It feels like hyperbole when Jay writes about shoe-leather: “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.” But Jay documented the veneration of shoe-leather reporting with quotes from Tom Friedman and others. And I have to agree, too many in media have exaggerated or forgotten the role shoe leather used to play and should play in journalism.
I wore out many pairs of shoes in my reporting days, 10 years for the Omaha World-Herald, more than two years for the Des Moines Register, several months for the Kansas City Star and a few years (scattered around and during my college education) for the Shenandoah Evening Sentinel. And I’ve peppered in a little reporting here are there since then, including on this blog and others.
I spent at least as much time as an editor, and told many a reporter (long before the Internet was available) to get his or her ass out of the newsroom and go to the scene of the news we were covering or go knock on a door and ask someone the question we needed answered.
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. Smart, hard-working reporters also use:
- Examination of documents, whether you access them online or get hard copies by mail or from shoe-leather reporting.
- Examination of videos gathered by shoe-leather and/or online research.
- Data analysis.
- Telephone interviews.
- Interviews by email, social media or other text-based messaging.
- Video interviews by services such as Skype, Hangout or Face Time.
- Research in your own organization’s archives.
- Internet research, ranging from online databases to social media search.
- I’m probably forgetting some reporting avenues I used or some I wasn’t smart enough to use (or techniques developed since my reporting days). Maybe some techniques that I rolled into these bullets deserve mention separately. What else should I add to this list?
To report effectively today, you need to master multiple approaches and learn when different techniques are most likely to work and when one technique should lead to another. A great story — whether it’s a breaking story you crank out in minutes or an investigative project that takes months — usually is the result of a variety of reporting efforts.
I don’t know if others would define it differently, but for the purposes of this post, here’s how I define shoe-leather reporting: news-gathering outside the newsroom, including face-to-face interviews, reporting at the scene of a news event (breaking or planned) and document research at courthouses and other government offices.
I’ve written some stories that grew exclusively (or nearly so) from shoe-leather reporting, such as when I accompanied Iowa missionaries to Venezuela, wrote about women who had abortions or continued with difficult pregnancies or spent a month with Afghan teachers visiting Nebraska. Those stories grew from interviews and spending time with people, with minimal support from telephone and Internet research. But most of my best stories, many of which I’ve already reviewed on this blog, grew from a combination of reporting techniques:
The rescue of the twins
In 1997, I told the story of emergency workers who saved the lives of 3-year-old twins who wandered out of their home on a subzero winter night and nearly froze to death.
My interviews with health-care workers were the heart of the twins story, and I walked the neighborhood where police hunted for the twins and the alley where they were found, so I could describe the setting accurately.
But those emergency-room interviews came together only because of a phone call to a public-relations professional at St. Joseph Hospital. I could have showed up at the hospital, shoe-leather style, and some of the people I needed would have been busy or working another shift. I needed a few phone calls to schedule the interviews I needed with the doctor, nurses and emergency medical technicians involved in saving the twins.
Shoe-leather reporting can be grossly inefficient that way. Sometimes you have to just show up, and sometimes it works. But effective use of the telephone, email and other electronic communication can set up shoe-leather reporting and make it much more effective.
Public record examination also was critical to the story, with tapes of the 911 call from the girls’ parents and of police radio traffic that night providing essential detail and dialogue.
My effort to get interviews with police officers involved in the hunt for the twins was unsuccessful (most of the police were miffed about media coverage earlier in the week). But in a phone call, I persuaded the police information officer to read me the supplemental reports (not public records in Nebraska, but police have discretion to release information from them) filed by every officer involved in the hunt. That took over an hour (maybe two) on the phone on a Saturday morning. But once I got him to agree to read them, I didn’t want to hang up to go down to the police station and interview him in person. He was reluctant to read me the reports, and I was afraid he’d change his mind. Those supplemental reports provided key narrative details, including a description of one of the girls’ pajamas.
The longest story I ever wrote (so it better be one of my best) was about the people in Buddy Bunker’s famous photo “The Homecoming.”
Lots of shoe leather involved here. I went to Villisca, the Iowa town to which Bob Moore returned by train in 1943, and interviewed people who knew Moore and people who were still alive who fought with him or were in town the day he came home. I researched records at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Red Oak, Iowa, and talked to a few more people there. I drove (lots of “shoe-leather” reporting involves applying the leather to the gas pedal) to Kansas City to interview the widowed husband of Nancy Watt, the daughter Moore embraced at the train station (everyone in the photo was dead).
But my editors did not approve unlimited travel for this story. My most important interviews were telephone calls to Robert Moore Jr., who was born a year after the photo and provided essential information and contacts for the story. This story would not have happened without excellent phone interviews with Bobby Moore, who lived in Atlanta.
Other important telephone interviews were with the mother of Michael Croxdale, the little boy in the photo, who lived in New Mexico, and with Michael’s son, Leyton, who lived in Federal Way, Wash. Internet research helped me identify the photographer who shot another interesting photo of Michael Croxdale as an adult, both to interview her and to get permission to use the photo.
When a home movie of the homecoming surfaced 11 years later, I drove again down to southwest Iowa and to a World War II museum in Waterloo. But key interviews came again in phone calls to Bobby Moore and Leyton Croxdale.
Lawrence Phillips domestic violence story
Phillips, a former Nebraska football star, was back in the news recently, suspected of killing his cellmate in a California prison. I reported on his first case of domestic violence in 1995, when he assaulted another University of Nebraska student, a woman who played basketball.
Shoe-leather reporting was a small part of that story. I visited the apartment building where the assault took place, noting that access was not easy to the second-story balcony where Phillips gained access to the apartment and seeing the damage he did with his fist to a metal mailbox after the woman got away from him.
But most of this story rested on telephone interviews. I talked to several women athletes who knew the victim. They were terrified of Phillips and would not have wanted to be seen being interviewed by me. They spoke only on condition that I not use their names. During one telephone interview, Phillips and the athlete’s boyfriend (also a Nebraska football player) came into her apartment while she was talking to me (I suddenly became “Daddy”). She couldn’t have done that, and probably would have slammed her door, if I had shown up in person. Most interviews work best in person, but I think most, if not all, of these interviews worked better because the women felt safer just talking to me by phone.
Initially, Nebraska Football Coach Tom Osborne and Women’s Basketball Coach Angela Beck declined to talk beyond statements they made right after Phillips’ arrest. I got messages to them that I had a story about the couple’s relationship and wanted to give them the courtesy of hearing what the story said before it was published. Both called me back, and as I read a draft of the story to them, I persuaded each of them to talk for the record, confirming what the victim’s friends had told me without using their names. Again, I don’t think I could have gotten a face-to-face interview with either of the coaches. They weren’t planning to talk, and Beck was traveling.
Leaking Underground Storage Tanks
All I got on the LUST story from shoe-leather was a he-said-she-said story. Nebraska environmental officials said that they had suspended clean-up of leaking gasoline tanks because of a temporary cash-flow issue. Contractors working on the tanks told me they had heard that the fund was broke and clean-up would be halted for months or years. I did those interviews in person and we published the story and it didn’t enlighten anyone.
But I had been planning to learn how to use data in stories, and this seemed like the place to start. This was before you could just download data from the Department of Environmental Quality website, so I did a little shoe-leather reporting, going to Lincoln and requesting all the invoices from clean-up contractors as well as revenues from the tax that funded the clean-up. I recorded all the amounts and dates on a legal pad. Making sense of all the figures would have taken much longer by old-school methods.
But I had an unused Excel program on my home computer. I opened the tutorial and started following the instructions and entering the numbers in a spreadsheet. A few hours later, I resolved the he-said-she-said disagreement. It was May and DEQ already had invoices on hand for all the revenue it could expect to receive through the next February. And I could see from the dates on the invoices that the most recent invoices were for work done in February and March (both sides in the dispute confirmed that the invoices were generally submitted every two or three months).
I went back to the DEQ officials with my spreadsheet, asking them if they could find any mistakes (I lacked confidence at that point in my data skills). They couldn’t, and I had the story from data analysis that I couldn’t get (or get as quickly) simply by shoe leather: The state’s clean-up fund was out of money and clean-up could be shut down for a full year.
Odes to “shoe-leather” reporting are often used to state its superiority over lazy reporting that relies on computers. That is fantasy, spun by reporters too lazy or intimidated to learn how to use computers effectively. Data analysis has improved reporting and helped journalists hold government and others in power accountable.
Shoe-leather reporters sometimes waste lots of time knocking on the wrong doors. Effective data analysis tells you exactly where to knock and prepares you to ask smart questions if anyone comes to the door.
Essex, Iowa, plane crash
One October Friday night while I was working at the Des Moines Register in 1981, a small plane crashed in Essex, Iowa, killing two people. Well, I’ve worked my share of crashes, fires, weather stories, crimes and other spot news stories from the scene. That’s usually the best way to work a breaking story.
But this plane crashed less than an hour before our deadline for the edition that went to Essex, which was a two-hour drive away. The only way to get the story by deadline was to hustle on the phone.
Fortunately, I knew Essex. It is Mimi’s hometown and I used to cover Essex sports when I worked in nearby Shenandoah. I called the manager of the Shenandoah airport, the assistant volunteer fire chief, the Essex football coach (the plane had buzzed the field during a high school football game, apparently looking for a place to land, before crashing nearby). I knew that people would be gathering after the game at the American Legion hall to discuss the game and the crash (and wouldn’t have been there long enough yet that sobriety would be an issue). So I called the Legion hall and talked to a couple teachers who had been at the game. I called an FAA official.
Quick telephone work was the only way to get that story.
More recently, on a much bigger story, my Digital First Media colleagues at the Denver Post expended a lot of shoe leather in hustling to the scene of the mass shooting at a theater in Aurora, Colo. They did great reporting at the scene, but many survivors of the massacre had retreated to their homes by the time reporters arrived. The Post’s Pulitzer citation mentioned their effective use of Twitter, which helped them connect with witnesses to the shooting.
Girls basketball champions
My series on the 1971 Farragut Admiralettes, who won the Iowa state championship, relied mostly on shoe leather. I interviewed all the starters and some key subs in person, traveling around Iowa as well as to Missouri and Calgary.
Some telephone interviews supplemented the key interviews.
But the story turned on some research that grew from one of the in-person interviews. One of the women gave me a video tape of the championship game. Watching the video helped me debunk (and honor) a legend that had grown from the game. I did those stories in 1996. Video research is far more important in stories today, with much greater availability of videos, many of them to be found online, rather than by wearing out your soles.
Jim Forsberg profile
This story also reflected lots of shoe-leather work — in person interviews with Forsberg’s ex-wife Vanessa and with people in and around Coleridge, Neb., who had experienced Jim Forsberg’s reign of terror. But important pieces of the story came from research that followed the interview of Vanessa Forsberg, digging through the personal documents she kept in a Walmart sack that she let me borrow.
And that story relied heavily on phone calls and the U.S. mail, too. Early after Forsberg murdered Ellen Gray, I got a phone call from a niece of Vanessa’s, providing some important background on the family situation. She said Vanessa was too terrified of Forsberg to reveal her location and talk to me. But over the next several months, I mailed the niece stories I wrote about that case, but also other stories that I hoped would show Vanessa my storytelling style and my sensitivity. I called the niece repeatedly, asking how Vanessa was doing and reiterating my desire to interview her someday. By the time Forsberg pleaded guilty, Vanessa was willing to let me know where she lived and do an interview in her home, so I was able to write the profile for the week of sentencing.
The best way to report
If the journalists who exalt shoe-leather reporting have a point in complaining about journalism today, it’s that shoe-leather reporting sometimes isn’t as efficient as telephone reporting or Internet research. You can sometimes get enough information to do a story with a few phone calls or a quick Internet search, but you can get a better story by going to the scene or doing in-person interviews.
As Megan Garber noted in the Atlantic essay that prompted Jay’s piece, today’s “hot takes” (maybe you’d consider this at least a warm take) don’t require much, if any, use of shoe leather.
As newspaper staffs are cut, the total volume of shoe-leather reporting unquestionably has been cut. And perhaps the percentage of shoe-leather reporting has declined as the remaining reporters spend more of their time using techniques that are more efficient.
Sometimes when you hear old-timers carry on, it’s as though shoe-leather reporting were in parentheses in the First Amendment after “freedom of the press.” But let’s remember that even in those pre-telephone, pre-Internet days, newspapers received postal subsidies so they could aggregate content from each other. Even back then, journalists understood that shoe leather wasn’t the most efficient form of reporting and that we needed to use multiple paths to finding and reporting the news.
None of the reporting approaches has more virtue than the others. The virtue, if reporting efforts have virtue beyond serving the public and honoring the First Amendment, is in the resourcefulness and persistence of trying any and every ethical path to learn and verify the story.