But I frequently remind myself that the Web isn’t everything – and its technological miracles are no substitute for the basics of our craft. When I need to remember that, I often think back to something that happened to me a long time ago, when the Web didn’t exist.
It was 1985, and I was a 16-year-old taking part in a program for high-school journalists at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. One of our assignments was simple: Go outside, walk around and come back with story ideas.
Off we went, high-school kids on a journalistic Easter egg hunt. I got over my unhappiness at being outside in Florida in August relatively quickly, because there was nothing to be done about that. Getting over my reluctance to ask people what they were doing was more difficult – but I quickly realized I had two objects that made it a lot easier. I was carrying a pen and a notebook.
Through dumb luck, I stumbled upon a municipal sign shop where workers were making every variety of sign, a little workshop full of reflective paint and enormous stencils and giant, fascinating machinery. The workers wondered what I was doing, but accepted my answer, and chatted amiably about what they did and how they did it. I knew I had at least one good story idea right there. (By the way, I later wrote the same story as an intern in New Orleans, and for some reason it didn’t work – it was so flat and dull that I didn’t even put it in my clip file. This still annoys me 21 years later.)
I was still in the sign shop when I realized where I had to go next. I was just a few blocks from Al Lang Field, a venerable spring-training park which was shared back then by the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Mets. Sitting in the stands in March, I’d wondered about all the backstage workings of the ballpark, a subject I’m still fascinated by. Now, after my reception at the sign shop, I made a beeline for Al Lang. I arrived at the side gate looking young, sweaty and possibly a bit insane. As I remember it, there was a stadium official on the field for some reason, and I called him over and explained what I was doing. Apparently I didn’t do a very good job, because he stopped me and asked what I wanted again.
I only got a couple of sentences in before he said, as I remember it, “Oh, you’re writing a story for the newspaper” and opened the gate. And just like that, I was walking across a field I’d only looked at from the stands. (If you’re wondering if I corrected him about the newspaper part, well, guilty as charged.)
I won’t pretend that a pen and notebook have always had that effect – I’ve been in plenty of situations where telling people I’m writing a story has made them want to shut gates. But more often than not, it’s worked – and that’s something I still find faintly amazing. People take me to places where I normally couldn’t go, or explain what they do, or answer lots and lots of my questions. Or, if they don’t, they make that choice knowing that the expectation is that they should have. All because I have a credential around my neck – and, of course, that pen and notebook.
When you walk through a door that’s been opened for you, of course, you assume a certain responsibility. You’re promising to report fairly and accurately, to keep your eyes and ears open to know when a story’s shifting, and to neither betray a confidence nor allow answers to be hidden under the guise of one. And if you do your job right, you gain tremendous authority – not because of that credential or your byline, but because you were there. “I was there,” you can say, “and this is what I saw.”
The Web has many wonders, and I’m proud to call myself a Web writer. But that lesson I learned back when I was 16 still holds.
Jason Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.on Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at email@example.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.