Ask A Pro
Examples of Work
Matters of Honor: Harvard's quiet secret: rampant grade inflation
Matters of Honor: Low, high marks for grade inflation
Matters of Honor: Harvard's honors fall to the merely average
The Boston Globe
Why did you become a journalist?
I've always enjoyed telling stories. As a young boy, I wrote plays for my neighborhood friends to perform in the shed behind my house. As I grew older, I enjoyed reading articles in my weekly hometown newspaper, the Scituate Mariner, and found myself thinking, why don't I try that? When I was 14 I wrote my first story for the Mariner, about our town historian, and was hooked the minute I saw the piece in the paper. I became a reporter and editor on my high school newspaper, which was a terrific introduction to all facets of journalism (writing, photography, design and layout, copy editing, etc.). When it came time for college, I spent my first year in a playwriting program in New York City, but I missed the immediate thrill of journalism. I ended up transferring to Tufts University and becoming deeply involved in the student daily newspaper there. I've been a journalist ever since.
How did you get to work at a big metro paper at such a relatively young age?
In large part, because I choose a beat (higher education) at a relatively early age and was determined to become one of the best reporters in the country covering the issues. After graduating from Tufts in 1993, I decided against going to journalism school, in large part because I felt I acquired a set of very strong skills (from my mentors at the Tufts Daily newspaper and from my professors) that I wanted to put into practice. I took a fairly typical track at first - beginning at Foster's Daily Democrat (N.H.) as a general assignment reporter, earning about $19,000 a year and covering four small towns in northern Strafford County, N.H.
My work at Foster's was good and varied enough to catch the eye of editors at the statewide daily newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader. They offered me a job on a larger regional beat that included the University of New Hampshire. UNH generated quite a bit of news, and, as the state flagship university, it drew attention from many readers. My next jump was to the Chronicle of Higher Education, a weekly newspaper, where I built an expertise on college issues and student life. I spent five years at the Chronicle, during which time a friend there - knowing I grew up in Boston and had an affinity for the Boston Globe - introduced me to an up-and-coming Globe editor. When the Globe's higher education position opened, this editor encouraged me to apply; in July 2000, at the age of 28, I began my career here. I believe my skills as a reporter and writer were essential to my career advancement, but I also benefited from building expertise on the higher education beat. The Globe editors liked the fact that I had dozens of story ideas for the beat before I even started, and that I could hit the ground running once I arrived.
Please describe your beat:
I write about colleges and universities in Boston, New England, and nationwide. About two-thirds of my stories involve local institutions, such as Harvard, UMass, BU, BC, and MIT; the remaining third focus on trends, newsmakers, and feature stories beyond Boston that will interest or resonate with Globe readers. Most of my stories run on Page 1 or in the City & Region (Metro) section. I write 3 stories a week, on average, and they range from 700-1300 words, usually. (When you start your career, you'll find yourself writing more stories, and shorter ones, usually.) In May 2000, in addition to my usual duties, I began writing a column, titled "Campus Insider," for the Sunday Education section. The column is a useful space for news and feature items that do not demand a full-blown daily news story. I also try to use the column to cover the "buzz" on campuses - the debates, tensions, successes, and conflicts that people are talking about behind the scenes (and often do not want to see reported in the newspaper).
When you are working on a story, how much do you think about photos and graphics?
Quite a bit. A newspaper story usually stands on the reporting and writing, but graphics and photos can play a huge role enhancing readers' understanding of the topic. A terrific photo can sometimes tell a story by itself. We always want to have a good photo illustration with a major story. Graphics, too, capture and convey key nuggets of information, sometimes better than a data-laden paragraph of a story.
When you do Web research on health and science topics, how do you distinguish good sources from bogus information or self-serving research?
I try to determine the source of the Web site or the information. For instance, if I'm writing about teen suicide, the websites of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health or the Centers for Disease Control will certainly have better information than a site, say, created and maintained by a freshman at a single university who is railing against the campus mental health service and making broad, baseless conclusions about teen suicide. A reporter should always scrutinize information available on websites, perhaps running a piece of data by a good and trusted expert source, to see if the information holds up.
Do you think it is crucial to major in journalism in college, or are there other paths?
Some colleges and universities have excellent undergraduate journalism programs, but there are certainly other paths. Few if any newspapers (that I know of) require reporters to have journalism degrees. Most papers want strong reporters and writers who have an eye for detail, who think critically, who are not afraid to ask questions or press for information, and who are quick studies. Papers want people with skills that come not only from previous work on a campus newspaper or a local newspaper, but also from classes in English, history, political science, American studies, and other fields in the humanities and social sciences. I myself was an English major; a close friend of mine, who is the Globe's very talented religion reporter, was a biology major (as well as a reporter and editor for his campus weekly newspaper).
I had an idea for a story about teens and drug use that would involve me being 'busted' for drugs in order to show fellow students, that it could happen to anyone, and also to get a first-hand experience of what a person goes through when they are arrested for drugs. Would it be going too far if I were to not tell anyone - with the exception of journalism adviser, principal and police force, of course - that it was staged until the story came out? Or is there a better approach?
I see why this idea appeals to you, and it could provide some colorful scenes for your story, but the idea is a wrongheaded one. Your scenario involves you "manufacturing" a news event -- your own arrest -- and a credible news story can never be manufactured. Let's say the police and the school went along. They might ask you to stage the event a certain way that meets their own interests (which would mislead readers) or they may "bust" you differently than they would "bust" someone during a real bust. (For instance, what if you have a poorly trained cop who has bungled past drug busts, but, in your scenario, comes off acting like a pro because he has had time to prepare himself for this staged event?)
Bottom line, staging a news story is always a bad idea -- it's unethical for reporters, and it hurts the credibility of a newspaper, whose mission is to report true events as they happen. Here's a thought: Why not ask the local police to let you "ride along" when they are patrolling the school for drugs, or going out on a drug bust? Police sometimes will let reporters participate in this, because they know that stories about law enforcement and drugs serve a public interest. Or, could you interview students who have been punished or suspended for drug use, and write a "narrative" (excluding their names, if necessary) that describes who they are and what happened to them? Either story would be better than a manufactured article.