[ Another in our “Notes From…” series - short notes by volunteers summarizing various events around the school, to help those of us who didn’t/couldn’t attend. Watch for several other “Notes From…” throughout the year. If you have one, send it in! Or let us know in advance that you’d like to do one; or after the event, too. ]
Below, notes from a recent visit to an RWI class by Kerry Burke, J2002, a Daily News reporter and star of Bravo’s “Tabloid Wars” (see video link about his famous backpack below). Many thanks to volunteer notes-taker Rubina Madan & Aaron Cahall, J2007. Feel free to drop ‘em a note or post a comment below (free, one-time registration required).
Notes From… Talk by Kerry Burke, J2002
By Rubina Madan & Aaron Cahall
J-SCHOOL, SEPT. 6–Students in Sam Boyle’s RWI class had a great first speaker Wednesday: Kerry Burke, one of the stars of the Bravo series “Tabloid Wars.” Burke is a 2002 Columbia J-school grad who started his career as a co-founder of CitySearch , writing reviews of New York bars and concerts. After graduating from Columbia, he got a job at the New York Daily News as a “runner.” Every day, he is out on the streets trying to get the news however possible. He became somewhat of a celebrity this summer with the premiere of “Tabloid Wars,” a six-part series that followed the editors and reporters of the NY Daily News.
Burke’s session with Boyle’s class was particularly entertaining because our adjunct professor is Billy Gorta, a long-time friend of his who now works for his rival paper, the New York Post. Here are some tips and highlights from Burke’s visit:
How to approach people after a crime (or other breaking news):
* When you get to a scene, go into the heart of the scene immediately and work your way outward
* As you go in, make the crowd–look for people standing in a group, talking, crying or in shock. They’ve likely seen something or know someone who has.
* You need to talk to as many of the players as possible; ideally a victim, a family member, an eyewitness, a participant or perpretrator
* Get the names, ages, occupations and neighborhoods of everyone you interview.
Getting a great story:
* Get into the building; visit the incident or key apartment, but also knock on all the doors on the floor. Hit all the apartments in the area.
* Use a police source, but don’t rely on them exclusively. That’s lazy reporting. The cop details will probably be released to reporters at “The Shack” (the media offices at Police Plaza) before they’ll be available at the scene anyway. Also, they’re not necessarilythe definitive version of the truth. Eyewitnesses on the street may have seen more.
* Don’t trust people who are too eager to talk to you. They may not know anything and just want to get on TV/in print.
* Never leave the scene without a “pic of the vic” (photo of the victim) — it humanizes them and helps people relate to the story.
How to treat sources:
* Start by introducing yourself, apologize immediately (”I’m so sorry to bother you.”) You may very well be meeting them at the worst moment of their lives. But don’t forget, you still need the story.
* Tell them what you’ve heard and ask them for the real story (”I give a little, I get a little.”) Don’t outline the story for anyone, but give them some info and let them fill in the rest. (”I hear this guy was kind of a scumbag, but I think maybe he wasn’t…what do you know about him?”)
* Keep it conversational. Don’t badger them with questions or bark at them. (”So I heard a kid from the block got shot…” NOT “What’d you see?”)
* Be polite. Shake their hands and make eye contact.
* If you’re talking to someone whose loved one has died, ask them how they want their loved one to be remembered as a person.
* Always thank them at the end of an interview (”Remember, these people don’t owe you anything. And you will see them again.” Especially if it’s a good story, you may need to do a follow-up.)
People you should try talking to for more information:
* the “mayor of the streets” — the person who has lived there forever and knows everything about it
* detectives and the “white shirts” — Line officers in blue uniforms are not authorized to talk, and may not have the whole story anyway. Officers in white uniforms are lieutenants or higher, and the duty captain on the scene is completely authorized to speak to media and is usually the central point for info coming in. Detectives will arrive wearing suits and can also be useful.
* homeless people — they’re surprisingly helpful
How to avoid getting burned out in the daily grind of reporting:
* If possible, try to write a variety of different stories and try new things (”New situations keeps minds fresh.”)
* Remember that there’s different kinds of reporters. Some love being out on the street, while others would be happy covering the UN, the White House and press conferences.
* “What rejuvenates me is these people. These are gorgeous people; they’ll bring you back.”
* If you get a lot of tough stories in a row, take a break.
What’s in Kerry Burke’s famous backpack?
* a flashlight, a bottle of water, tons of notebooks, a box of pens, a disposable camera, batteries, an umbrella, a tape recorder, lots of maps (borough, subway and bus), a cell phone charger, business cards, magazines and “stake-out food”
* Kerry’s MUST-HAVE: Hagstrom’s NYC Five Borough map book, spiral-bound.