Good Old Fashioned Shoe Leather Reporting

It's one god an American journalist can always pray to.

16 Apr 2015 6:14 pm 14 Comments

(This post began as an email to Megan Garber of the Atlantic, who was writing about “hot takes.” She published some of what I told her.)

I can’t speak for other press systems, but in American journalism there is thought to be a uniquely potent source of virtue, the mythical term for which is “shoe leather reporting.” There can never be enough of it. Only good derives from it. Anything that eclipses it is bad. Anything that eludes it is suspect. Anything that permits more of it is holy.

Good Old Fashioned Shoe Leather Reporting is one of a very few gods an American journalist can officially pray to. Fine writing, great storytelling, aggressive questioning, toughness in the face of denials and attacks: these are universally admired. Amusing and inventive word play, quick and biting sarcasm, superior crap detection: these will win you points in any newsroom or press bus. Freedom of the press, and the free flow of information: these are sacred, of course.

But there’s a unique glow around shoe leather reporting, which is often described as “basic” (because everything else is based on it) or as “traditional” (because the importance of it never changes) or as “original” reporting (because it is the origin of all things good in journalism.) 2330323726_61b725b577_z

Here’s William Bastone, co-founder of the Smoking Gun website and a reporter by trade, describing what the staff does: “The reporting for the site hasn’t changed. I don’t think it ever will. It’s basic shoe leather reporting, hunting down sources and documents and confirming authenticity. That’s always been our thing.”

It’s called “shoe leather” reporting because in its classic form, the journalist is literally on foot, walking from office to office, source to source, conducting interviews, pulling documents, hunting down facts no one else has confirmed yet. So much walking is required to break a big story that the soles of the shoes grind down. Want respect, young journalist? Break some big stories. How is it done? Same way it’s always been done: Shoe leather reporting.

Here’s Tom Friedman of the New York Times talking about one of his mentors in journalism and giving us that old time religion:

Leon taught me that whether you’re writing news, opinion or analysis, if it isn’t based on shoe-leather reporting, it isn’t worth a bucket of beans.

To this day, whenever I hear a reporter say, “I don’t do reporting — I just do opinion and analysis,” I always think of the reporting basics that Leon pounded into me and want to say, “I doubt that your analysis is very good, because the best analysis always comes from spotting trends that can usually only be spotted by reporting a story day in and day out.” I like blogs, but the only bloggers who appeal to me are those who do reporting and aren’t just sitting at home in their pajamas firing off digital mortars.

Notice how there are different forms worth mastering — news, opinion, “analysis,” even blogging — but a single virtue creates value.

In this text I found, which is actually called Good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting, editors at the AP are giving an award to one of their reporters. “Denver’s Ivan Moreno started pursuing the issue of voter fraud in Colorado after nearly 4,000 voters received letters from the secretary of state challenging their citizenship and, therefore, their right to cast ballots.”

He pressed state government for the names. The more he asked, the smaller the number of fraud cases got, shrinking “from 4,000 to 1,400 to just 141 – and Moreno was the first to report that the authenticity of only 141 voters was being challenged.” He finally got the state to cough up 35 names of people it accused of trying to vote fraudulently. “Moreno called every one he could find, confirming independently that they were citizens.” Then he broke the story:

All of Moreno’s reporting came together in a comprehensive piece that looked at the efforts of Republican officials to purge voter rolls in Colorado and other states. In each case, officials found almost no voter fraud, despite heavily publicized investigations and the use of a federal immigration database. It was the first national look at GOP efforts to attribute voter fraud to non-citizens in key election states.

The lesson: “Investigative stories often stem from Freedom of Information requests. But, just as often, it’s from good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting.”

The scenes in All the President’s Men that show Woodward and Bernstein crisscrossing Washington on foot or ringing doorbells at night: they are shoe leather mythology in its most concentrated form. Making calls is good, but one stepped removed from what is most holy. (Get out of the office!) Reporting on the internet is okay, but one step removed from making calls. (Pick up the phone, damnit!) Aggregating stuff is lame. Reading and thinking about what you read, then writing about it: highly suspect. But it is virtuous to show contempt for that.

Some common terms for this contempt: navel gazing, thumb sucker. (Infantalism, narcissism.) The term “hot takes” participates in this. Hot takes are a joke, the lowest possible form, a professional embarrassment, because “these swift, provocative, and socially shareable reaction posts” are at the furthest remove from shoe leather reporting and often parasitic upon it, as bloggers were said to be parasitic back when it was important to say they weren’t journalists.

As a source of virtue in journalism shoe leather has such high status that it’s hard to generate respect for other skills and disciplines, even when they deserve it. We see this especially with news anchors in broadcast journalism. They’re always emphasizing that, though they have an important-sounding title — “anchor” of the program, or even managing editor — they are really just reporters at heart. (Dan Rather after he retired. “I’m just a reporter who got lucky.”) Being an anchor can make you rich, famous and vital to the company’s bottom line, but it cannot make you virtuous as a journalist. Thus:

“He was always a wire service reporter in his heart,” said Sanford Socolow, a former executive producer for Mr. Cronkite. “He always lived by the wire service adage,” which he described as “Get it first, but get it right.”

Last week John Dickerson was named the new anchor for CBS’s Sunday talk show, Face the Nation. Here’s how CBS News announced it:

“John is first and foremost a reporter–and that’s what he’ll be as anchor of Face the Nation,” said CBS News President David Rhodes. “His work in the studio will always be informed by what he’s learned in Iowa, in New Hampshire, on Capitol Hill–anywhere there’s news. He has earned the respect of newsmakers across the political spectrum. With all our correspondents John will present comprehensive coverage on all our platforms.”

See what I mean? You don’t say of your new anchor, “He will be a great anchor!” You don’t even refer to any skills he will need in that role. You describe him as a great reporter, because that’s what a good anchor really is, anyway. It was the potency of this myth that got Brian Williams into such trouble in 2015. He tried to jack up his boots-on-the-ground reporting cred to win the admiration he craved. But he got caught.

It’s true that reading news off the teleprompter is not much of a talent. But that’s not true of anchoring live coverage when big news breaks. And it’s not true of interviewing powerful people on live TV. These are demanding disciplines. They are deeply journalistic. As Tina Brown once wrote in the Washington Post: “When Peter Jennings is anchoring a breaking news story for ABC, he’s a human hyperlink to the world, seemingly able to absorb and process information through the cheeks of his behind.”

Of all things journalists do, on-the-ground reporting is, I think, the most important. I would not quarrel with that. It fully deserves the esteem in which it is held. “Want respect? Break some big stories” is very sound advice. However, it is not true that a single virtue creates value in journalism. Efficiency creates value too. Contributions from elsewhere — synthesizing known facts, explaining complex issues, putting dots together, reviewing, fact checking, writing about the public world beautifully, anchoring a live broadcast, asking questions that are of moment — are just as basic to good journalism as good old fashioned shoe leather reporting.

What these forms lack in mystique they make up for in simple utility.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

Steve Buttry responds to this post with some detailed testimony from his career as a reporter and editor. He shows that shoe leather reporting was sometimes crucial to getting the story and sometimes other methods succeeded where “shoe leather” would not have. He writes:

Nearly all the best stories of my career came in whole or part because I was out of the office, interviewing people face-to-face, digging through courthouse records, seeing disaster damage myself, showing empathy in a way that persuaded people to trust me with their intimate stories, seeing important details in the setting where the story took place.

I believe in the importance of shoe leather.

But I also know that shoe leather is just one of many paths to a good story.

Read the rest. It’s valuable.

Journalism scholar Chris Anderson:

That screen works dominates in practice could be the reason why shoe leather dominates in mythology.

From the Pulitzer Prize nominations:

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 4.28.01 PM

Photo credit: Roger H. Goun. Creative Commons license.


Christopher Krug says:

I find the history of rewrite desk and its relationship with reporting’s evolution helpful when thinking through the romance with reporting. Gelb’s City Room provides insight about this. What’s your take on the rewrite desk’s relationship with reporting? Is it coming back? Seems that at a time in U.S. journalism rewrite desk skills were more esteemed than reporting skills.

The rewrite desk was a way to split the reporting and writing parts of the production, when deadlines demanded it (no time to get back to the office) or when the final story had to come from several reporters because it unfolded on several fronts.

Rewrite also led to a specialization of skills. When I was on rewrite on Chicago Today, I often took notes from a reporter named Bullet Bob Glass, so named because he’d quickly give up on structuring a story and throw everything in his notebook into bullets. Thus we always rewrote Bob. But he was one helluva a reporter. Holes in his shoes.

If social media updates/Tweets are the bullet points of today, does that make Storify the rewrite desk?

Christopher Krug says:

Rewrite provided something like a filter-a-fire-hose, on-demand service, it seems.

John Smith says:

Shoe leather reporting is great. But most young journalists in today’s newsrooms are required to pump out at least two to three stories a day. At many digital only outlets–where many of today’s young reporters get their start–it can go as high as five to six stories per day.

Good luck walking around wearing out the soles of your shoes when you have demands like that to meet.

Right now, it’s tough for young reporters to even get a job, let alone spend multiple days on one article–as most shoe leather reporting requires.

As the old Yellow Pages (remember that dinosaur?) ads used to say, “Let your fingers do the walking.” Even shoes are overrated in the networked world.

John Smith hit the nail on the head. Sure, beautiful theory, but utterly ridiculous in this day and age.

Theory? What part of the post do you classify as “theory.” That confuses me. But maybe I am not understanding how you’re using the term.

This was a valuable and needle-threading exercise, and thanks for it.

I think you undervalue some of the TV function. You write, “It’s true that reading news off the teleprompter is not much of a talent,” but as someone who has (10 times or so) read news off the teleprompter, I can testify that if it’s “not much of a talent,” it is nevertheless a talent that not much of the journalism-producing universe possesses. Communicating effectively through that camera, in my judgment, is a rare-ish and important skill.

It’s easy to laugh at the bubble-headed bleach blonde on the news at ten, but think even to your local TV news experience to the anchors that broke through — Hal Fishman/Kent Brockman at KTLA, his sporadic local sports guy Keith Olbermann: They were operating with an applied intelligence (including, very importantly, driving & harvesting work from the always-underappreciated producers) that cut through the usual experience.

Think about who you would like to see in a total breaking news experience — my answer is Shephard Smith, one’s mileage may vary — anyway, whoever that person is has been doing valuable work for many years to be a reliably good anchor in those moments. Some of that’s shoe-leather, some of that’s arcane TV-production stuff, some of it’s weird artistry, but it also helps to have that special ability to communicate with people in their living rooms. The people who are good at that were rarely BORN good at that; almost all of them worked their assess off in ways that I’m only beginning to appreciate after having done a small amount of TV.

Thanks, Matt. I don’t disagree with anything you wrote. There are plenty of skills in TV journalism that are easy to overlook because the production looks so smooth most of the time.

I would make these points:

* If all you can do is read news off the teleprompter, that is not much of a talent or contribution. And I know you’re not going to deny that for some people in TV news (especially local TV) that is their one contribution. I don’t think we should stop making fun of them.

* Some people have a mystical compact with the camera, which is to say they communicate deeply through it to the viewers. Olbermann is one. It’s a rare skill, not to be denigrated.

* Where you see the separation between bubble heads and real journalists become clear is in unscripted live coverage.

Legwork, a lost art in journalism.

Nobody cares how much work you actually put into a story, all they care about is how much work you are perceived to have put into a story.

When journalists from around the world converged on Ferguson here in St. Louis, I was rather disappointed, but not surprised that not one of the new rising young bucks from places like the Washington Post for Buzz Feed or Daily Beast Etc. etc. seemed interested in actually walking around to some of the local businesses on West Florissant and talking to the people who work and live there.

Even the market where the Michael Brown altercation took place, it didn’t look like anybody went in there to talk to those people. I don’t know if any of our local reporters actually made a real effort to walk around these neighborhoods and talk to people. I suspect some did, but none made it into the broadcast news, and very little in the print media. Maybe because none of these people know how to talk to the people who live in these neighborhoods.

There was a time when the St. Louis Post Dispatch could be counted on to go after a major local story like this, Sending all the reporters out to talk to as many people as they can. But I didn’t see any of that in this major international store. In reality there coverage was only superficial, in comparison to the kind of approach they might’ve undertaken back in the 50s or 60s or even 70s. I question whether anyone at the paper even knows how to do it properly anymore.

And I have to ask whether the reason they lay back, in some ways, is the realization that their White audience really has no interest in what’s happening to black people in black neighborhoods in St. Louis, therefore they won’t be reading, and their advertisers won’t be getting the returns they want. So there’s really no point in putting in the effort, when it’s not going to help anybody’s career in this town, or in the wider news market business.

For the record, and to my horror, the people in my own family, who rely on the local news for their information, and whom are all liberals and moderates, Pretty much had their minds made up about what was happening in Ferguson, back in November. And they were not sympathetic to the protesters.

That’s what happens when the local press panders to specific groups, namely those which have the most buying Power.

After observing this community over the 7 years that I have been back here, it’s pretty much impossible for me to conclude it’s not racism, which drives these attitudes. Systemic racism that is the across the board in St. Louis

It seems the days and face-to-face, pushy, shoe leather and careful listening in reporting are largely gone because they are considered undesirable to the business model, At least when it comes to everything outside of political tabloid paparazzi crap. Journalists don’t talk to people anymore, they don’t listen, not really. And that is because they’re not encouraged to do so.

The reporters here in STL don’t have connections in the courthouse or within city government, or among the community, the way they once did. So all they do is go ask questions and when they don’t get any answers, or the answers they’re looking for, that’s it, they walk away and say, hey we tried but no one would talk to us.

I’ve actually had a few of these young reporters say this to me on Twitter, well we asked, but no one would tell us. And the older reports here are only thinking about maintaining their position, or moving on to a better market, a place that will be more helpful to their careers. So they’re not interested in rocking the boat, because boat rockers are not wanted in the corporate owned Press today. Too dangerous, too unpredictable.

So what we are left with is crap that is designed to do nothing more then push advertisements.

That’s not journalism, that’s bullshit. And bullshit doesn’t cut it in my book.

It’s a great observation. But, sadly for good old journalism, on-the-ground reporting is the very first “prerogative” that has already been taken from journalists by amateurs. It is the thing that is pretty hard for journalists to posses exclusively because it is pretty affordable for amateurs.

Just compare not “one journalist against one blogger” but “journalists against the blogosphere”.

1) While the journalist is on his way to the scene, a blogger is always already on the ground.
2) While the journalist is gathering evidence of an event, a blogger had already been a participant of the same event.
3) While the journalists is looking for eyewitnesses, a blogger is an eyewitness themselves.
4) While the journalist is looking for experts to explain what happened, an array of bloggers posses any required competences and expertise.

Etc. Alas (for journalists). The emancipation of authorship made all these things happened. The difference is that journalist’s piece is filtered by a human editor before publishing, while blogger’s piece is filtered after publishing.

(Only journalistic prerogative that cannot be beaten by amateurs refers to longread. It is the last refuge for profession and professional standards. No single amateurs start doing longread, simply because it’s too complicated and outdated (in terms of trends of media consumption).

Richard Aubrey says:

Being an old guy, I like to see–perhaps it should be conditional, I’d like to see–shoe leather reporting. Among other things, it might put a subject off balance and cause a premature truth emission.

That said, the logistics are always a problem, and the comments about bloggers already being there are further competition.

But as to what was to be said about Ferguson by shoe leather reporters who didn’t show up:
Using cops for revenue was mentioned relatively early on because it’s already a matter of discussion on the ‘net and it was likely to be the case in Ferguson. So the news is they’re doing it in Ferguson just like every other speed-trap version of Mt. Airy in the country. No joy there because it’s supposed to be different and awful. Mostly black residents, mostly white administrators. Okay, that’s news and probably rings the requisite outrage bells. But what if a shoe-leather guy found out the black voting percentage is in single digits…. Don’t want to say that, no matter how you found it out.

So you talk to a, say, Lebanese store owner and he tells you….what? That he has guys like Brown giving him trouble every day of the week? A local guy whose business is his father’s creation and he’s been burned out by guys he recognizes?

Nope. Any reporter with half a wit knows certain stories are pre-spiked. The Narrative is what the outlets want and…you don’t have to get all sweaty and tired going on about the Narrative.

If you want journo shoe leather all over the sidewalks of Ferguson, you’ll have to put up with what they find.

Who wants to go there?