Pulitzer winner: Your journo skills will be in demand
Like a lot of you, I’m at the National College Media Convention in Chicago. I introduced Cornelia Grumman this morning and wasn’t in a position to live tweet her remarks. But her talk was fantastic and I have a lot of notes I’m going to disgorge now in tweet-like fashion.
Background: Grumman won a Pulitzer for Chicago Tribune editorials which led to reforms in the Illinois criminal justice system. She later entered the world of advocacy as executive director of the First Five Years Fund. She found that “acting like a reporter” is a valuable skill in the non-journalism world.
Grumman is way too modest and casually dropped in this wonderful anecdote. She had written editorials for the Tribune for two years advocating a requirement that police videotape suspect interviews. The issue got no traction and she asked herself why she kept it alive. Then one day she got a call from a young state senator who had told her previously he was frustrated he couldn’t get news coverage. He was thinking of running for Congress and wanted a signature issue. He said he was going to take on the videotape rule. “I said, ‘OK, Barack,’ but it’s going to be tough.’ ” He got it passed.
Grumman got 99 rejection letters before she landed her first reporting job.
She was proud of editorials that helped sensitize readers and legislators to the concerns of those with the tiniest voices (like inmates’).
She was recruited to First Five Years Fund because the funding foundations “wanted a communicator.” She applied news judgment to their wonky policy goals and created clear “asks” to present to policy makers, who don’t want to spend time wading through presentations.
Learned that policy makers are influenced by newspaper editorials because it’s a short argument, well reasoned and from a credible source. Again, they’re looking for time savers.
“Brevity is an unbelievably important skill.”
In any line of work, never stop reporting. “Get off your ass and get out the door.”
She started by visiting lots of child care facilities regarded as great, mediocre and bad. Decided best way to show providers how to be “great” was to produce video of great care.
But don’t assume that painting a picture of a problem will solve the problem. Say WHAT you want done. Policy makers are looking for “What do you want me to do?” So get to the point.
Bono (who created a sensation when he visited Tribune editorial board) said Warren Buffett told him not to appeal to American’s consciences. Appeal to their sense of greatness. That was important in winning Bush administration support of funds for AIDS in Africa.
Empathy is “one of the most valuable things you learn as a good reporter.” You learn to talk to people who don’t agree with you. And to come back the next day to talk to them again with a smile on your face. She found this wasn’t always the case in advocacy organizations, and her outreach across party lines helped First Five Years Fund leverage additional $1 billion in spending on early childhood.
As a reporter, Grumman always asked sources, “Who’s the most opposed to your plan?” and “What’s their best argument?” In public relations, she found this is called “murder boarding.” List the toughest questions you’re going to face and figure out how to answer them.
A final anecdote: The legendary William Safire eyed her in silence at the Pulitzer luncheon and finally came over and introduced himself. He said, “Stay angry.” Then he walked away.