Fifty-Three Ways to Improve Your Reporting

Always arrive ten minutes early.

At a big gathering, sit in the back, in a place that commands the entire field.

You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.

Be more than just a reporter; be a good human being.

Apply the laws of dating.

If something drops, pick it up.

Look deeply into their eyes.

Be still and rapt.

Give “civilians” the benefit of the doubt.

Respect your source, no matter how lowlife. You have no story without him or her.

Be aware of your own body language.

Use the Journalist’s Nod.

Make affirmational noises: give ‘em their amens.

Employ the pregnant pause.

Learn to listen on several levels at once.

Treat everyone the same.

It’s not about you (until the typing starts).

Be easy to get along with.

Suspend disbelief during an interview. Reserve judgment for the keyboard.

Tape interviews with a microcassette or digital recorder. Take pad and pen notes on specific and sensual details. Transcribe everything, time permitting.

Buy a microcassette transcriber or a digital transcriber.

For recording phone interviews get an ear-bud type microphone.

For doing interviews in loud rooms, get a lavaliere microphone, clip it near the throat.

Items you buy for work are tax deductible.

Maintain eye contact: Reporter with nose-in-notes vs. eyes as the windows of the soul.

Don’t be one of those reporters who ask questions because they love the sound of their own voice. The answer is the thing that’s important.

Give good foreplay, however limited the time. You talk first– explain, inform, charm, introduce tape recorder. Undress them slowly. Then ask questions.

Use your own unique personal assets to develop a reporting style. What works for one reporter doesn’t work for another. Jiminy Cricket: “Be yourself, you can’t be anybody else.”

Be yourself– only a little less so. Your reporter-self should be more humble than your writer-self, more of a wallflower than a star, more of a follower, a watcher, a true believer, someone willing to try on an idea and wear it around the room, just to see what it feels like.

Don’t write your lede before you get there.

Employ the notion that an article is “our story”—something that requires the source’s participation, something the source has an investment in.

Always start by taking a life history (the first third of your interview). “So tell me, you were born in a log cabin?”

Listen as acutely to the stuff that isn’t germane to your story as you do to the stuff that is.

Be present. Be in the moment. For the duration of the interview, it should feel like the universe consists only of you and your source.

Turn off your cell phone during interviews.

It is not shameful to be ignorant, only to remain so; truth is more important than pride.

Lay your groundwork before asking the tough question.

Don’t be afraid to ask, but don’t be a jerk either.

How you ask is very important.

Save the most offensive question for last.

In natural conversation, people cut one another off. Don’t be afraid to cut off a long-winded answer by redirecting with another question.

Employ tact. You get paid to listen. Most stuff is boring. Live with it.

Adversary v. Confessor: Who gets the most info? The one who agrees or the one who brow beats.

Play a ministerial role. Being there for your source, even if it’s just for the duration of the interview or the story, means a lot to them. And it gets you better stuff.

Sally Field in Absence of Malice: Something can be “accurate but not true.” See the forest for the trees and vice versa.

What is your objective: To catch them misspeaking or to reach a deeper understanding?

If something funky goes down, always report back up the chain of command: CYA (cover your ass).

Don’t whine to your editors when you’re feeling insecure about your story. Instead, assure your editors that you are a professional, that everything is under control and going well. Feed them bright anecdotes from your news-gathering efforts. Then make a couple of extra phone calls and read over your piece one extra time, being sure to make it sing.

When editors know they can trust you to be a professional, they are more inclined to leave you—and your copy—alone.

If you don’t like reporting to higher ups, doing assignments you didn’t ask for, following rules and orders you don’t agree with, or living within the confines of an institutional setting, shut up and become a freelancer (where you will have to do most of the same, but at least you’ll have only yourself to blame). Otherwise, learn how to live in a graceful state of give-and-take with your mother institution.

When you’re finished your interview, don’t dress and leave so fast. Spend a little extra time on pillow talk with your source, even if you’re in a hurry. Don’t love ‘em and leave ‘em.

End an interview by saying: “If it’s okay with you I’d like to reserve the last ten minutes of our interview for a later time: I know I’ll have more questions, can I give you a call?” Then get their number. Leave the door open.

Reach forward and gather your things, but don’t turn off your tape recorder until you’re out the door. You often get something good during the more-relaxed chit-chat at the end.

Mike Sager

Mike Sager is a bestselling author and award-winning reporter. He’s been called “the Beat poet of American journalism.” For more than forty years, he has worked as a writer primarily for the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, GQ, and Esquire.  Sager has written a dozen books; a number of his stories have inspired movies and documentaries, including the classic Boogie Nights. He is the editor and publisher of, a content brand.

Mike Sager