Why Research Will Make or Break Any Journalist’s Career

By Brad Hamilton July 22nd, 2015

You’ve got to research before you write.

That might the single best piece of advice I can offer aspiring reporters and authors. Whether you’re a seasoned pro gunning for a Pulitzer or a first-time blogger chronicling lifestyle trends, you’ll never make a mark unless you research the heck out of your subject.

Case in point: my younger, dumber self.

I was new to freelancing in 1990, thinking I was all that at 26. A friend hooked me up with an editor at Newsday, and I starting pitching. My first assignment was to interview a climate expert. This was long before global warming became a wide concern, and the climatologist was sounding the alarm.

Newsday wanted a Q+A. No problem. I did some background work before the interview and found that Brazil was essentially ground zero, recklessly heating the atmosphere by burning up its rainforest to create cow pastures. So I asked my source: If you were Jose Sarney, the president of Brazil, what would you do?

Small problem. I didn’t realize that Brazil had voted in a new leader. The copy I turned in had me posing this question using the former president’s name. Did it matter that my Q+A raised real worries about the state of our planet? Nope, at least not when compared with this amateurish flub. And even though the editors caught it, they never bought another story from me again. I could hardly blame them.

If you don’t have much experience reporting, let me assure you that making a factual error can derail your career—or even end it—instantly. And it’s so easy to do.

If you don’t do a thorough job reading clips and checking what’s already been published, you’re going to step in it sooner than later. And when you do, say hello to shame.

Second case in point: a former reporter I will call Hal.

Hal was awesome. He got nominated for the big prize, the Pulitzer, and had churned out quality copy for 15 years, parlaying an almost legendary roster of sources into consistent scoops. But when he pitched his editor one particular exclusive, he’d missed something: It had already been covered elsewhere.

Hal’s story went to print. The next day the editor went ballistic, screaming about how Hal had embarrassed the paper. That lapse turned their relationship. His boss no longer trusted him, and soon after, following a second mistake, he was fired.

Just like that, Hal’s career was over.

The good news is that doing research now is easier and more efficient than ever. Resources such as LexisNexis, Factiva, ProQuest, and Westlaw give you access to an astonishing variety of extensive archives, including articles from hundreds of publications across the world. There are also TV and radio transcripts, academic studies, court-case references, and information from blogs and social media postings. A day or two of exploring the archives can make you more knowledgeable on your subject than 99 percent of the general population.

What’s more, combing through clips is one of the best ways to develop story ideas you can sell. You might be disappointed to learn that your original idea was already published by another reporter. But if you keep reading, you are almost certain to notice a detail that has not been covered, an element that merits a closer look. And more often than not, published pieces will provide a cheat sheet of potential sources for you to pursue.

The latest investigative feature by The Contently Foundation focused on the booming business of erotic massage, a topic which I began to pursue after noticing sketchy parlors popping up in seemingly every neighborhood in New York City. But the idea didn’t really take shape until reporter Tamarra Kemsley and I started digging into what had been already written on the subject.

We used LexisNexis and found two academic studies and a host of articles, all of which were valuable, but we didn’t come across anything that examined the industry from a national perspective. And no more than a few pieces included input from those who actually worked in the industry. So that’s where we focused our efforts: reporting on areas that had gone ignored. Our 8,000-word story put all the pieces together and was co-published in the The New York Post, on top of being picked up and referenced across the country, Europe, and Australia. It could not have been done without our meticulous research of archived material.

This is an approach that is repeated every day in newsrooms, magazine offices, and broadcast outlets the world over: Someone has a bright idea, but before any action is taken, clips are checked, research is conducted, and a plan emerges.

For writers, particularly if you’re young and skilled at finding things online, there’s a temptation to place faith in everything you unearth in the ether. That can be a mistake. Much of what is out there via Google or other public search engines contains errors or misinformation. (Wikipedia, for all its fine value, is notorious for small inaccuracies.) The most reliable material can be tough to locate or locked behind a paywall. All of which means you need to tap into a professional service. There’s simply no substitute.

This applies to anyone, and to any subject—even beginners who self-publish. If you’re in that position, take heart from the story of Matt Drudge. He should be your hero.

Drudge was virtually unknown when he started his site, the Drudge Report, in 1994. He had worked behind the counter at a 7-Eleven before taking a job in the gift shop at CBS Studios in L.A., where curiosity and a finely tuned ear allowed him to pick up tidbits on celebrities from TV workers who came into his store. He turned what he learned into a gossipy newsletter that he emailed to his friends. He was a blogger before blogging became a thing.

But he had also grown up in a Maryland suburb of D.C. with a lawyer mom who worked for Senator Ted Kennedy, and his venture soon gravitated away from Hollywood and towards politics. And Drudge began to score some amazing scoops. He was the first to report that Bob Dole, the Republican presidential candidate in 1996, had picked Jack Kemp to be his running mate. Imagine that. A one-man band beat a nation of top reporters and the best news-gathering companies anywhere.

But his biggest story was a career maker. In January 1998, he picked up a tip from a source at Newsweek that the magazine was sitting on an investigative exposé claiming President Clinton had had an affair with a 22-year-old intern named Monica Lewinsky. He pulled the trigger and scooped everyone by reporting on the quashed report. Four days later, The Washington Post ran a longer, more detailed account. We all pretty much know how the rest of that scandal went down.

Drudge, meanwhile, capitalized expertly. He knew that after having published two blockbuster stories the media would be forced to follow his site religiously. So he became an aggressive news aggregator, packing his site with scores of links to other publications. The Drudge Report, possibly the first and certainly the most successful site of its kind at that time, became a must-read for assignment editors.

His subscription base soared to more than 85,000—and not just because of his own reporting. Journalists realized that checking in with him allowed them to quickly survey the day’s most important stories. One-stop research was the key to Drudge’s growth.

An important takeaway here is this: Archives, data, and research resources are coveted by writers. When Drudge took on a story, he was meticulous in checking his facts, combing through clips before he published. He knew the routine. He cashed in by making it easier for other reporters to find information they might need, simply by reading copiously and posting links to what he liked.

Drudge went on to write a book and snagged both a TV and radio show. By 2003, he was reportedly earning more than $1 million a year, later upped to “millions” annually, allowing him to live in a mansion in Miami and tool around in his favorite car, a Corvette. Not bad for a guy who started by serving Slurpees.

So don’t let the haters out there give blogging—or publishing your stories in lesser known media—a bad name.

Just make sure you do proper research. It’s your ticket to the next level.

An earlier version of this article claimed that people with Contently portfolios could access LexisNexis for a discounted rate; that offer is no longer active.]

Image by TrotzOlga
Tags: , ,