Craft Lesson: Knocking on Doors

Craft Lessons

Let me begin with an epiphany. In 1973, I was a student at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, studying for a master’s degree. One day in the middle of a lecture, my professor, Melvin Mencher, casually said, ”If you’re going to be a reporter, you have to be counterphobic,” and moved on. 

My hand shot up. “What does counterphobic mean?”

“You have to do,” he said, “what you fear.”

Mr. Mencher didn’t know it, but he had struck a nerve.

Before I went to grad school, my journalistic experience consisted of only a year on a very small newspaper in Connecticut, where I grew up. I had a big problem interviewing people, whether they were hostile police officers who wanted nothing to do with the media, or perfect strangers I had to talk to for a story whether it was at a Town Council meeting or for a feature. Knocking on doors was especially tough. Frankly, I was really scared. Scared of rejection, of doors slammed in my face, of angry shouts of, “Beat It!” Even physical violence. (I had an active imagination.)

After that day in class, doing what you fear became a sort of mantra for me that guided my career for the next two decades as a reporter and beyond as a writer, author, publisher, and writing coach. The fear—of harsh rejection and failure—has never gone away. Honestly, I had the jitters this morning hoping my visit with this class today wouldn’t suck. 

In 1994, I left the newsroom for the classroom to teach at The Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in Florida. One of my responsibilities was running a six-week reporting and writing program for recent college graduates. I soon realized that many of my students were afraid of the same things I had been as a reporter. So, I assigned them to head out onto the streets and interview five strangers. They had to get their name, address, age, and a comment on a current story. I could see the fear in their eyes, but to their credit, they did what they were told. 

When they came back, I had them answer three questions, 1. What did they learn from the experience? 2. What surprised them about it? 3. What did they need to learn next? 

Their answers were terrific. Here’s a sample. “​​I was surprised the most by the fact that I was able to get over my fears of doing the actual reporting. No matter how the writing of the story turned out, in my mind it was secondary to the fact that I knocked on all 18 doors on 56th Avenue S. I felt a little bit like an encyclopedia salesman, but I got over the nausea in the pit of my stomach by the fourth or fifth house.” That student, Steve Myers, went on to a sterling journalism career, leading investigations at  USA Today and a month ago, moving to ProPublica, the outstanding nonprofit investigative reporting group.

Many writers, working ones as well as students, experience the same fears, not only about interviewing strangers, but the entire writing process, from coming up with story ideas, pitching their editors, getting enough information, writing and revising the story, and being edited. 

But I noticed something different when I spent a year as a visiting professor at my alma mater, Columbia Journalism School, in 2009-10. More than a few of my reporting students were more comfortable surfing the Web for information, happier in front of a computer than going outside. To be a reporter. I told them, you have to talk with people, whether they’re experts or ordinary folks caught up in the news, whether it’s on the phone or the best route, in person. I love the internet, but it’s no substitute for coming face to face with a human being where they can look you in the eye and decide whether to open up. That’s the way you get great quotes and compelling details. 

“Basic reporting is not about looking things up on the Internet,’ says Carl Bernstein, who with his partner Bob Woodward at The Washington Post. helped drive President Richard M. Nixon from The White House in 1974 after uncovering his entanglement in the Watergate scandal.

 “What we need to be doing now is knocking on doors, getting out into the communities we cover,  persistence, perpetual engagement with the story, not taking no for answers,” he said in a recent podcast about his new memoir, “Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom.” “Not going to easy places  like people in their offices where there are other people around and they’re liable to tell you a tale that isn’t true, but knocking on people’s door at  night like we did on Watergate.” (Learn more about their shoe-leather reporting methods in their book about reporting the Watergate story, “All the President’s Men,” later made into a classic movie.

When I would interview someone in their home, I always asked for a tour. No one ever objected. I got one when I was interviewing the widow of a man who smoked all his life and died of lung cancer as part of a series on tobacco injury litigation. She took me into her bedroom. I was scanning the room for a detail I could use. There was a small photo of him stuck into the mirror, but that wasn’t enough.  Suddenly Marie DeMilio said, “You know, at night, I sprinkle his aftershave on my pillow, just so I can feel close to him.” I had my ending and a moment I believe would never have happened if I wasn’t counterphobic and gone to her home. Certainly not something I could get on my computer. 

Journalism demands courage and that’s one of the aspects that makes it such an honorable profession. You can always tell safe stories, and there are safe stories all over the paper and all over the broadcasts. Think of a tightrope. Every day, walk across it. Who’s the one person you’re afraid to call? Where is the one place in town you’ve never been because you’re afraid to go there? It may be a poor neighborhood or the top floor of a bank. Ask yourself every day, “Have I taken a risk?”

Be honest: Are you spending too much time at your desk instead of being out in the community or the area covered by your beat? If you’re not on deadline, get out of the office right now.

People want to know how I cope with fear.

I take deep breaths, sucking in as much air as I can into my lungs, and slowly let it out. That relaxes me. I take a hot shower. I prepare, or over-prepare. I’ll record my fear in my journal and then make a point of check-in back, only to learn everything turned out okay. Some reporters drink chamomile tea to soothe their nerves

I remind myself that it’s always gone well before and of something my wife has told me for 40 years when I’ve been anxious. It’s going to be fine. She’s never been wrong. That doesn’t mean I don’t face fear anymore.

Assertiveness reflects a belief in yourself and your role as a journalist in a democracy. You have the right to knock on doors, to ask questions, to approach someone for an interview, to request information. The flip side, of course, means that the person you’re asking has the right to say no. Assertiveness also demands empathy. You have to understand that you wield power as a journalist. Your press pass will get you places the general public can’t go. As a reporter, I’ve watched doctors try to impregnate a woman through in-vitro fertilization, sailed on a freighter, followed police on a drug bust and a seven-year-old blind boy through his day. 

What may surprise you is knowing that many people are terrified of journalists. Although it may be hard to believe, most people will be more afraid of you and the power you wield as a reporter than you are of them.

Consider what J. C. McKinnon, a burly, stern-faced St. Petersburg police officer, told my reporting students at Poynter:

“I carry a can of pepper spray, a Glock pistol and 51 rounds of ammunition. But you’ve got something that can destroy me: a pen and a notepad.”

When writer’s block—again, fear of failure—surfaces, my counterphobia attacks it with freewriting, letting my fingers race across the keyboard, never stopping to correct spelling or punctuation or even gibberish. Soon, something magic emerges: a coherent thought, a story idea, or an insight that I can follow and revise until it makes sense and grows into a story. It never fails.

Whether it’s talking to strangers or facing a blank screen, don’t be afraid. Or, rather, be afraid, but do it anyway. 

(Adapted from a Jan. 13, 2022 talk to introduction to reporting and writing students at Duke University taught by Stephen Buckley.)

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