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Let’s get ready to rumble: Beware the too-quiet newsroom

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By Jim Stasiowski

In “The Big Sleep,” the butler has the memorable line.    

A confusing film, “The Big Sleep” stars Humphrey Bogart as private detective Philip Marlowe. In the opening scene, Marlowe visits the mansion of the infirm General Sternwood who hires him to resolve some messy family matters. As Marlowe is leaving, he is stopped by the butler, Norris, who says to him, “Mrs. Rutledge would like to see you.”

Mrs. Rutledge is the sleek, seductive Lauren Bacall, playing one of the general’s naughty daughters. The moment she and Marlowe are alone in a front room, they bicker so tartly that you know they’ll eventually wind up, um, dating.

But their initial meeting ends with her angry at him, and as an amused Marlowe heads for the mansion’s front door, he spots the imperturbable Norris.

Marlowe says, in that smart-aleck way that made Bogey irresistible: “Oh Norris. You made a mistake. Mrs. Rutledge didn’t want to see me.”

Norris replies, “I’m sorry, sir. I make many mistakes.”

Exactly.

We all make mistakes, many of them. In fact, it’s a miracle newspapers don’t have to run dozens of corrections in every edition.

That’s because we liberally air our mistakes and misunderstandings before they get into print.

The best newsrooms are noisy places in which disagreements and different perspectives hone our finished product. And that is a powerful argument against such practices as using email interviews, plugging in ear buds to listen to music and allowing journalists to work from home.

On a recent editing assignment, I outlined for a reporter what I thought her story should achieve. Others in the newsroom listened in as she challenged me.

She had misgivings about my vision for the story, and we debated as equals, making our points clearly and forcefully. By the end of our three-minute debate, we had ironed out what we were reaching for. As a result, we improved the story.

Reporters and editors need to be candid with each other, even to the point of bluntness, bruised feelings. If we’re gentle, we’re going to haggle for hours, pecking at each other’s misdemeanors rather than slugging it out over large, more significant concerns.

Phone interviews offer an opportunity for journalists to correct each other’s missteps or missed steps. A gratifying newsroom moment takes place after a reporter overhears a colleague ask the wrong questions of a source, or fail to ask the right questions.

“I heard you talking to Councilwoman Sullivan,” Reporter B will say to Reporter A. “Did you know that back in 2007, Brewer did (such and such) … etc.?” Pretty soon, Reporter A is back on the phone with Sullivan, pinning down a fact that will add clarity or meaning, maybe even color or nuance, to the story.

That wouldn’t happen if the interview were by email, or if Reporter B were listening to downloaded music instead of to the rhythms of the newsroom, or if Reporter A were calling from a home office.

Newsrooms are filters. Information comes in, and because we’re all curious (or nosy, if you prefer), and because we have varying experiences, and because we don’t like it when a government official or business executive takes advantage of the public (or of us), we all take turns sifting the information through the sieves of our skepticism or our incredulity or even our orneriness.

When I’m editing, I tell reporters to challenge me, to correct me without fear I’ll be upset. Some would do it even if I didn’t invite them to—I was a mouthy reporter—but others are quiet, don’t like to make a fuss. (OK, not many reporters back away from complaining, but it has happened.)

I worry about quiet newsrooms. Granted, we can’t have constant irrelevant noise (“… yeah, those restaurants all serve good Italian, but have you tried that new pizza place, the one down by the river? On Facebook, my friend said that … etc.”), and even a productive, lively debate needs to end, sometimes with the editor’s decreeing, “OK, enough, we need to put out a paper.”

But newsrooms that don’t require an occasional referee often lack that beneficial filtering process.

And speaking of “The Big Sleep,” an enduring mystery is based on a probable mistake: Who killed the chauffeur?

According to legend, even the great Raymond Chandler, on whose novel of the same name the movie is based, neglected to clear up what caused the chauffeur’s car to plunge off the pier.

If one of the screenwriters had spoken up, perhaps that wouldn’t remain a mystery to this day. But then again, who says that a movie must tie up all such loose ends?

Though we all should say that a news story must.

Jim Stasiowski, writing coach for The Dolan Company, welcomes your questions or comments. Call him at 775 354-2872, or write to 2499 Ivory Ann Drive, Sparks, Nev. 89436.