Don’t Burn a Bridge


Town officials, no matter what they do, love to talk off-the-record. From what I’ve experienced most are aware of the easiest way to not get quoted.

For me, it’s a double-edged sword.

It’s great that they trust me enough to tell me certain things, but it sucks that I have to find a way (or ways) to confirm whatever they tell me with other people. They know if they do say something controversial they can “get away” with it.

Once they say those three words, you listen a little bit harder and you type a bit faster, too. It’s exciting and get’s the journalism adrenaline pumping. It’s frustrating, but it almost always leads to another story, or two.

And we have to let them. If you burn one bridge, you have burned them all. You need to be aware of that.

There’s no second or third strikes when it comes to throwing someone under the bus. It’s a thin line that you cannot cross.

You need to operate honestly and stick by yourself. Good sources are the key to good reporting. There’s a trust factor there on both sides. You have to respect it and be careful.

Off-the-record is tricky. You have to play the game.

Most town officials know what it means, but they all use it differently. Sometimes it’s just background information and sometimes it’s a real scoop. You have to familiarize yourself with each source and how they are and what they are comfortable with. Each source does things differently and you are going to have to remember how each operates to see what is fair game and what isn’t.

Some people have no problem talking for 10 minutes about a scoop and then ending it with “that was off-the-record.” That’s happened a million times, but you have to work around it. It’s not the most ideal situation, but, if you are good with your sources, it shouldn’t be too hard to get someone else to confirm it.

One thing I can say with complete certainly is that sources do appreciate  honesty. Sometimes I call people just to talk.

Off deadline, it’s just a conversation to say “hello” and see what’s going on. You have to build up trust and keep it that way. I call the same people a couple times a week. If they are busy you just say “Hi,” but if they aren’t I chat with them. It’s a good practice that Mike and the other editors have mentioned to me hundreds of times.

Obviously, there will be stories that will make sources unhappy. That’s life. It’s unavoidable and it’s your job. And you have to keep on doing your job. Shrug it off and move on.

At the Chronicle we don’t use anonymous sources. I’ve asked multiple times. We all know the NYT does, but we obviously aren’t the NYT. Mike has always told me that if I get any information to check it with someone else, regardless if it wasn’t on-the-record or not. It’s a nice practice to get used to.



One Response to Don’t Burn a Bridge

  1. Pingback: Getting a Tip « Just Starting Out

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