rehash here the imperative to “hit the ground running.”
Instead, in Prague I found myself repeating a mantra I’ve adopted over the years: push, push, push – politely but persistently – to get what you need.
My training partner, Andy, and I were working with eight participants, whom we divided into three teams. For more on the substance of what they reported, read my piece in The Mantle.
After lectures on Monday, reporting was to fill the next three days. That’s it. Three days. But one thing soon became apparent: the teams, all of them new to this kind of international reporting, hadn’t lined up enough meetings – especially with the right kind of sources.
On Tuesday morning, I joined the team exploring the IT gender gap, on their visit to a Czech company manufacturing anti-virus software. The plan was to speak with a woman or two working in IT there. Except, as the spokesman then told us, the company has no women in IT, just sales and marketing. Sure, we got some material. But it was no bull’s eye.
Hey, here’s a tip: when time is so precious, and details so crucial, don’t rely on email. Do it the old-fashioned way. Call to ensure that you’ll more or less get exactly what you need from that visit.
With a large window of time until our afternoon appointment, we spent the next two hours in an Internet café. I exhorted them to cast their net wide, find more sources, contact them right away. They surfed websites, saved contact info, emailed introductions – many sources are nowadays suspicious of strangers calling them out of the blue. They then followed-up by phone.
In such a situation, I start apologetically: “I’m sorry not to arrange this earlier, but I just came across your name/organization. I’m in town for just a few days, but would really appreciate an opportunity to meet you. Could you please make time to meet me either today or tomorrow?”
If they don’t bite, or the answer is some variation of Call back later, here’s what I advise: “Polite but persistent, persistent but polite.”
Consider human psychology. While I often make it seem like I’m asking a favor, I recognize that contacts make a calculation why it’s in their interest to meet me – or avoid me. Most have a compelling reason for why we should meet. It could be a strong financial interest: “If my name, company, organization appears in this article, it may lead to more business, more investors, more donors, etc.”
Maybe it advances their political, ideological or activist agenda: speak with the media, win hearts and minds. Perhaps it’s ego: “I’d love to see my name in print.” Or flattery: “Someone out there actually cares about my thoughts, my opinions, my life?” Or, yes, in rare cases, altruism: “I want to help this reporter, to inform and educate others. He seems nice!”
Heck, even with a corrupt government official who’d prefer to run and hide, you can try something like: “We want to give you an opportunity to defend yourself against critics.”
Figure out whatever button may overcome their resistance. Push it. Politely. Ugliness gets you nowhere. In Prague, I felt this would work: “Your interesting/important/unique perspective would really humanize the article, to help readers better understand what the situation is.”
Not everyone was free or flexible enough to meet. But several were. The team’s Wednesday itinerary filled with three quality meetings.
The next day, I tagged along with a different team, but with similar problems. Except their focus was a bit fuzzy: Is the story about bilingual preschools, or preschools generally? Why focus on bilingual preschools in the Czech Republic, and not elsewhere? What’s unique about them here?
Stay focused on the story, whether it’s something you and your editor agreed to, or if it’s now an angle you find even more interesting or important to readers. Don’t get distracted by all the other details that seem interesting and important, but are not relevant to the story you’re trying to tell.
The reporters met with one preschool director the day before, then had two more lined up for Wednesday. But the schools themselves were not the most interesting thing to us, the trainers. Instead, it was that enough Czech parents now have enough money to support a burgeoning number of bilingual schools, and for some reason they view bilingualism as an important part of their child’s development.
So, after a morning meeting with the second preschool director, we sat for a coffee and brainstormed. They needed Czech parents, not more school directors. Of course they could have ambushed parents, either dropping off or picking up students. But many of these parents were foreigners, or an expat-local mix, who preferred an international environment to Czech immersion.
That’s why we needed these school directors to help us find the right parents: Czechs. The directors, though, were leery of protecting their students, and of not violating the privacy of their elite, dues-paying clients. We needed to convince them, to push the right button.
One more complication: the previous day’s meeting had not gone so smoothly. The director did not seem pleased to host our reporters, or open to helping them further. The reporters, then, were reluctant to call her back for this “favor.” My answer: you must. The clock is ticking. Be optimistic. Even if that’s not in your nature. Try. You have nothing to lose. Be polite but persistent.
Turns out, the director came through with a name and number.
That night at the hotel, I asked the third team: “What are we doing tomorrow?” They were done. Ready to write. Ready to assemble their multimedia images. Despite having time left for more reporting. They then explained that a crucial figure in their whole story – the director of a school specialized to teach the Roma minority – had essentially blocked them from visiting his school.
The reasons, to me, didn’t make sense. Why wouldn’t he want publicity for what he and his colleagues were trying to achieve? To showcase his efforts to impress donors?
I suggested “Plan B”: let’s show up at the school’s front door tomorrow – and talk our way in. Again, what do we have to lose? If nothing else, I wanted a legitimate reason for not letting us in.
Lo and behold, the boss wasn’t there. And his underlings didn’t hesitate to welcome us in, allowing us to not only visit classes in progress, but take photos and shoot videos of the smiling kids.
Push. Politely, but persistently.