On Journalism

I had to do Q&A with a journalist or a blogger for my Newswriting class focusing on journalism. A friend of mine, Tom Melchiorre, is a seasoned writer and journalist. I thought he would make a great subject for a quick interview. You will find this interview engaging. Tom has an interesting personal story about his early writing life, plus you'll get to hear a different perspective on the media and citizen journalism.

VIKTOR: When did you get interested in writing and journalism?

TOM: With me, it was innate. I was writing as a young kid. Short stories, comics, poems. In high school I started to make some money off of it by writing speeches for the kids in the Public Speaking classes. Call it my first job in ghost writing. I charged by the grade they got: an A was $3, a B was $2, and a C was $1 (we're talking 1975 dollars). Normally they got an A or B. In college I did the same thing on a larger scale, once word got out in the dorm that I was an English major (only one, apparently, in the whole dorm). My roommate, whom I told not to let the word out because I knew what would happen, told our neighbor, who told his neighbor, who told his neighbor, down the hall it went, down and up the floors, and I come back from class with a line of guys queued up outside my dorm room. I didn't write their papers (plagiarism would be charged if they turned in one I wrote) but I did read them, make suggestions, edit them, guide them, put the final approval on it, and, of course, charge them.

VIKTOR: What college degrees did you get?

TOM: I have a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, with an Emphasis on Writing, and a Minor in General Sciences and Computer Science. I thought about a Journalism degree proper, but went the tech writing route because jobs were paying double in tech writing than in newspaper writing, which is still the case today.

VIKTOR: Where have you worked?

TOM: In order: 1) WPSX-TV at University Park, PA (Penn State) as a Public Relations Intern, writing newsletters, press releases, TV promos. 2) United States Information Agency (USIA) in Washington, DC, which is one of several federal government agencies specifically dealing with international Media Relations promoting the US, where I researched, wrote and edited articles for one magazine targeted at Africa, with at least one article picked up for publication in Asia and also used by the USSR (not Russia) to promote communism (that was an unintended twist, but very interesting). 3) Datapro Research Corp., division of McGraw-Hill Publishing, Delran, NJ, hired as Assistant Editor (four levels above entry) and worked my way to Associate Editor. There I reviewed and wrote summary and extensive reports on software programs for sale to high-end corporations through our subscription publications, both nationally and internationally. I also wrote newsletters, was a spokesman for the software division, did some speeches, and supervised a department of 4-8 people. 4) Write Edit Publish Inc. (my own company, it's current name) Norwood, PA. Numerous clients, doing newsletters, articles, magazine work, editing, PR, brochures, tech writing, whatever was needed. 5) Delaware County Daily Times, Primos, PA. Freelance reporter/correspondent, one of my clients but which became a fulltime job and my only client as I climbed the territory ladder with 3 school districts, 3 townships, 5 boroughs, and 1 city. Wrote news, government, features, crime, meetings, fires, deaths, sadness, happiness, everything. 6) Chester Education Foundation, Chester, PA, doing PR writing, promotion, program development. 7) Write Edit Publish Inc. fulltime again with various clients, including being editor of Secular Nation magazine.

VIKTOR: Are there any specific things that helped you learn how to write?

TOM: Believe it or not, comic books, specifically superhero ones. Most people think the writing is kiddie level, but it's very (or was) literary and usually flowed well, showing plot and angles, character and development, along with fighting and knockdowns. The level of words was difficult at times because the writers use appropriate language for the characters, so I was often at a dictionary looking up words way beyond my grade level. When I would turn in elementary school assignments, the teachers would often look at me and wonder if an adult wrote it, until they got used to how I spoke to them in adult language usage. Along with comic books I would say science fiction also extended my thinking and creativity. In particular, Asimov, Ellison, Verne, Wells, Clarke, Shelley, and a few others. And on a totally different level, O'Henry, who is probably my favorite writer and whose short stories were excellent as well great teachers for getting your point across effectively in a small amount of space.

VIKTOR: Do you have any recommendations for anyone pursuing career either in writing or journalism?

TOM: Traditional media journalism is dying, so I say don't go the traditional journalist route. Even in the 1970s I saw it coming, which is why I went the tech writing route. If you can get a base knowledge at a college newspaper, go for it, but don't really plan on making a career in a major market newspaper, which are mostly going bankrupt and, by necessity, devolving into opinion papers, no longer really newspapers. By this I mean the editorial page, where opinions used to be solely, has now expanded to columnists throughout the newspaper expressing their opinions, mixing in news, slanting things however they want. This isn't news reporting. News reporting is still in the papers, it's just no longer divided. Why? Because papers have to compete with opinionated talk shows, shock newscasters, pseudo news programs, infotainment programs, online reporting and pseudo-reporting, opinionated blogs, and numerous other sources of what people think is unbiased information. Where does that leave a prospective true journalist? Up shit's creek. The trick is to remember your paddle. There are reputable online news agencies and organizations that still need true journalists, often freelance, but nonetheless unbiased reporting, often in realtime. With a writing background, both in print and online, this is the future. I should add, however, that newspapers and magazines will never go away. As I travel frequently, I'll bring a newspaper or magazine to the airport, read it, and leave it fo the next person, who I often see pick it up, several people usually. Can't really do that with an iPad, and less to carry.

VIKTOR: Which magazines and newspapers (includes online websites) do you think still remain close to what journalism is all about?

TOM: Depends on how you define what journalism is all about. Let's throw away shock journalism, infotainment journalism, and anything related to that as amusement, unless, of course, you want to enter those areas. There's good money in talking trash. Doesn't help the world or humanity, but can make the next riot more interesting. So I'll define journalism in two parts: News Reporting and Investigative (which can cross over). This is what I see as true journalism and not just writing to get words on paper or in bits. News reporting, straight factual news reporting, can still be read and it's very informative. It lets the reader form his/her own opinion. Investigative reporting, taking a subject (such as corruption) and digging beneath the surface is the epitome of journalism and, if done right does not enter opinion but shows the subject for his/her/its/their true self and motives, but one has to be careful not to cross the line into opinion here, as it can be a very fine line. There are national magazines and news services'”both using a combination of print and online, possibly television tossed in'”that fit this standard, some maybe more than others. Time magazine sometimes does a good job, but is very opinion-oriented at times. Newsweek the same. Most people wouldn't think National Geographic very journalistic, but it's very investigative in its articles, and a fine example of such. On a slightly different vein, Men's Health, as well as other theme magazines, is more slanted in its articles but presents the information to its target audience without (mostly) opinions, so there is this venue available. Most newspapers aren't worth the paper they're on anymore, but the major ones maintain a good integrity, if you as the reader keep in mind the creep of opinion into actual reporting and can spot the difference. LA Times, Washington Post, New York Times, probably a few others but these have always been the top. Other countries have similar situations. The Guardian in Britain stands out. And most of the better newspapers have equally good websites. News agencies such as AP, DW-WORLD, certainly a few others, maybe CNN to a lesser degree, set a standard for a changing world, pretty much staying unbiased (unlike FOX, MS-NBC, etc.) and promoting journalistic integrity. There are certainly more. And as I find them I add them to my list, reading them online, and in print whenever possible.

VIKTOR: Looking back on the previous question, defining journalism. In "Elements of Journalism" the authors say this about journalism: "The primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing." Do you agree or disagree? Why?

TOM: In a perfect world, I would agree. A free society has the best flow of information to keep the society informed and free. However, this isn't a perfect world (or country) and the idea is still something to strive for. Case in point: There is no free press even in a free society. Freedom of the press belongs, in reality, to the person who owns the press. A reporter that pisses off the publisher/owner/editor will be dismissed for any number of reasons, coverage or otherwise, which is what happened to me at the newspaper when a change in political power in one of my territories resulted in the new politicos not liking the coverage I wrote, even as it was just as informative, factual, and consistent with what I did prior to their coming to power. They called in a favor at the paper, and I had all my territories taken away, except for 'good' news in one town'”which would have gotten me maybe, at best, one article a week vs. dozens prior'”and was fired a few days later after readers, who now weren't getting the in-depth coverage I provided, called the editor complaining. In a dictatorship or communist society, info disseminated, factual or not, may be enough to inform the people of what the powers in control want them to know for whatever reasons, which may spur on the readers to investigate further. But journalists have a need to get as much truth and facts to the people that even in those societies, and journalists will take extra steps to get the facts out, sometimes with disastrous ends. This helps citizens to hopefully push for freedom and self-governance. It's a situation we see throughout 2nd and 3rd world countries. To a certain extent, sadly, it still needs to be done, often with the same fears, in 1st world countries.

VIKTOR: Did you have any interesting or memorable interviews? Why this interview?

TOM: I've interviewed mayors, senators, inventors, scientists, doctors, technical workers, regular people, kids, Miss America, the gamut. Surprisingly, Miss America was actually an intelligent interview, which you wouldn't have known from how it's done on TV. The most memorable interview is difficult to choose as each brings something different to the table. Of course, there are interviewees who wore absolutely horrible and which I'd love to forget. Possibly the best interview'”very short, very poignant'”was with the mother of a young cancer victim, 8 or 9 years old, who died. He had gone through two experimental therapies, which stopped the cancer for a bit, but it came back a third time. The side effects of the first two treatments were upsetting, painful, and more. When mom asked if he wanted to go through another experimental therapy, her son simply said, 'Mom, it's time to stop.'

Also, perhaps the best interview ever was the one I didn't have. Late August, very hot, four boys jump off a bridge into the outlet to the Delaware River, only three come out. It's obvious the fourth is dead, but they can't find the body. I'm covering it. I drive there and see where the news media is told to stand, but this is my territory, I see the police chief and walk right up to him. We walk together over the bridge (really pissing off the other media) on one side and I see the parents sitting on the curb on the other side of the road. I get all the info I can from the police chief, and he leaves me standing on the curb across the bridge from the parents. I'm thinking I have an exclusive, hand fed to me by the police chief, and I walk over to ask the parents questions. But I stop at the yellow line (symbolic, I know) thinking this is really intrusive, I know what kind of answers I'm going to get, all tears, all emotion, and all great stuff for this kind of article. You see the same thing on TV news when the 'journalist' shoves a microphone into a mother's face who's just be told her kid was killed or kidnapped. Very intrusive, very insensitive, very raw, and very real. People hate to see that, and yet love to see it. I stood there several minutes: Do I get the exclusive, do I shove my 'microphone' in their raw emotions for the sake of the article? For the sake of the exclusive? It's a very big rush, a very big high, and until you're at that moment there's no way you know what you'll do. It's a big temptation, I mean BIG. But once you do it, you've crossed that line forever. I turned and walked away. To this day, there's a part of me that regrets not crossing over that yellow line.

VIKTOR: Which leads do you prefer in your stories, hard or soft? Why?

TOM: That depends on the article, which isn't a flippant answer. The article dictates the lead, and sometimes how you want to present the information. And the same article may work both ways. But even the best piece won't get the reader's attention unless you hook them with a good lead.

VIKTOR: Do you think citizen journalism helps or hinders professional journalism? Why?

TOM: The citizen journalism you see today isn't very good, but it gets some info across at times. When amateurs attempt something it's bound to be a poor imitation. Having said that, I would get many leads from ordinary people calling me about things to cover, including corruption, good news, investigative, private meetings, some really juicy stuff. My policy was anything said to me in confidence or off the record stayed that way. A fellow reporter's policy was nothing was off the record. I got 13 territories and tons of articles, he got one town and nobody talked to him. If someone trusts you, they give you information. If everything you say is a possible news story, why say anything? So, in this sense the citizens were helping me do a professional job way beyond what they could have done. Note: If a confidential or off-the-record comment merited investigating, I would ask if they minded me exploring it outside their information. Usually they said yes, because they trusted me and really wanted the thing out there, and sometimes they would go on record afterwards, sometimes not, but I never pressured. But a lot of what was offered up I would never use. Just wasn't interesting. Much like a lot of citizen 'YouTube' journalism.

In this day and age we get bombarded with information, be it useful to us or not. Do you think this, possibly, unlimited access to information desensitizes our curiosity or does it promote a better understanding of what's around us? This question sort of weighs in on the importance of curiosity. Something that brought our civilization to where it is now, good and bad. Yet it seems like it's becoming a bit "old fashioned" as a lot of people don't seek information but wait for the media and others to pump it into their head without a filter of any sort.

Too much information overload pushes people away. The Bing search engine commercials are a funny example of how we all feel about everything bombarding us. This is one of the reasons opinionated TV shows have gained such popularity: With so much information, people seek out 'news' that suits them instead of getting the broader news picture. They want news, just filtered, and it's comforting to hear their views stated back to them in a world with so much 'stuff' expected to be ingested and analyzed. Keep in mind, when newspapers ruled and there were two, sometimes three, papers in major cities, each with its own political bent, readers subscribed to the paper that leaned toward their views, so seeking filtered news that suits our views has always been done.

Does too much info desensitize our curiosity? Yes. You really don't have to do any learning on your own. The 'old fashioned' newspaper provided news and if you wanted more you went to the library (today the web, but the library is still a good option) and actively learned more. It forced you to get the information, to feed your curiosity. If you're given everything, why bother to explore? It's a rare person who clicks on the links in an article online. At the same time, are those force-fed links actually helping your curiosity? It's not you doing the search for what you want, but just following the trail, or, if you will, the crowd, like sheep, not answering your own curiosity but the 'manufactured' curiosity imposed and answered by the writer, who has done all the work for you.

With the exception of the lead sheep, all sheep follow. Information overload creates herds of sheep. People need to take the lead position if they truly want to learn what's going on, where they fit in the scheme of things, and what they do then. More knowledge is helpful, more useless knowledge is not. There is a world of difference, and the world we create depends on which side of the line you stand.

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