Terry Woster: Collecting string

Most reporters I've known collect far more information in their notebooks -- or smart phones or whatever these days, I suppose -- than they ever have a chance to use in stories.

Terry Woster

Most reporters I’ve known collect far more information in their notebooks - or smart phones or whatever these days, I suppose - than they ever have a chance to use in stories.

David Kranz, back when he was my city editor, talked of carrying a second notebook. By that he meant that on assignments a reporter should keep a second set of notes on other topics that might become stories in the future. I did that, in my fashion, filling those slim, fit-in-the-hip pocket notebooks one after another, marking passages or pages where the topic changed, dating each entry. When I started a notebook, I wrote the date at the top of the cover.
I kept all of those notebooks, in sequence, in an office filing cabinet. When I retired, I tossed the lot. You couldn’t have made sense of them. I’ve known a couple of reporters who used actual shorthand. I envied them. Most of us developed a combination of words, abbreviations and symbols that made sense -- to us, anyway. On a good day, my handwriting is illegible. My reporter’s notes were worse.
I still have about 40 years of clips (the published versions of my stories and columns) out in the garage, but I don’t have my original notes. I do have drawers full of old reports and files and other documents saved from my reporting days. I rarely look at them, but it gives me comfort to know I have facts close by.
Bob Mercer, who reports from Pierre for The Daily Republic and several other newspapers, called it “gathering string,’’ the process of filling notebooks with chance facts and information “extras.’’ He and other old-school reporters gathered their string by reading reports and audits and public records, going to meeting with no certainty of a big story, things like that.
The comparison is to those folks who just keep picking up lengths of string and rolling them into a ball. Pretty soon they have a giant ball of string, and the people from the Guinness Book of World Records are knocking at the door. For news reporters, the big ball of string is a collection of facts, hundreds and hundreds of facts that can be used to build stories. And while some of the collected facts may never be used, others will become valuable someday.
Contractors build “spec’’ houses. Reporters collect “spec’’ facts.
During legislative sessions, old-school reporters always gathered string, burning through notebooks like a brush fire in a high wind. We’d sit in two-hour committees and take detailed notes on bills we had no intention of ever writing about -- just in case, you know?
I started that practice early on, never forgetting a lesson I learned from John Egan, my sports editor at the Argus back in the 1960s. I probably learned more about writing and reporting from Egan than from any professor, and I had really great professors in the J-school at State.
Egan sent me one Saturday afternoon to the tennis courts at Westward Ho, I think it was. He wanted a photo for the Sunday paper, and he asked me to get one from a specific match involving a local champion. That match was postponed. I returned to the paper and told Egan so.
“What else did you shoot?’’ he asked. Uh, nothing was my answer.
He pointed to a square marked for a photo on a Sunday sports layout sheet. “What should I put there?’’ Uh, I don’t know.
Egan was a great editor, and he found something. After the page was put to bed, he called me aside and said, “I guess I don’t have to tell you, always get something when you go out?’’ Uh, never again, you don’t.
I thought of that years later at a legislative meeting during which a brand-new reporter sat, notebook open, pen poised, through half a dozen bills, waiting for the one he’d been told to cover. That bill was postponed, and the reporter asked, “What now?’’
“Write about another bill.’’
“I didn’t take notes on other bills.’’
“Usually a good idea to get something when you cover a meeting -- just in case.’’

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