Lou's Views

Journalism relationships: two professionals shaking hands

Chances are you’ve never heard of Bo Terry, a 44-year Philadelphia Inquirer vet who passed away in 2013 at 76. After graduating Northeast Catholic High School in 1955, he landed a job as an Inky copy boy, then moved up to financial clerk and finally reporter.  He never attended college and could barely finish a sentence without street argot like “pal” or “ya see.”

But in a newsroom full of bright-eyed Ivy Leaguers and National Book Award winners, the ruddy-faced Terry excelled every bit as much as they did. Never mind that he didn’t really write; the rewrite desk took care of that, turning his street-tough dictation into polished prose.

In (by way of slight exaggeration): “So dese two cops, they’re buddies from the 10th, they had to take in this kid in Saturday who sold crack from his bedroom.”

Out: “Philadelphia Police arrested a 26-year-old Kensington man Sunday for allegedly running a crack cocaine operation from his bedroom.”

And he was, as the Inquirer described him upon his passing, “legendary.” Even as the rewrite crew helped him spin journalistic gold, Bo depended on another set of helpers to get the goods. Bo landed scoop after scoop after scoop because he played poker with Philly’s finest in the precinct basement. The games involved gambling and were, of course, illegal. (Gambling would get Terry in some trouble later in his career.) But it was just one of the unconventional ways he built relationships. The cops knew him, trusted him, loved him, looked forward to dishing the dirt with him. Bo’s memorial obituary reads:

Bo will be fondly remembered by his family and friends as a person who loved people. He could strike up a conversation with anyone who crossed his path and loved to tell stories and reminiscence about his exploits as a reporter.

I should know: I was Bo’s desk mate for a short time and it felt like learning from a Yoda who stank of Pall Malls. Do you love people? Can you strike up a conversation with anyone? The great Bo Terry, who couldn’t write above a 7th grade level, held a doctorate in this regard. He taught me, in those days I sat next to him and heard him yak it up on the phone: It’s relationships. You have to build relationships.

As Terry would often tell me, leaning over as though he were about to confide a secret of the universe: “Bo knows.”

Introversion and the relationship equation

I get it: Some of us are introverted. We’d rather hide in an unending spool of documents and dusty archives where dirty secrets lurk. For some jobs in journalism, that intensity of focus marks a major plus: I think of the data digestion and analytics that go into some of the best investigative journalism. The most recent New York Times series on Donald Trump’s dubious tax exploits offers just such an example of the gold standard.

And yet, that’s not the way most of us get to work. We need to be among the people, a challenge compounded by the pandemic. A Zoom interview might as well be one of those affairs where you interrogate a prisoner behind a bulletproof shield. What’s more, a lot of work gets done by email; I’m as guilty as anyone.

But this myth that persists that introverts can’t learn to become extroverts, at least on the job. I pulled it off after years of work. One takeaway: Relationship building may not even require you to speak a word, let alone morph into a gregarious loudmouth. I have one trusted source, for example, that I’ve never once talked to on the phone. It’s been all email, all the time, for six years. A pox on me and my fat fingers for not dialing his ten digits; in my defense we have planned cross-country coffee dates that fell short by inches.

But I know, 1000 percent, that I can reach out to this source when I’m in need on deadline. He in turn has reached out to me for guidance on financial journalism matters. At this point, quid pro quo has gone the way of the stegosaurus.

When PR = profound relationships

With some PR reps the relationships have become so warm, they’ve far transcended day-to-day work. Dawn became a rock-solid freelance writer for me; Sarah jumped in to help me through a terrible job loss. Jennifer was there when I had a scary health crisis; and Ruthann Bowen, once upon a 1990s time, introduced me to a game-changing soul. I remember the remarkable call that began, “Lou, I’m working this book project, but I’m not so much calling you to write about it. I want you to meet the author; something tells me you’ll really hit it off.”

That man, Bob Briner, became a trusted mentor and friend until he passed away in 1999.

I’ve also known some snooty, crusty types—usually the ones who worship at the altar of ethics but know nothing of morals or human warmth—who decry this approach. To my face. Too bad for them. For this myth of cowboy/cowgirl independence overlooks the obvious, aside from the fact that cowboy hats look stupid on most of us: It’s all about relationships. A former spiritual mentor impressed this upon me time and again. While I suspect nothing could make me a better Christian aside from bribing a bishop, it made me a much better reporter.

I’ll repeat: Relationships. And again, relationships. Because, while I am talking down to a few of you (even though I could hide behind the phrase, “I’m not trying to talk down to you”), I detest how you stubbornly refuse to acknowledge this. It reeks of hypocrisy. You work source after source, PR rep after PR rep, seeking to suck out all the info you can and them move on.

I’ve done it, too. But it reduces us to the stereotype of the salesperson who meets a prospect, thinks of them only as a prospect, and seeks only to fill the pipeline and meet quota. In fact, I hear from plenty of these sales drones on LinkedIn. My stock reply that I save for such occasions reads, in part:

I mean this respectfully, adjust your pitch so that you put skin in the game from the start, the very start, with no expectation of return. You don’t know me. So to you, I’m an object. A revenue target.  But I am not a score. I am a person, and a thought leader in my field. Your goal should be to build a relationship with me, not a sales pipeline.

Then I turn the pitch on them and ask for their business. If you want a copy to use for yourself, shoot me a note. The replies are often befuddled, angry and priceless.

Qwoted and relationships

By contrast, the human touch of dependable relationships explains how I wound up at Qwoted. I’ve written before about how the Incredible Matt Kneller reached out to me with an offer to jump on this journalistic platform, free of charge. Great, HARO and ProfNet already do that. Then he went the step further and said, “I’ll check in with you to see if you need help with stories, and you can call or email if you need anything.”

I had to clear the cobwebs of cynicism from my ears. Did I just hear the vanished music of helpful relationships in journalism? Yes, Qwoted had much to gain by making me a beta tester. But long after that period came and went, Matt was still at it. He saved my ass on deadline so many times, I felt compelled to take the editorial reins here and pay it forward.

I will be the first to say that many journalists—perhaps you—can run rings around me. Some of my mentees wound up at the New York Times, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, and the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. But after three decades in the business, some high-profile syndicated column stints, a few awards gathering dust on my mantle and journalism adjunct tours in undergrad and grad school, I have some Fourth Estate legs to stand on.

And forever will I stand on and stand by this: Deep relationships foster journalism success. That can mean editor to writer; reporter to source; writing team to PR team; writing coach to promising prospect. It doesn’t matter.

Just don’t try to do it alone. Bob Briner implored as much once, holding me by the shoulders so we made eye contact.

That sure as hell beat Bo Terry’s most emphatic piece of advice, delivered with coffee-breath bravado, though I still treasure it: “Louie, get outta South Jersey, pal.”

Lou Carlozo is Qwoted’s Editor In Chief. All opinions expressed are his own, which works great when you’re the smartest smartass in the room. lou@qwoted.com

On Lou’s “Bankadelic” podcast, a dozen financial services leaders explore the impacts of COVID-19, six months later.