Friday, September 11, 2009

What I love about being a journalist

What I love about being a journalist is learning. For every story I do I've got to learn new things. First I've got to figure out what a story might look like, then I've got to figure out who might teach me--or where I can learn--enough to make sense of what I'm writing about to readers. And I generally have to learn a whole lot more than I'll ever write to make the communication look easy. Sort of like taking crash Master's courses in things.
For instance, I'm working on a story about art therapy now. Heck, when I started it I didn't know much about it at all more than it's name: People need therapy and get it by being encouraged to make art to free themselves up, right? Well, yes, but it's also a million other things. And last month, working a Hemp cover story--something I knew so much about from having worked that bailiwick for years at High Times--I had to not only relearn all I knew but learn all the new developments and new players in several countries to bring it up to speed.
You often know nothing about a story before you start. What do I know about iron workers? The high steel guys. Not much more than those old photos of the men having lunch on a beam on the 70th floor of the Chrysler building in New York City. So I started a story about some old graffiti on the highest beam in Fort Worth's old courthouse. I thought I'd track down the grandchildren of the men who signed their name to the beam in 1882. But first I had to find out why they signed their names. Juvenile delinquints? Former judges? Who knew?
It turned out, after I went to the Ironworker's union hall, that the guys who build a building, do the high beam work, always sign their name to the highest beam. That way, I was told, when someone comes to rip it down sometime in the future, they'll remember the guys who put it up in the first place.
Well, it turned out, for that story, that the graffiti wasn't really old at all. The building had been rebuilt in 1992, but the men signed 1882 because they had to rebuild it the way it was originally built: Carrying all those beams, old style riveting and such. "We built it like it was 1882, so that's how we signed it," I was told. Which, of course, left me with no story. Unless I was willing to dig into the men who are rebuilding Fort Worth today. Which I knew nothing about. But I asked questions, found 20 guys to talk with and learned a lot. I also got to ride in a basket lifted by a crane over 300 feet off the floor at the new Cowboy's stadium here in Texas so that the photographer could take photos looking down at the ironworkers building the roof.
And by the time I finished that story I knew enough to write a book.
And it's that way with most of my stories--at least the investigative stories. You got to figure out what the story is, figure out where to get info on it in sufficient quantity that you can make sense asking people questions, figure out what the right questions are and then go ask. And every time I do that I'm like a sponge. I'm back in school all over again, only this time I'm paying attention.
Which is something my friend Chuck still can't believe. "Pete, you spent your entire college career just making up papers about books and topics you knew nothing about. And now you make a living actually learning things, reading things. I can't believe it."
Neither can I, but I do love this job. Thanks for letting me have it, Universe.

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