Michael Hasting’s Reporting Process For Long-Form Articles

Buzzfeed’s Michael Hastings, the reporter who catalyzed Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s ouster as the top general in Afghanistan, participated in one of Reddit’s Ask Me Anything interviews yesterday. Many of the questions were about war, foreign policy or the upcoming election. But what interested me was Hasting’s response to a question about how he typically goes “about beginning and working through a long-form piece.”

Here’s Hasting’s to-do list for reporting:

Okay. So story gets pitched, editor accepts the pitch. Then I do the following:

1) Make a list of all people I want to talk to and get their phone numbers and email addresses.

2) Read, or try to read, everything that’s been written on the topic.

3) Figure out where I need to travel to and when.

4) Start calling people. (And actually, I’ll often just start by picking up the phone, as folks you’ll talk to can also direct you on better material to read, and more people to talk to.)

5) Record the interviews, if possible.

6) Transcribe interviews.

7) And after all that is done, I usually write a draft in about 48 to 72 hours, depending on caffeine intake and editor temperament and deadline.

Also on the journalism tip, Hastings describes what he views Buzzfeed’s editorial goals to be. Notably, he rejects the idea that Buzzfeed is a tabloid, instead arguing that it has a “kind of futuristic, sci-fi feel.”

Hastings also gave  listed advice to youngsters wanting to break into reporting:

Okay, here’s my advice to you (and young journalists in general):

1.) You basically have to be willing to devote your life to journalism if you want to break in. Treat it like it’s medical school or law school.

2.) When interviewing for a job, tell the editor how you love to report. How your passion is gathering information. Do not mention how you want to be a writer, use the word “prose,” or that deep down you have a sinking suspicion you are the next Norman Mailer.

3.) Be prepared to do a lot of things for free. This sucks, and it’s unfair, and it gives rich kids an edge. But it’s also the reality.

4.) When writing for a mass audience, put a fact in every sentence.

5.)Also, keep the stories simple and to the point, at least at first.

6.) You should have a blog and be following journalists you like on Twitter.

7.) If there’s a publication you want to work for or write for, cold call the editors and/or email them. This can work.

8) By the second sentence of a pitch, the entirety of the story should be explained. (In other words, if you can’t come up with a rough headline for your story idea, it’s going to be a challenge to get it published.)

9) Mainly you really have to love writing and reporting. Like it’s more important to you than anything else in your life–family, friends, social life, whatever.

10) Learn to embrace rejection as part of the gig. Keep writing/pitching/reading.

Doesn’t seem like bad advice. I imagine the two points (1 and 9) about putting journalism above all else are the ones most likely to stick in the craw of people contemplating a journalism career. As the recent j-prof v. Business Insider debate over Joe Weisenthal’s 16 hour days, demonstrates, work-life balance is a contentious topic in journalism. Some people may love writing, reporting, the news and so on, but they may not be willing to sacrifice their lives to it. I can understand this dilemma, as it weighs on me constantly.

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