Thursday, October 14, 2010

Latres on the menjay. What did I just say?

A good journalist must have balance. The job requires writing ability, curiosity, sharp judgment, a quick mind, and an affinity for extra-strength coffee. Black.

Many of those things are picked up or learned in school. Professors correct and guide writing styles, help develop a student's inquiring mind and conduct classes at 8 a.m. (thus planting an early addiction to life's perky poision).

But one thing they don't teach you -- and it's an essential part of a journalist's daily work -- is the ability to answer, talk and leave messages on the telephone.

You have to pick that up talent on your own. And most of the time, the only way to get better is to fuck it up royally. Over and over and over again.

Think about the last time you called someone you've never met, or even someone you barely know. Maybe it's your friend's friend selling you his old couch for cheap or a cute girl whose number you snagged over drinks on a rainy Saturday. No matter who it is, the conversation is awkward.

Remember "I Love You, Man"? Paul Rudd plays an graceless character that seems exaggerated, but he's more normal than you think. Here's his first phone message to Jason Segel, the man behind his budding bromance.

Reporters make those kinds of calls and leave those kinds of messages anywhere from two to ten times for every one of the ten to twenty stories they write per week. It's a recipe for disaster.

Now, any journalist who's been at the job for more than an hour knows it's not that extreme. But it can be close. I've had bad days where I mumble my name into complete ambiguity, lose my line of thinking for five full seconds of silence or sound just as ridiculous as Rudd when he ends his message.

And it doesn't help that the people you're calling generally don't want to call you back. It interrupts their day, and reporters make people skittish. The second they hear "Hi, my name is Cameron Kittle and I'm a reporter with the Nashua Telegraph," their mind jumps to a grouchy, inconsiderate bulldog whose only goal in life is to make fun of your age and misquote you with libelous remarks. Some nerve he's got, calling me at three in the afternoon with questions about the recent heat wave...

So, not only is it your responsibility to try and avoid awkwardness, but you have to actually be genuinely interested enough in their collection of 400 dolls to make them like you and return your call. You also have to be quick to summarize your point, slow to relay your contact information and clear to enunciate properly.

This is all if the call goes smoothly. But shit goes haywire in a newsroom more often than not, and you can end up dialing one person and be transferred to four others in a single call. And don't expect any of the transfer-senders to inform the transfer-receivers (that would make way too much sense), so you'll have to repeat what you just said multiple times while your fellow employees stifle laughter as you're yanked around again and again.

It might sound like a minefield for rookies only, but it can be even worse when seasoned veterans switch jobs. Take the young guy who sits behind me for example. He worked in Masschusetts for a few years, just long enough to render his brain nearly incapable of improvisation. Nearly a month into the new job, I could still hear him fumbling his words at the end of a message:

"...and if you could give me a call back that'd be great. Once again this is Jake Berry at the Nashua Telegraph, and my number is 508-862--oh that's not right. I'm sorry..*awkward laughs*.. I'm still new. The number here is...*shuffling papers*...I'm sorry. You can reach me at 603-594-4108. Hope to hear from you!"

Annnd scene. Ouch. Maybe it doesn't sound that bad to you, but an eagle-eye newsroom camera would show every reporter seize up in the shoulders and cringe at Jake's struggle. But it's not his fault; it's a problem with routine.

Reporters leave so many messages and say their phone numbers so many times, it becomes cemented in the brain. Changing that after a few years would be like adding digits to your social security number and trying to say it backwards on the first try.

It might sound easy, but phone calls can sometimes be a reporter's biggest hurdle. Stumble out of the gate and you might be looking at a bad story, but master the art and you could see your byline in the New York Times. Of course, you'll still need all that writing and interviewing and coffee stuff, too.

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