What makes a good journalist?

“The why is what makes policy coherent and useful. The why is what transforms bureaucrats and foot soldiers and political leaders into viable instruments of rational and affirmative change. The why is everything and without it, the very suggestion of human progress becomes a cosmic joke.” — David Simon

We here at The News have hunted the last several months for a new reporter, and the tight employment market and the isolation — however beautiful — of our Up North community have forced us to look to applicants without traditional journalism backgrounds.

The whole process got me pondering heavily on the attributes that make a good journalist.

I know this: A journalism degree ain’t it. Nor, necessarily, would experience at a college paper or even a professional weekly or daily grant someone the necessary id to do this job well. I’ve known plenty of pedigreed, experienced pros who still just lacked that special something that put them over the hump from passable to good.

He or she, of course, would need the wherewithal to string together a couple of sentences and a willingness to work in uncomfortable situations, like confronting a lying a politician or getting close to ask questions at the scene of a tragedy.

But even that doesn’t quite do it. Plenty of pros know how to write and jump headlong into the confrontational and unpleasant parts of this job and still fail to crank out the kind of material that grabs readers by the napes of their neck and demands they pay attention.

The missing piece in those journalists who perform satisfactorily but not excellently stems from the most basic tenets of journalism: the five W’s — who, what, when, where, and why — that every journalist should answer in every story.

A satisfactory journalist hits all of those questions, usually leading with who, what, when, and where, then gets out of the story.

An excellent journalist understands the most important of those questions is why.

Why did that happen? Why are they doing that? Why did they make that decision over some other choice? Why are they doing so much or why are they doing so little? Why is that program worth spending that money? Why are they running for public office? Why did they say that?

Answering questions like that gets to the heart of the biggest question every journalist should face when sitting down at his or her keyboard: Why should readers care about this?

Answering that “why” — and doing so well — creates the kind of journalism that Doris Kearns Goodwin called the “essential force to get the public educated and mobilized to take action on behalf of our ancient ideals.”

Who? The city council. What? Passed an ordinance allowing the sale of recreational marijuana. When? Monday. Where? City Hall.

That’s a story, sure, but, when you ask why, you start to see the full scope of the story take shape.

Why did the council pass the ordinance? Was it only about the tax money coming from recreational marijuana shops? Do some of the council members believe — as does a growing share of the populace – that pot should have always been legal? Do they simply believe they ought to allow it because voters supported legalization? Do any of the council members partake?

If any council members voted against the ordinance, why did they do so? Do they oppose use of the drug? Do they worry about the way neighborhoods might change with marijuana shops in their back yard? Do they worry about crime? Do they think their concerns outweigh the tax revenue that comes from marijuana shops?

You can teach a journalist to ask the right questions, but the best journalists — and the ones who tend to last the longest in this business — have in them an innate curiosity that drives that question from their lips without prompting.

They have an inherent drive to seek not just the facts, which the other of the five W’s establish, but the truth, which only asking “why” can fully ascertain.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-354-3112 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.


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