Schieffer’s advice to new reporters: Pick up the phone

If you didn’t read all the way through the Associated Press story on Bob Schieffer today, you might have missed an important cultural nugget.

Schieffer, longtime newsman at CBS, is hosting his final Face the Nation broadcast this week, and so he’s reflecting on the changing nature of news.

“I suppose every generation thinks that the kids younger than them aren’t as good as they were and screwed it up in some way,” he said. “I try not to sound like an old goat, but the fact is there will always be a need for reporters, whether they are doing it on television or a website or for a newspaper that is not on paper anymore.”

Then there’s this part that proves that he is either an “old goat” or we’re doomed. I’m not sure which.

Recently, an aspiring reporter in Texas sent Schieffer a note seeking advice on a school project. Schieffer sent his phone number and the student replied that he’d rather talk via email. Schieffer Rule No. 1: pick up the phone or drop by.

“How do you ask a follow-up question?” he said. “How do you listen to a person and the tone of his voice to know whether he’s putting you on? The best way to interview someone is face-to-face and I think we ought to get to that whenever we can.”

I had a similar experience recently when an area university student asked to interview me as part of his final class project. Keeping in mind that I insist on face-to-face interviews precisely for the reason Schieffer gave, and I often spend several hours with a student, I gave him several options for times and dates.

“Those won’t work for me,” he said. And that was that.

Schieffer’s rule on picking up a ringing phone is born of experience. After President Kennedy was assassinated, the phone rang in his Dallas newsroom. He answered it with annoyance.

“I picked up the phone and a woman said, ‘Is there anybody there who can give me a ride to Dallas?’ and I almost hung up the phone,” Schieffer recalled on the 50th anniversary of the assassination. “And I said, ‘Lady, you know, we’re not running a taxi service here. And besides, the president’s been shot.’ And she says, ‘Yes, I heard it on the radio. I think my son is the one they’ve arrested.'”

It was Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother.

  • John

    I’m neither an “old goat” or doomed (probably), but I think there’s a lot to be said for picking up the phone.

    Kids today (including me) grew up on email. Until recently, I have been a major proponent of email or conference call rather than face to face meetings. (I can’t speak about interviews . . . not my bag). However, I’ve learned that being in a room with someone, or even getting on the phone with them, tends to bring a better outcome than an email.

    If you’re walking into a meeting as someone who needs something done, probably in a way that is new to the people you’re meeting with, your odds of success are tremendously higher when the person you’re working with can see and hear that you’re not just pushing as a power trip, but that there’s some legitimate reasoning behind what you’re asking. That is hard to get across in email.

    Besides, you can’t go have a cup of coffee together over email.

    • My GUESS is one of the reasons the kid wanted email is because he could just cut and paste stuff into his school project. That tends to get to the another of the points in the AP article, which indicated that Schieffer kicked himself when he didn’t ask a question because he was sure what the answer would be. I see that ALL the time. I see editor/reporters choosing not to cover something because they think they know what the story is.

      In this case, the kid in school chose to put the quality of the content secondary to the ease of acquiring and using it. That’s not a good thing.

      • John

        That’s a fair guess, and probably a good indicator of which kids will be successful, vs. which will not be as successful.

        • Gary F

          Sure, email is great for documentation of a deal, but not making the deal,

  • Tim

    Email is superior to phone calls and F2F for some things, but not everything, and this is one of those times where the latter two are better. Especially when you’re a journalism student given the opportunity to speak directly to someone so prominent in the field.

    • L. Foonimin

      not meaning to sound contrary, but interested in your reasoning as to why or when e-mail would be superior to face-to-face or the telephone for human to human communication?

      • John

        when you need something that can not be denied later. that’s when written word is superior.

        • L. Foonimin

          so a screen shot or a printed e-mail is irrefutable truth as to time, place and accuracy?

          • At least in Schieffer’s businesses, the telephone isn’t a weakness in terms of proving what someone said. We record ’em.

          • John

            no, that’s not what I meant, but I see how you could interpret what I said that way. Anything can be faked.

            If someone sends me an email saying they’ll have something done by Tuesday, they seem to be much more likely to finish by Tuesday than they are when I get that promise over the phone. That’s an example of the point I was trying to make.

            Also, email is almost always superior for technical discussions that require a lot of complex and detailed information to be conveyed. It’s far easier to transpose a number, or pass on incorrect info when on the phone. Email’s allowance for double checking data is invaluable in that case.

      • Tim

        Well, I’m mostly speaking in a business/professional context, but here goes:

        First, it’s asynchronous, so people can read it and reply as they have time. Scheduling a time to call someone on the phone is tricky when I’m in Minnesota and they’re in, say, Singapore, let alone meeting with them face to face. This also makes it less of an interruption, so it’s better for productivity.

        Furthermore, it provides a written record of what’s said, which sometimes is pretty useful if there is confusion down the road or if there’s a lot of detailed information that otherwise would have to be written down. Plus, I can forward an email to other people and add them to the conversation much more easily than I can with a phone call or meeting. And it’s easier to bring up old business or issues with an email that shows what was discussed than by asking people “Say, remember that thing we discussed three weeks ago…”

        Phone calls and F2F meetings have their places, of course. Something like brainstorming is probably best done with everyone in a room together, and if I want to get to know someone, it’s better to do it in person or with a phone call. But email’s just easier for a lot of other things.

        • L. Foonimin

          Ok, so you and your contact in Singapore, (13 hours ahead of us) are working 24/7? … seems like someone is being interrupted, my sympathies.

          Not to belabor the point, your probably correct in the business world but in the context of the Schieffer story I would much prefer a journalist be able to “talk” with a politician or other news maker to lend context, do followups, and insure the response to the question was from the candidate themselves and not from a stable of highly paid consultants.

  • Gary F

    Good advice for reporters? Heck, good advice for all of today’s youth. Kids today are not developing face to face, voice to voice skills. From business to politics, job interviews, and your chances to advance to a better paying job depend on how well you communicate with others. Talk to people! See people. From voice inflection to facial expressions, all this is lost in a text or email.

    Best advice for today’s youth? Join a group like Toastmasters or take a Dale Carnegy course. Those with interpersonal skills will be the winners in society.