Jessica Estepa went out for Thai Food with a couple friends one night, one of whom worked for a Congressman. During dinner, he began to tell Estepa a story about the congressman, but in the middle of the conversation stopped and said, “You know this can’t appear in your paper tomorrow, right?”
Estepa said as a reporter for political publication Rollcall, she receives that kind of prejudice all the time.
“I have so many people tell me ‘this is off the record,’” she said. “But I’m not even thinking that way.”
In Washington D.C., politicians and professionals are always considering about their images and how one phrase can ruin a career, according to Estepa. “It doesn’t feel genuine at all when you’re hanging out with people at all,” she said.
Despite this, Estepa said she still has to balance her personal relationships with her sources. “I ran into a source at a bar at 11 p.m. at night and there’s always that constant tension,” she said. “We’re not friends, but we’re getting drinks. We’re friendly, but we’re not friends, we’re acquaintances, and you give me information.”
Estepa said she considers herself to be different in that she does form relationships with some of her sources, and is criticized for it. “I’m a friendly person,” she said. “I’ve heard people say ‘you can’t hang out with that person, you can’t talk to that person. But then, you meet other reporters who are married to lobbyists. It’s very odd. Everyone has a different mindset about what’s appropriate.”
Juana Summers, as a fresh young political reporter for POLITICO, once wrote a 2,000 word story on a political candidate. The story consisted of how that candidate’s campaign had slipped and the polls reflected such.
“I had made good friends with that candidate’s communication department,” she said. “She called me and gave me the biggest earful after the story published: ‘I thought we were close. I always give you stuff, you’re giving me bad press.’ She was a fairly new operative so she didn’t understand the rules – she didn’t know that not every story I wrote was going to be great.”
Summers said she couldn’t communicate with this particular candidate for a month, because the candidate wouldn’t return her phone calls after the story.
“It was a pain,” she said. “But your job is your job, and you still find ways to get around it, even if they’re not going to talk to you.”
But Summers said that forming those relationships is necessary for a political reporter.
“I would say that 95 percent of the scoops that I get or the stories that I break come from those personal relationships,” she said. “The people who I have repoire with are more likely to talk to me.”
She warned that reporters should learn to know when to violate those personal relationships.
“I think that you have to get a thicker skin pretty quickly to survive in the shark tank that is Washington,” she said. ”There are things that sources have said to me that have cut kind of deep, but you have to get over it.”
Summers said, however, that most operatives understand the stipulations of a relationship with a reporter, especially if he or she has been in the field for several years.
“They know your business is business and your job is your job,” she said.
As a professional who coordinates constantly with her community in innumerable ways, Denise Cheng said that being in a employment position that stifled that creativity was unbearable.
“This group really brought me in because they wanted to do more innovation in new media programming and so far they had only focused on broadcasting and video,” she said. “I created this project for them, but in the end it was all lip service. They weren’t really ready to move to new media, they were just read to say they were.”
Cheng said that the year she spent working 40+ hours a week at the company wore her down to the point she was emotionally and physically drained all the time.
“You need to know the difference between putting in your time and when you’re becoming cynical,” she said. “I think especially with a lot of younger journalists you’re like ‘well we have to go through this and I’m just paying my dues.’ But there’s a big difference between the two.”
Cheng developed several projects for the company, including collaborating with grassroots media in the area, and a wiki that would be a source for ethnic communities.
“Whether or not it was a realistic idea, it was just something that was immediately like put aside,” she said. “In some ways, new media became html for their newsletters, but there was nothing with innovative technology.”
Then, one day, Cheng received a phone call.
“One the things I created for them was a grant proposal … for using cell phones as media creation tools for immigrant communities,” she said. “The executive director I work for now went to Google and put in search form ‘mobile phones,’ ‘immigrants,’ and ‘minorities’ and apparently my proposal popped up. And when she called me … and said ‘I read your proposal, this is exactly what I want.’”
Cheng has worked for her current company ever since, and said she considers that low point in her media career a lesson learned and understands that an opportunity arose from it.
“You have to ask yourself what you derive joy from,” she said. “It’s a matter of what gives you joy, that’s really what should motivate you. If you derive joy from something, you’re going to produce your best work.
In 2006, David Cohn was focusing all his energies on Assignment Zero, a volunteer-based web publication that would address whether or not crowd sourcing interfered with business models.
But he said that project quickly deteriorated.
“We didn’t have a clear organizational structure,” he said. “We had pockets of control, and overlapping control and miscommunication. Part of that was all the development happened to the side, and one of us really worked closely with them.”
When the final product appeared, the citizens’ reactions shocked the team, according to Cohn.
“We were just guessing what people wanted and what they would use,” he said. “In the end, a lot of people registered on the site, they said ‘this is dumb.’ But we were like ‘don’t you want to do this? This is our idea for you.”
After nearly a full year, Assignment Zero ended.
Cohn said he still maintains a relationship with his contacts from Assignment Zero, most of whom still hold a presence in the media world, through a publication or as professor.
“It was my friend Amanda Michel’s first foray into media,” he said. “Before that she worked on politics and campaigns. Now she works for Pro Publica, and she really wrote her own position. I think in some respects, Assignment Zero is vindicated by the fact of what we’re all doing now. I don’t think either of us would be doing what we’re doing now if we hadn’t learned and observed.”
Cohn said he modeled some of the strategies of his recently founded non-profit company, Spot. Us, which pioneers “community funded reporting” on assignment zero.
“You should realize that the sun always rises,” he said. “It’s human nature to think that because I’m feeling so funky, the world is now funky, but the world moves on. And now people don’t know what Assignment Zero is. It’s ancient history. Take what you can learn from it, but it never means you have to stop and quit.”
Story by Jeremy Bauer-Wolf
Video by Scott Allison