His name was Dick Benke. Tall, dark wiry hair, bespectacled. Short sleeve plaid shirts and khakis. Barely smiled. He was one of those journeyman reporters and editors who sat seriously at their corner desks in the newsroom and just churned out copy. But he had one other big job: Breaking in new, young reporters.
Benke was assigned to train me one weekend as I was starting my job as a young reporter in the Los Angeles bureau of The Associated Press. Benke had a sly smile and said something I’ll never forget. “I work them until they either break a sweat or start crying.”
It was just me and Benke in the newsroom that long weekend. Sure enough, he gave me the most daunting assignment. The Orange County Register did an 8-page investigative report on a military helicopter that kept breaking down. “You have one hour to give me a 10-inch (350 word) story on it.” That meant I not only had to read the entire eight pages of the broad sheet but condense it into 6-8 paragraphs with every detail for The AP’s national wire. I worked furiously and handed in my story on deadline. Benke read it and without looking up from his computer said “Good job” in a low breath ― almost as if he was disappointed I passed his grueling test.
The talent drain and experience in news has been immense since the recession of 2008. Pulitzer Prize winners. Bureau chiefs. Political editors. News and business editors. Crime and general assignment reporters. Sports reporters. Some worked in news for 40 years. Most were laid off or took a forced buyout. They were replaced with younger and less experienced versions of themselves.
Once upon a time, new reporters came into newsrooms and were relegated to minor beats such as covering planning boards or zoning commissions. They had to work for years to earn a shot at a coveted general assignment reporter position. But during that time, they got to observe and learn from the veterans who surrounded them. That doesn’t happen anymore. Whether it’s in print or broadcast, young reporters are being hired and pushed into reporting on air or in print with a minimum of training and experience.
If all the veterans leave, who will train the next generation of journalists?
I’m now on the other side and coaching young reporters like Benke did me. I’ve trained more than 80 reporters in my 20 years at KFBK, the top news radio station in Sacramento, CA. We talk about angles to take in stories; the best sources to talk to; how the story should be constructed and the history or background behind a certain story or person they might not know. And how to write concisely, actively and vividly.
But it goes way beyond those basics. I have coaching tips unique to me that aren’t in an AP Stylebook. In a murder case, I insist my reporters always put in the name of the victim. The killer often becomes infamous while those he killed fade away. At a news conference, don’t just talk to the spokesman. Look for that person in the crowd who may give you a unique, different perspective. I tell them how to warm a person up before interviewing them. And my favorite: If a story involves an animal, always get the animal’s name and breed. “Bosco the chocolate Lab saved his owner from the fire” has more imagery than dog rescues owner.
And a veteran doesn’t just teach skills. You learn from their demeanor on the phone or in person. How they question someone. What kind of questions they ask. How they build sources and network. A veteran reporter has the depth of having covered stories to put them in perspective. And let’s be honest. The experienced editor and journalist helps prevent the rookie from getting in trouble by reporting something inaccurate. There were many times I had to coach them and fix their copy when they got information wrong or were about to libel somebody.
When John Glenn passed away recently, the veterans in the newsroom all expressed sadness knowing of his great extensive career not only as an astronaut but as a U.S. Senator. There’s was a palpable silence in newsroom from the Millennials. I fear they didn’t know who he was. I guided them by telling them to talk to astronauts who lived in our area and to a local company, Aerojet, that builds rocket boosters.
I doubt managers can now tell rookies “I’m going to work you until you cry” without getting in trouble with HR. But rookie reporters need veterans to challenge their abilities; push them to their limits and yes, make them sweat deadline pressure.
We paved the path for you, and want you to continue in our exciting career of news. If you’re just starting out, reach out to the veteran on your staff for guidance and wisdom. Before they are all gone.