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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Some Perspective On The Battle For Warren Buffett’s Heart Between Civic Good And The Bottom Line

Over at Forbes, Jeff Bercovici asks what superinvestor Warren Buffett’s true feelings are regarding the print press, particularly newspapers. Does he think they are a foolish business venture or a cause worthy of support? Using Berkshire Hathaway’s purchase of the Media General newspaper chain this week as his proof, Bercovici argues that while Buffett might have “tender feelings” towards newspapers, the terms of the deal mean that no one should “accuse him of committing philanthropy“:

What we know now, thanks to his acquisition of the Media General newspaper chain last week, is the exact shape of that soft spot. Buffett might his tender feelings to bend his investing principles, but he won’t break them. He’s a pragmatic savior who’s only interested in those papers that can be saved.

The deal he made to get his hands on Media General’s 25 dailies is hardly the work of a romantic. No one who takes a close look at the terms, as Ken Doctor notes, would accuse him of committing philanthropy.

But Buffett may have more philanthropic bones in his body than Bercovici gives him credit for. The situation is somewhat different — I believe it may have been Buffett’s personal money rather than Berkshire Hathaway’s — but his past support for the Washington Monthly is hard to view as a situation where “Buffett’s ethos about what’s good for society dovetails nicely with his ethos about what makes a good investment,” as Bercovici says of his recent newspaper investments. Indeed, according to Alan Schroeder’s Buffett bio, The Snowball, Buffett warned his fellow investors “not to expect big profits.” It’s true, apparently, that the Monthly’s financial problems caused conflict between Buffett’s journalistic boosterism and his business instincts:

Buffett brought Fred Stanback and Rosenfeld in as partners on the Washington Monthly warning them not to expect big profits. In fact, he thought the financial prospects might vary in inverse proportion to the magazine’s journalistic success. But the scandals it might uncover — the ideas it could promote — the exposés it could expose! They put in a little money.

In short order, the Washington Monthly ran through its initial capital stake. Buffett held out the possibility of another $50,000. He and Peters had a fifty-minute phone conversation, in which Buffett’s hard-nosed business instincts and his good-citizen journalist side went to war. “As an investment, it reeked of the potential for failure,” says Peters. “He was worried about his business reputation….Warren kept finding plausible escape routes, and I tried to block the exits.” Buffett said that the editors had to put in some of their own money, and raise some outside, which Buffett said he would match eighty percent. 

Peters was a better journalist than accountant. They raised the money; the checks went out; then nobody heard from the Washington Monthly. “They just vanished,” says Buffett. Although the Washington Monthly was indeed putting out strong stories, it wasn’t enough. He had known from the beginning that he would not make money, but he thought that it ought to be accountable for the money that it had. He was embarrassed at having drawn in Stanback and Rosenfeld. Buffett wanted to be a partner in journalism, not just the guy who bankrolled idealism.

But Buffett seems to at least consider the investment to have been worth it for the type of journalism that the Washington Monthly produced. In the early 2000s, when the Washington Monthly transitioned into a non-profit, Buffett sent a note to the magazine saying as much:

The original shareholders had bought into Mr. Peters’s vision of a monthly magazine that covered government, and not just politics. Over the last year, most cheerfully mailed back their stock certificates, which had value as mementos and little else — so the magazine could be reorganized into a nonprofit.

”I’ve no problem turning The Monthly into a nonprofit (in fact, I think we already are a ‘nonprofit’),” Mr. Buffett wrote to the magazine. ”Despite the lack of financial return, society has already gotten its money’s worth out of the publication.”

So, what does this all mean in terms of interpreting Buffett’s newspaper investments? I frankly can’t say, but I do think it shades in the picture a bit, showing Buffett as someone who is willing to take a loss, perhaps begrudgingly, if it supports civic-minded journalism.

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Great Moments In Framing: Ann Romney Vs. Hilary Rosen Edition

Last night Fox News released a new poll with a dead heat between President Obama and Mitt Romney as the headline result. But as always with Fox polls, the real fun is looking deeper in the poll at the topical questions Fox included. In this poll, they dedicated a series of questions to the recent silly season spat over comments Democratic lobbyist Hilary Rosen made about Ann Romney.

In the section of the poll released yesterday — questions 16 to 34 are being released separately — Fox asked four questions related to the Rosen-Romney kerfuffle. One broadly described the controversy and asked if Rosen’s comments were “fair” or a “cheap shot,” finding that 72% of respondents thought it was a cheap shot (one could quibble with whether Fox’s description of the situation loaded answers toward the “cheap shot” conclusion, but that’s not the point of this post). Another question asked how much stay-at-home moms should be paid if they had an annual salary.

What I’m interested in, however, are the two questions Fox asked comparing the toughness of being a stay-at-home mom with other potential work situations:

In some ways, this is a great example of framing effects in survey question wording. Both “being a working mom” and “being a political strategist” could be used to describe Hilary Rosen. So if the question is asked in the former manner, a near majority of respondents think Rosen has a tougher job, but if the question is asked in the latter manner, the majority of respondents think Ann Romney has the tougher job.

Obviously, if the questions aren’t meant to be a direct comparison between Romney and Rosen, the effect of changing the point of comparison for stay-at-home moms means less. But what other reason would Fox News have for including a question about whether being a stay-at-home mom is tougher than being a political strategist then to take a shot at Rosen?

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Silly Political Science For Silly Season: Obama’s 2008 Deficit With Dog Owners

At The Monkey Cage, John Sides frivolously posts a Daily Show clip in which Jon Stewart jokes about reading political science journals as a lead-in to mocking the silly seasontornado of idiocy” that was last week’s campaign 2012 kerfuffle over dogs.


Thankfully, this gives me exactly the hook I need to post about an article I found while looking through the tables of content of recent issues of the journal PS: Political Science & Politics. As it turns out, there is some political science that explores the data on dog ownership and support in 2008 for President Obama.

With her tongue firmly in her cheek — evidenced by both the tone of the essay and its dedication to the late Lee Sigelman, who was a fan of funny and weird research subjects —   Diana Mutz of the University of Pennsylvania explored, “The Dog that Didn’t Bark: The Role of Canines in the 2008 Election” (gated). Perhaps as an excuse to use the pet ownership questions that were included in the 2008 National Annenberg Election Survey, Mutz examined how Obama’s promise to get a dog for his daughters at the election, which highlighted for the public that he wasn’t then a dog owner, affected his electoral support.

It turns out that, even when controlling for a multitude of possible influences of voter preference, dog ownership was both substantially and statistically significant:

The three-point difference in thermometer scores that survived an unusually extensive collection of control variables may not seem like a substantial effect at first. However, taken in context, one would be hard pressed to call this effect trivial. For example, considering oneself “born again” lowers support for Obama by less than this amount, and yet few call this political contingent inconsequential.

In the analysis shown in table 2, with self-reported vote choice as the outcome of interest, the size of the effect was unmistakably substantial as well as statistically significant. According to the fully specified logit model, all else being equal, the odds decreased by 16% if the respondent was a dog owner. This large impact occurred despite the many other potential confounding influences controlled for in table 2. 

What does this mean for 2012? According to Mutz’s theoretical explanation, Obama’s promise of a future dog for his daughters hurt him because it highlighted his lack of dog ownership, which meant that dog owners would identify with him on a group basis less than they would identify with dog owner John McCain. By that theory, Obama shouldn’t face a dog deficit in 2008 since he is now a dog owner, as is Mitt Romney.

This doesn’t mean that the dog on roof versus dog in a six-year old’s food spat will mean anything. In fact, we should go on assuming that it won’t. I only bring up the Mutz piece since I happen to come across it and I found it amusing. Plus, we all know that the real important political factor regarding pets is whether owners are authoritarian or permissive.

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Sometimes Predictions Are Wrong: Republican Revolution Edition

I’m currently reading Larry Bartels’ 1991 American Political Science Review article, “Constituency Opinion and Congressional Policy Making: The Reagan Defense Buildup” (gated, summary). I was struck by the following line in his literature review:

If Brady is right — if large-scale turnover in Congress is a necessary precondition for significant policy change — then the prospects for such change do appear bleak. It has become increasingly difficult to envision an electoral upheaval of sufficient magnitude to produce congressional turnover on the scale of the classic “critical elections” of earlier eras.

Obviously, just 3 years after Bartels published this observation, Republicans took control of both the House and the Senate by winning 54 seats and 8 seats, respectively. Oops.

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Re: Historical Facts And Politico’s Latest E-Book

Earlier this week, I noted that the confident scribes of Politico’s latest campaign e-book bungled a basic historical fact, namely that they included Gerald Ford’s squeaker of a primary win in 1976 in a list of GOP nominees who “were all designated, more or less by consensus, as captain of the ship, after some early scuffling in the wheelhouse.” 

When I wrote the post, I was about 40 percent of the way through the book. I finished it this morning and right near the end, oddly enough, Ford v. Reagan was mentioned, but this time, the closeness of the contest was acknowledged:

Rick Santorum was exultant, defiant, and petulant when he spoke to us on Sunday, March 25, the day after thumping Romney 49 percent to 26.7 percent in Louisiana. “To be able to pull out 50 percent of the vote in Louisiana, see a huge turnout, a big turnout compared to four years ago, I think it just shows our voters are excited, they’re far from giving up on this race,” he said to us by cell phone as he drove from Appleton, Wisconsin, to Fond d Lac (in an SUV that had replaced his pickup truck after he got Secret Service protection a month ago). Santorum compared himself to Ronald Reagan mounting a challenge to President Gerald Ford in 1976 that went all the way to the GOP convention.

Went all the way to the convention! The e-book was written by two reporters. I wonder if the two sections with competing memories of the 1976 GOP primary were each primarily written by a different author.

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Historical Facts And Politico’s Latest E-Book

Politico is out with their second campaign 2012 e-book, which is chock full of all the easily digestible insider musings and subtle but not too subtle self-praise one comes to expect from authors Evan Thomas and Mike Allen. According to my Kindle, I’m currently 39 percent of the way through the book.

I can’t deny that there has been some interesting minutia revealed — the Romney campaign didn’t have an oppo book prepared on Santorum by the time the former Senator had begun to rise pre-Iowa — but the thing I got hung up on this morning was a confident assertion of historical fact that appeared to me to get the facts wrong:

We asked the GOP insider what he made of Romney’s chances to win the nomination. “Fifty-five percent,” he answered. “Down from 90 percent two weeks ago.” Not the sort of sure bet Republican insiders prefer to make. Unlike the more fractious Democrats, the Republicans have a history of rallying around the  establishment favorite, once it’s clear who that is. Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, and John McCain were all designated, more or less by consensus, as captain of the ship, after some early scuffling in the wheelhouse. But Romney was starting to look more like Nelson Rockefeller, the East Coast establishment favorite who lost to Barry Goldwater in 1964 (the archconservative Goldwater went on to lose to Lyndon Johnson in a landslide). For the first time in decades, the GOP worthies began to think the unthinkable. Could the Grand Old Party be headed for a contested or brokered convention? (You had to go back to Taft-Eisenhower for a GOP convention that had last past the first ballot).

Let’s just say that the inclusion of Ford in the list GOP nominees who were “designated, more or less by consensus, as captain of the ship, after some early scuffling in the wheelhouse” is hard to match up with the history of the 1976 Republican primary. True, Ford was elected on the first ballot after entering the convention with a clear delegate advantage, but it was a close vote that came after a floor fight over rules that were thought to have real potential to affect the outcome of the nominating ballot. Indeed, the University of Virginia’s Miller Center page on Reagan’s campaigns says that “On a secret ballot, Ford’s operatives privately acknowledged, Reagan would have been the runaway choice of the convention.”

Just last month, in an essay about speculation that the GOP could face a brokered convention, the New York Times’ Adam Clymer described 1976 as “the last time a race was actually settled at a Republican convention“:

The chances of the 2012 race being settled at the convention are magnified by the fact that four candidates are dividing the delegates. In 1976 there were only two, but enough delegates were uncommitted, or controlled by a state party boss like Mississippi’s Clarke Reed, to leave Reagan and Ford short of a majority when they reached Kansas City, though Ford was close.

As president, Ford had crucial favors to give away, from meals at the White House to seats on the deck of a carrier, the Forrestal, anchored in New York harbor, where he reviewed tall ships on July 4, 1976, the nation’s bicentennial. At the convention his forces repeatedly surrendered to Reagan’s team on platform issues, unwilling to risk floor votes that would confirm Spencer’s view, as he put it recently, that “Even then, Reagan owned the heart of the Republican Party.” In the end, Ford eked out a victory.

As Clymer mentioned in his essay, conservative operative Craig Shirley has written a really thorough study of the 1976 primary. Perhaps Thomas and Allen should put it on their reading lists.

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Is The Offering Of Doughnuts A Small Kindness Inside Of The Wild Kindness?

Since the first days of this blog, it’s been readily apparent, I’m sure, that I’m a big fan of David Berman and the Silver Jews. But it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything Jews’ related. That changes today.

With my partner out of town this weekend, I indulged myself in a few hours down the Internet rabbit hole. One of the things I came upon was minimally viewed videos of David Berman reading a long poem at the 63rd MFA@FLA Writers Festival last October. In the first clip, Berman notes that he’s been writing a book about “certain events” in his life for the past two or three years. Watch part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

I also found that YouTube has a healthy amount of Silver Jews covers floating around on it. Here are three I enjoyed yesterday.

Herman Dune covering Strange Victory, Strange Defeat:

Grand Lake covering Slow Education:

My Diet Pill covering New Orleans:

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Philip Converse, The Custodian Of A Mysterious Musical Legacy

In a bid to delay doing some assigned reading this afternoon — an Annual Review of Political Science article called “On Assessing The Political Effects of Racial Prejudice” — I spent a little time searching through archives I have access to while I’m still a grad student. After some searches to see if Newt Gingrich had ever commented on Rodney King or Amadou Diallo (I didn’t find anything) and if National Review had ever supported individual mandates before they were against them (they mainly urged Republicans to abandon the moderate GOP plans that included them), I decided to see what kind of presence seminal scholar Philip Converse has had in the media over the years.

Not too much. There were 28 hits in Lexis-Nexis for Converse, including a 2009 San Francisco Chronicle article about his older sister, a recently rediscovered folk singer from the 50s named Connie, that quotes him. The story of Elizabeth “Connie” Converse is actually quite tragic. She wrote the bulk of her catalogue in NYC during the 1950s. Eventually, she moved to Ann Arbor, MI, where her brother was studying public opinion. After years as the managing editor of the Journal of Conflict Resolution, in 1974, she disappeared:

Since Herman and Dzula heard “One by One” on Deitch’s broadcast in 2004, many people have been asking what happened to Connie Converse. Still no one knows. Dzula and Herman attempted to track her down, but had no luck. A relative hired a private investigator and found nothing. A Chronicle search could conclude only that Converse’s Social Security number has not been registered as a death. If she committed suicide, as her farewell note hints and as most of her family tends to believe, her body was either never found or not identified. If alive today, she would be 85.

Among the belongings that she left behind in her brother’s attic was a filing cabinet that included rejection letters from music publishers. In her will, she left clear instructions that her brother Phil be in charge of all copyrights and control of her songs.

In 2009, tiny independent record label Lau derette Recordings released an album of songs that were collected from her brother Philip and Gene Deitch, who recorded many of them. You can listen to and purchase the album here. I’m quite taken by the song, “Talkin’ Like You (Two Tall Mountains).”

Apparently, a documentary is being made about Connie. Watch a clip here:

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Political Scientist Morris Fiorina Used The Term Super PAC In 2002

In January, Politico’s David Levinthal published an interesting article tracing the origins of the term “super PAC.” According to Levinthal, reporter Eliza Newlin Carney was the person who “made the first identifiable, published reference to ‘super PAC’ as it’s known today while working at National Journal.” Levinthal noted that the term had been used before, but Carney was the first to imbue it with its current meaning of “political committees that may raise and spend unlimited money to independently support or oppose candidates.”

With an assist from a Merriam-Webster editor, Levinthal described the pre-Carney history of the word:

After scouring an in-house database, Merriam-Webster Associate Editor Kory Stamper told POLITICO that The Capital Times in Madison, Wis., used the term in an article in April 1993 — the earliest citation on record.

But that long-forgotten mention referred to an altogether different type of political organization unrelated to contemporary super PACs.

“‘Super PAC’ then dropped out of sight until 2010,” Stamper explained.

But it didn’t drop out of sight completely. In preparation for my upcoming comprehensive exams, I was re-reading a 2002 article by Morris Fiorina that takes a look at 40 years of scholarship on parties and partisanship. In a section critiquing the literature on the resurgence of parties, Fiorina used the term “super-PAC” in a context unrelated to its current usage:

Traditionalists, however, favor conceptual stability, objecting that the organizations operating under the party labels are not parties in the classic sense — mass mobilization organizations that existed during Silbey’s (1991) “party era” (roughly 1838 to 1948). Indeed, party strategies today include the deliberate demobilization of the electorate (Schier, 2000). What we call parties today are giant campaign consulting firms or super-PACs, not classic parties. This argument has no obviously right or wrong answer, but an important implication is that comparing the strength of local, patronage-based organizations in the 1950s with that of the DNC and RNC in the 1990s is inherently difficult, if not impossible. The names have something in common, but the structures and functions of the organizations are different. 

This in no way takes away from Carney’s etymological role. I just found it interesting to find the term in the pre-common usage wild and felt the need to to publicize it.

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