Journalism is aggregation

While reporting a story last week I had a sudden revelation: I’m an aggregator. I’m one of them. I’m the person that I’ve been kvetching about for years now. “They think information wants to be stolen.” You know the rant.

What happened was, I was going through the Rolodex to find astrobiology sources, and I was feeling rather rushed. I was on deadline, as always, and spinning multiple plates and trying to keep the fire in my hair under control even if actually extinguishing the fire was not an option on account of my hands being busy with the plates.

I beg you to understand that these are not metaphors but rather are literal descriptions of my work habits). (When I tell people my cubicle is a pig sty they often fail to grasp that I am literally raising swine under my desk. In journalism these days you need a professional fall-back position.)

So anyway, was feeling harried, rushed, hectored, discombobulated, etc., and needed to make a bunch of phone calls really fast. Whenever I reached a source — a tenured professor, acclaimed scientist, thinker, visionary, and/or oracle — I would blurt out something to the effect of, “I’m on deadline so tell me really quickly in a sentence or two, ideally with a deft turn of phrase or dry witticism, everything you’ve learned in the last 40 years about hypothetical life on distant worlds.”

Interviewing is a craft. An interview is not quite the same thing as a conversation. There’s an attempt in an interview to extract useful information, and this is a unilateral endeavor. I’m the one asking the questions here. If the source, for some reason, perhaps after an hour of badgering, asks me a question — for example, “When is this story going to run?” — I will answer in a barely audible whisper, “And you are who, exactly?”

But now I’m wondering if what I consider “reporting” is just a form of aggregating, of skimming, of lifting the best parts of a scientist’s work and repurposing it for my own interests. These scientists have spent many, many years doing research, much of it at the very edge of the knowable, where finding a new piece of solid data is a laborious process that may require long nights at the computer or the laboratory bench, or mulling a bust of Galileo, and this work has to be slotted among other obligations, including grant applications, peer-reviewing papers, teaching, advising graduate students, holding office hours, serving on faculty committees and schmoozing at the faculty club. And here I am calling up and saying: “Give me the fruit of your mental labors.” Asking for the ripest fruit, as it were. Asking not just for information but for wisdom. Give it to me! For free.  And they did, because they always do, because we have a system of sorts.

But even I was feeling this spasm of guilt, I remembered something, which is that somewhere along the way, over the course of many years, I had become familiar with this material, had attended conferences, developed sources, read a lot of books, even written a book myself, and to some extent was trying to excavate material that I already possessed and which was tucked somewhere in the cluttered attic of my brain. Experts can help us Google our own minds. (I am not sure that sentence makes any sense but we’re going with it.) So I wasn’t just an aggregator after all! I was better than that! I was just old, forgetful and fundamentally antediluvian, but otherwise a good person.

Reporting solves lots of problems in journalism. At some point you have to hit the done button, and speed is a virtue, so there are trade-offs. But when you have a hitch in a story, and it has become tough slogging, a good instant cure is to do some more reporting.

Which doesn’t mean just typing stuff into a search engine. The gifts of technology can too easily make us dependent on the Internet for information, and we become mired in our cubicles, not really knowing the experts, not developing the sources as well as we might. You need to get out of the office. Bring a notebook. Talk to people, tell them what you’re up to and, as John McPhee puts it so beautifully in his latest tale of the writing life, “Display your notebook as if it were a fishing license.”

And listen. Be patient. Even at the risk of the whole thing devolving into a conversation.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach | April 4