‘Get The Name of the Dog’
A conversation about journalism and writing with Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute
By Melanie Warner Spencer
There has never been a more exciting or more precarious time in the field of journalism. The demands of online offerings, reader’s short attention spans, reduced staffing and news outlets struggling to turn a profit are just a few of the many challenges in the industry. As part of a new ongoing series of interviews with media experts, the Press Club of New Orleans discussed the state of journalism, technology, tips for reporters at every stage of their career and more with Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar, reporting, writing and editing faculty at the Poynter Institute.
Clark has taught writing at the Poynter Institute since 1977. He is among the most influential writing teachers in American journalism. His books include: “Writing Tools,” “The Glamour of Grammar,” “Help! for Writers,” “How to Write Short” and the upcoming “The Art of X-ray Reading.” Click here to read more about Clark, but not before reading this Q-and-A, conducted via email and published in its entirety.
Press Club of New Orleans: With the veritable elimination of copy editors, the pace of the job and with so many reporters overwhelmed by their deadlines for print, online, social media, branding, blogging and myriad other duties, what are some strategies to help reporters and editors reduce typos and errors?
Roy Peter Clark: The first rule for journalists of the digital age is this: NO DUMPING ALLOWED. You can’t just dump your notes on the website. It’s still your duty to find things out and check them out. And before I publish something – even it is just a tweet – I spend those few extra seconds to proofread, tighten, and perfect.
PCNOLA: Also, can you offer up a few tips and strategies for working with the lowered word counts and shorter attention spans of today’s readers?
RPC: I love the 140-character counter on Twitter. It has trained me well over the last few years. In most cases I can now write a tweet on a piece of paper to almost the exact length. In a larger sense, we must remember that every word has to do its work. Every sentence has to lead the reader to another. Every paragraph must justify its existence to the writer, editor – and most of all to the reader.
PCNOLA: Would the banning of anonymous comments for online stories harm or benefit the industry?
RPC: We use to call the Internet the information super-highway. Now we realize that it’s more like a polluted ocean. In comments, we see people at their best – and often at their worst. I am in favor of banning anonymous comments with some escape hatch for some commentators who may feel too vulnerable to share their names, but who have something important to say. But this must be managed.
PCNOLA: What are your thoughts on the impact of media company consolidation on investigative, long-format journalism?
RPC: All technological innovations and all media consolidations lead us to one huge question, which no one can answer: Who will pay for quality journalism in the future? The crisis in journalism is not a crisis in performance or vision. It is a crisis of the business model. Right now we see many experiments in digital journalism, including sites that specialize in investigative and long-form work. We have to continue to plant a thousand seeds in a thousand gardens to see what will grow healthy and strong. But with the confusion in the advertising world, there is no strong tree that we can tie our hopes to.
PCNOLA: As online reporting becomes the bread and butter of many outlets and in a world where some reporters and outlets rely on crowd-funding to support their journalistic efforts, can you discuss the evolution of what we do as technology and the economy continue to make our jobs feel like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book?
RPC: There will be continuing instability in the journalism job market. It will favor those who are well-educated and versatile. Versatility means the ability to write short and long; fast and slow; using a variety of technologies, platforms, and tools to reach a variety of audiences. I don’t think there is a better recommendation than to be able to say that a journalism candidate is a dogged reporter and a brilliant writer. By the way, that recommendation works as well today as it did 20, 40, or 60 years ago.
PCNOLA: How popular is it to get a journalism degree? Conversely or perhaps on a related note, are there more or less people writing for news outlets without any formal training?
RPC: As someone with a Ph.D. in English, I’m all in favor of a good liberal arts education. A journalism degree will help, of course. But it’s important to pick the right school. In fact, the ‘journalism’ is shrinking in some colleges of mass communication. Without a journalism degree, you need the benefit of practical experience and feedback. Not long ago, that would require you writing freelance for some small publication. Now you have the power to develop your own website, seeking guidance from wherever you can get it. (The Poynter Institute’s website, poynter.org, and its news university, newsu.org, are great starting places.)
PCNOLA: How would you describe the future of print media? TV?
RPC: I honestly believe that print journalism (from newspaper to books) will be in the picture through my lifetime (I’m 67). After that, kids, it’s YOUR problem. As for TV, there is constant upheaval in that news industry as well. TV does seem to benefit from the huge revenues that come from political advertising.
PCNOLA: What can we do as journalists to create a climate of sustainability for our profession?
RPC: I once argued that everyone who cared about journalism should buy and read the newspaper, but that has become a naïve hope. So let me enlarge that vision to encourage all stakeholders to support good journalism wherever they find it, and to use their social networks to promote it.
PCNOLA: What’s the best piece of professional advice you ever received as a reporter?
RPC: Three bits: 1) Always remember to get the name of the dog. 2) If you can write a good lead you can land a job. 3) A page a day equals a book a year.
PCNOLA: What’s your best advice for a young reporter at the beginning of his or her career?
RPC: Read, read, read. Write, write, write. And talk, talk, talk, about how meaning is created in reports and stories.
PCNOLA: What’s your best advice for mid-career journalists?
RPC: Find younger people – digital natives – to work with. At Poynter I am lucky to have close professional relationships with a great team of young journalists and teachers, who have shared with me the secrets of the digital age that have enriched my work. I, in turn, can share with them my seasoned sense of craft and my institutional and community memory.
PCNOLA: What’s your best advice for seasoned veterans?
RPC: Same as [above].