Ask A Pro
dan keating What are your duties as a database editor?
As a reporter, I've always had an urge to quantify things - not just saying that something is happening, but how much and whether it's more than it used to be. That led me to specialize in computer-assisted reporting. I still do regular reporting, but I also use spreadsheets, database programs and statistical software for daily stories, investigations and projects. So many important public records are now kept electronically - crime statistics, election results, student test scores, government spending, aircraft maintenance reports - that mining computerized records is a critical part of journalism's watchdog role. At any given time, I'm working on a major months-long project, a couple shorter enterprise stories and maybe a daily with different reporters or teams of reporters and editors.
What is your favorite thing about journalism?
I really enjoy what I get to do every day, and I know I'm making the world a better place. I'm proud of the noble reasons for becoming a journalist. We enable democracy, check the might of the most powerful, look out for the downtrodden. We firmly believe that shining a light into dark places - even when painful - makes the world a better place.
Those things are great and I believe in them with all my heart. But there's another reason why reporting is such a great life. It's not the only way for an idealist to try to make the world a better place, but in journalism, I get to do those things while having a ridiculous amount of fun. Better world and big fun. Can you beat that?
How do you go about doing your job?
For the vast majority of jobs, fun isn't an element of day-to-day work. But my mission is to go find something fascinating, dramatic and new every day.
Once I find it, I have to concentrate on the reporting - use every sense, figure out the angles, track down the sources, get a smart grip on something I may have never heard of before, be quick on my feet.
Then comes the writing. When I've found something particularly poignant, I feel a great responsibility to bring all the power home to my readers. It's a challenge and a lot of work, but when the reporting and writing all come together, I practically feel guilty that they pay me for having so much fun.
Where do you get your ideas from?
You never know when you'll trip across news, from the dramatic to the offbeat. One day I took my cat to the veterinarian. The vet and I began to chat. What I learned that day led to a front-page story about local cats that survived high-rise falls of 70 or 80 stories. Scientists are studying the aerodynamic and physiological feline traits that let them withstand such falls. I lived off that story for a long time - anytime I introduced myself as a reporter and people asked what I did, I mentioned the falling cats and everyone said they remembered the tale.
Journalism is kind of like surfing: Even a bad day of reporting can beat most anything else I could be doing. Take one boring day in The Miami Herald's Key West bureau. It was during the worst week of the year for news folks, the stretch between Christmas and New Year's when no one's making news.
The phone rang and Christopher Spencer told me his father was an innocent man in jail. Reporters get these calls often enough that I was skeptical. But I wasn't too busy, so I strolled to the courthouse to peek at the file.
It didn't take a genius to see the mistake. A summons had been issued for Doug Spencer to appear in court. When he didn't show, the judge put out an arrest warrant. A while later, Spencer got stopped for speeding, police noticed the outstanding warrant and locked him up on higher bail than he could afford. He spent Christmas in jail and was scheduled to stay through New Year's and another two weeks before his court date.
Problem was, the original summons had never been delivered. It sat in the court file with a handwritten note on the back saying the street address was incomplete. If a man is never told he is to appear in court, it's not fair to arrest him for not showing up. It didn't take two minutes to figure this out.
But the defense attorney, prosecutor and judge on the case were out of town over the holidays. So I walked up to the acting chief county judge's office and told her what the file said. She promised to check it out, and within an hour wrote an order to get him released. The original charge - trimming bushes on his property without a permit - was dismissed when he went back to court.
An innocent man got out of jail. I got a twofer: a chance to cut through the blind bureaucracy to right a wrong and a nice little story. I can't imagine a better job for a boring day.