How to be a more enterprising beat reporter
What happened to that annual promise to stop doing obligatory stories and start doing pieces that say something? Fifteen tips for renewal
Yo, beat reporters. Tired? Feeling like your beat sucks the life out of you with its obligatory nature? Wonder what happened to that annual promise to develop more enterprise off your beat?
Here’s the hard truth: Balancing “obligatory” and “enterprise” on a beat is a bitch, especially if you are working in an environment in which productivity is the issue. Your beat ought to be a place where you use your mounting expertise to find more and more challenging opportunities. But the way many newsrooms are now structured, your boss cares less about enterprise and more about filling the “product.”
What can you do? You’ve got to inspire yourself–you’ve got to start coming up with better ideas, ideas so good you don’t mind putting in the extra hours, ideas so good they will make your boss see the light and spring you. You won’t win all your battles, but read the following 15 suggestions and excerpts on developing enterprise stories off your beat and maybe something will click. (If you start to get bored, just go to the botton and read Number 15–it sure worked on me.)
1. Anticipate when your beat fits into upcoming news events. Richard Alonso-Zaldivar, whose responsibilities include transportation, used a Sept. 11 angle to explore the circle of experts who interpret cockpit recorder tapes:
WASHINGTON — Until today, the U.S. government had never played the cockpit tapes of an air disaster for families who lost loved ones, insisting that the sounds would be too raw.
Now, families of the 40 passengers and crew of United Flight 93 will hear the 30 minutes of tension and chaos that preceded the crash of the jetliner into a Pennsylvania field Sept. 11. They felt they had a right to listen, to know. Their relatives apparently tried to take back control of the plane from four hijackers, and thereby thwarted another terrorist attack.
As they listen, the families will enter a zone normally inhabited only by a small corps of investigators hardened to bitter reality. Like coroners with headphones, the investigators seek to uncover the hidden causes of tragedies through painstaking analysis of the most minute clues.
They work from a National Transportation Safety Board laboratory in Washington that is stacked with mangled recorders, reminders of life’s fragility. The listening room itself is spartan. There is a table and chairs, with headphones at each seat. At the end of the table sits a large computer monitor, so everyone can see as an NTSB technician transcribes what is heard on the tape.
Investigators regard this room as the agency’s inner sanctum, a workplace in which they witness struggles that reveal both the harsh finality of death and the power of the human will to live.
“You are really very close to the soul,” said Malcolm Brenner, an NTSB psychologist who specializes in voice analysis. “Speech is very close to how a person thinks.”
Brenner believes he has gotten to know some pilots as one would a friend by repeatedly listening to snatches of the last half-hour of their lives to figure out how they died.
He listened hundreds of times over four years to the cockpit tapes of USAir Flight 427, which went down near Pittsburgh in 1994, killing all 132 aboard.
Finally, he was able to match a series of grunting sounds by the co-pilot with data replicating a malfunction of the Boeing 737’s rudder. The co-pilot was grunting as he fought to overcome an unexpected, catastrophic turn in what would otherwise have been a routine landing. Brenner’s work helped bring about a redesign of the rudder system on the airliner, the world’s most popular.
2. Use your beat to illustrate a microcosm of a national issue. Teresa Watanabe, a religion writer, struck as soon as President Bush introduced his notion of allowing faith-based institutions to qualify for more federal social-services funds. She found a religious organization that was using federal funds on a smaller scale and profiled it to demonstrate the contradictions:
Its motto signals that this is no typical government-funded employment agency: “We are praying for your success.” Literally.
Shield of Faith, a Pentecostal congregation in Pomona, received $250,000 in federal funds two years ago to run a job-placement service, the kind of church-state partnership that President Bush envisions dramatically expanding.
The agency’s staff members, who work across the hall from the church sanctuary, offer the usual resume-writing services, job leads and job fairs. But, under 1996 federal rules that lowered the walls between church and state, they also offer prayers and spiritual counseling. These activities, they say, are what give their down-and-out clients faith, hope and healing.
“Let’s pray that God anoints your resume,” job development coordinator Karen Burr said she tells her clients. “The Bible says trust your Lord. . . . Let’s acknowledge God in this process.”
When they aren’t working with clients, the two full-time and three part-time staff members employed under the Department of Labor grant sometimes do church business. On Tuesday, two staff members baptized a woman who walked in off the street, clapping, praising God and speaking in tongues.
The Shield of Faith program highlights some of the major questions facing Bush’s scheme, announced this week, to make it easier for religious groups to obtain federal social service grants: How much religion is permissible in government-funded programs? What role does faith play in the services? And how should enterprises be monitored for the mixing of church and state business?
White House aides have said details of Bush’s plan–which is effectively an expansion of the 1996 rules that apply only to the government’s welfare-to-work program–are to be drafted in the coming months. Court challenges appear inevitable.
Similarly, another religion writer, William Lobdell, noticed an interesting campaign stemming from another Bush initiative–the $600 tax rebate:
As tax rebate checks begin arriving in the mail this week, religious leaders are campaigning with a flurry of e-mail, letters, fliers and pitches from the pulpit to persuade the faithful to earmark at least a portion of the rebate for God.
They are exhorting congregants to see the checks, which range from $300 to $600, not as a windfall but as a godsend.
“President Bush says, ‘It’s not the government’s money, it’s your money,’ ” Father Loren Weaver of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Long Beach told his congregation, echoing the president’s familiar 2000 campaign line. “And we say, ‘It’s not our money, it’s God’s. Everything is God’s.’ ”
Weaver’s goal is small: He hopes for enough money to pay the incoming rector a better salary. But a congregation near Nashville hopes to raise $450,000 to ease its debt from members who sign over their government checks directly to the church. And leaders of Judaism’s Reform movement have asked Jews to protest the tax cut, which many liberals opposed in favor of social programs, by giving their refunds to the poor.
The refunds are the first tangible products of the 10-year, $1.35-trillion tax cut plan Bush signed last month. The 92 million rebate checks, totaling $38 billion, have begun to arrive at households. But to get that money, religious organizations must muscle out other interests.
Wal-Mart is offering to cash the checks and Home Depot is handing out interest-free loans until customers’ rebates arrive.
3. Subcultures are fascinating story vehicles. Use your beat to find them. After a bad commuter train accident, Mike Anton and Tina Borgatta profiled the bonds that grew between people who relied on public transportation. (Only in Southern California, of course, would this be remarkable.):
William Schroeder has forged some of his friendships in staggered encounters of an hour or so a day, the time it usually takes him to ride Metrolink 809 from his Riverside home to his job in Irvine.
Among these friends are Ron and Edna, Jenny and Lulu, regulars who sit in the same part of the train each morning and pass the time with a newspaper or small talk.
They were there Tuesday when a Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight train ran a signal and plowed into their little world, killing two people and injuring scores. Schroeder hasn’t seen the others since.
“All I know is their first names,” Schroeder, 37, said Wednesday morning as he boarded a bus in Riverside, a substitute way to work until the Metrolink line opened later in the day. “We had our little group on the third car. A lot of those people were injured. I don’t know where they’re at now and I’m worried about them.”
Train wrecks disrupt in myriad, and obvious, ways. People are killed or injured. Survivors relive harrowing moments and gut-wrenching scenes as their minds rewind to events they’d rather forget.
Less obvious are the disruptions to relationships, the shredding of gossamer connections among people who share nothing more than time, space and a commuter’s bench.
“It’s kind of a micro-community that we have in the last car,” Barrie Britton, a bandage covering a gash across the bridge of his nose, said as he boarded the bus Wednesday morning….
4. Use the “news analysis” sesnsibility to exploit your expertise. Here, education writer Amy Pyle (now a Sacramento Bee editor) used months of frustration to hold educational leaders accountable, writing with authority. The topic was a ridiculously expensive high school whose price tag kept changing:
Entering the world of the Belmont Learning Center, the new high school proposed for the edge of downtown, is like a lesson in new, new, new math.
Facts and figures swim endlessly before your eyes, always slightly different than the time before, never quite adding up.
Like the $87-million cost the Los Angeles Unified School District keeps citing, which doesn’t include $61 million in land costs or a host of other factors that could push the total cost to $171 million or more.
Or the fact that, despite district denials, Belmont would be by most measures the most expensive public high school ever constructed in California, costing at least 2 1/2 times the national average per square foot.
Or last week’s offhand suggestion by district supporters that building the school would get 10,000 children off school buses–when the absolute maximum is one-third that amount.
As outrage has built over the cost of the school, district officials have seemed to compensate by raising their estimates of the number of children the school would help. It is the kind of semantic shifting that infuriates critics of the mammoth school system, who say they can never get a straight answer to their questions.
The experience of Steven Soboroff, the new chairman of the school bond oversight committee, is typical. Soboroff, who now counts himself among the Belmont Learning Center’s top supporters, alternates between bouts of cheerleading and complaining that so many district estimates about Belmont don’t add up. Taking a calculator to years of numbers in public and private paperwork about the project reveals myriad miscalculations….
…Even the most politically persuasive reason for building the Temple Street and Beaudry Avenue campus regardless of price–that the expenditure would allow thousands of downtown area youngsters to attend school closer to their homes–turns out to be partly double-counting.
5. Add up those casual anecdotes you run into. There might be a story there. Watch what business writer Dave Wilson did with a series of offhand complaints that we all hear:
Paralegal Delene Waltrip once had one of those memories that never let loose of a phone number. Seared into the folds of her cerebral cortex were hundreds of 10-digit combinations for prosecutors, judges, clerks, family members, friends and takeout Chinese joints.
But the last time Waltrip needed a number on the fly, she drew a blank. She had to run out to her car and grab her cell phone, which automatically stores the numbers for incoming and outgoing calls.
“It drives me nuts,” said Waltrip, who helps build cases against swindlers and con artists for the Santa Clara County district attorney’s office. “I blanked out on my best friend’s number the other day.”
Like countless gadget-laden Americans, Waltrip’s increased reliance on devices such as pocket computers, speed dial and electronic databases has led to a mild case of technological amnesia. More and more people don’t remember mundane bits of information such as their parents’ address or their spouse’s work number.
Those data are stashed in the digital memory of their cell phones or their hand-held personal digital assistants. Most of the more than 100 million mobile phones in the United States come equipped with speed dialing, eliminating the need to punch digits. The 8 million PDAs keep track of birthdays, anniversaries and important meetings. And a whole slew of Web sites offer to remind users to do everything from buying milk to calling Mom.
…So far, the tales of technology-induced memory loss are purely anecdotal. But academics are starting to examine the phenomenon–some even suggesting that it’s the true melding of man and machine.
6. Use your beat to document changing demographics. Hugo Martin was assigned to a new buro in a primarily Latino community southeast of downtown L.A. He saw cultural meaning in a routine government conflict:
Since Hermila Sanchez and her husband, Miguel, painted their beige South Gate home a light turquoise with white trim, they have noticed some passing neighbors giving the small stucco house disapproving looks.
“I say if they don’t like it they can come help us paint it another color,” Hermila Sanchez said good-naturedly from her front porch.
Her neighbors may not have a say in the color, but the city of South Gate soon may. This predominantly Latino, blue-collar city in southeast Los Angeles County is considering imposing the kind of color and design restrictions that are usually found only in affluent communities such as Laguna Beach and Westlake Village.
At the request of Mayor Henry Gonzalez, the South Gate City Council will vote today on creating a citywide program that limits the colors of homes and businesses to a designated few–most likely not to include the turquoise of the Sanchez home, or the maroon, orange and purple that also dot the landscape.
Gonzalez said the proposed restrictions were prompted by several complaints from residents about garish colors on businesses and homes around the city.
“People are saying, ‘It looks like hell,’ ” he said.
Many homes in this town of 93,000 can best be described as the colors of sorbet: lime green, peach, raspberry and banana yellow. An automotive shop that has drawn the mayor’s ire is bright purple with white trim.
But the politics of color may turn into a cultural debate. Many of the property owners who have chosen the lively hues for their homes and businesses may be carrying over a tradition from Mexico or other Latin American countries where vivid colors are embraced and are an expression of individuality.
Similarly, William Lobdell found deeper meaning in the addition of new police department chaplains:
After Garden Grove’s newest police chaplain puts on his bulletproof vest, he stuffs two items into the pocket centered over his heart: an extra slice of body armor to protect against a kill shot, and a photo of Kwan Yin, as beloved by Buddhists as the Virgin Mary is by Catholics.
“Using both the Kevlar and Kwan Yin, I thought that was the way to go,” the Rev. Kusala Ratana Karuna said. “You can never have too much protection.”
Kusala, 51, a Buddhist monk, is one of two new recruits in the Garden Grove Police Department’s cutting-edge chaplain program. The 10-member volunteer force also includes a Muslim, a Mormon, a rabbi, pastors and priests.
Few if any police departments nationwide can match Garden Grove’s diversity of faith. Kusala is only the second Buddhist police chaplain in the United States, according to the International Conference of Police Chaplains. The other is in Rockford, Ill., where the Police Department has some Buddhist officers.
A major driver behind the yearlong revamp was Police Chief Joe Polisar’s desire to…
7. How do new laws affect your beat? Here, Patrick McDonnell, who covers immigration, takes note:
By nightfall, the line stretched half a block down Whittier Boulevard, the facial expressions of the assembled betraying expectation and wariness, fatigue and hope.
“Who knows?” said Irma Villa, accompanied by her husband and three children. “Maybe we have a chance.”
The uncertainty of Villa and several hundred others gathered outside the offices of One Stop Immigration & Educational Center underscore bewilderment nationwide about new federal legislation passed in the waning days of the Clinton administration.
The law could aid a million or more immigrants and their immediate relatives, experts say. For the fortunate, it could mean cherished green cards, which permit holders to live and work permanently in the United States and can lead to citizenship. That possibility has created considerable hope.
But the complex details of the law remain mysterious to many. Rampant misinformation in immigrant communities has made things worse.
8. Look for profile opportunities that connect the dots–allow you to write more sweepingly about specific issues on your beat that might get lost in everyday coverage. Here’s a profile I wrote when I was covering labor and workplace issues, in an attempt to focus the reader on the magnitude of death on the job in America. I found this guy who put a face on it–his face, and the faces of those whose lives he grieved:
CHICAGO — Want to know why so many American workers die needlessly on the job? Ask Joseph Kinney. It’s all he talks about.
First he’ll tell you of his days in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, how his officers were held directly accountable for the men who died under them, how that sensitized them. Then he’ll talk about businessmen.
“The trouble with corporate executives is that they don’t write enough next-of-kin letters,” he says in that flat, accusatory voice. “They don’t go and talk to grieving widows. They don’t go and teach little boys how to throw curve balls. They don’t go and give little girls away at weddings. Maybe if they were more in touch with the damage–just the social damage–we wouldn’t have this big a problem.”
Kinney, the most frequently quoted authority on worker safety in the United States, never planned on becoming a zealot. He was a livestock consultant who worked profitably with cattle. Today he works compulsively with ghosts. Ghosts like Robert Campbell, a carpenter who was crushed when a crane boom line snapped in Idaho. Or Charles Elliot, a rubber worker who was asphyxiated while working in a carbon pit in Kansas. Or Brett Von Herbulis, a construction worker who died in a cave-in while digging a trench in Florida.
The ghosts began coming into Kinney’s life four years ago when his 26-year-old brother, Paul, fell off some weak construction scaffolding in Denver, went into a coma and died. The family said it was God’s will. Kinney wouldn’t buy it. There was a reason here, he thought, and he was going to find it.
What he found was that 10 to 20 Americans die on their jobs every day and that the agency established to protect them, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, had become one of the worst casualties of the Reagan Administration’s war against government regulation. Businesses responsible for accidents were fined paltry sums. Criminal prosecution was almost nonexistent. Proposed regulations were rare and languished in the bureaucracy for years.
Kinney, an intense, plain-faced, potbellied man, looked around for an organization devoted to helping people like him. He couldn’t find one. So in mid-1987, he put his consulting business aside and started the National Safe Workplace Institute. He threw so much cold rage into the institute that….
In the same vein, Patrick McDonnell wrote a magazine profile of a suburban anti-immigration crusader in an attempt to more effectively explain a group of people that the media usually dismisses as kooks:
On a cloudless morning in Westwood, Glenn Spencer is talking about treachery. The new leaders of the United States and Mexico are poised to meet amid a feel-good public relations buildup that has enraged Spencer, self-styled crusader against what he calls Mexico’s reconquista of California and the Southwest. News reports breezily convey the prospect of relaxed borders, a new amnesty for illegal immigrants and expanded free trade. It is no less than treason to Spencer, a 63-year-old former computer consultant from the San Fernando Valley, now a brash evangelist in a holy war of his own design.
He has called his brothers and sisters to Westwood to rally in protest. “Stand up for America or kiss it goodbye,” he warned them in an insistent e-mail dispatched to thousands of “loyal Americans” nationwide, urging them to mobilize here. “This is your last chance, and the media will be there!!!”
Alas, no more than 60 make it to Wilshire Boulevard today. Some hoist Old Glory and placards proclaiming “Close the Border” or “No Deal With Narco State.” A cadre of mostly young men and women denounce Spencer’s legions as Nazis and fascists. Worse, the only broadcast medium present is Spanish-language television, which inevitably will portray Spencer as a Latinophobic demon. It is hard to shake the impression of an older generation tilting at windmills only a few years after standing triumphant.
Once, Spencer and his allies who yearn to shut the country’s doors appeared to have tapped into a political and social lodestone. With the backing of then-Gov. Pete Wilson, they championed the passage of Proposition 187, a landmark California ballot initiative that became a nasty referendum on the state’s demographic transformation. The message of “restrictionists” such as Spencer was unambiguous: The “invasion” of poor Mexicans and Central Americans was costing Americans jobs, dragging down public schools, despoiling the environment, spreading disease and exacerbating sundry other social problems.
Emboldened, Spencer transformed his Sherman Oaks basement into a full-time, high-tech command post to spread the anti-immigration gospel. He used the Internet and a privately financed radio show to circulate ominous warnings about Mexico’s “demographic war” against the United States. He proudly personified the angry white man of the shut-the-border crowd. Critics denounced his message as racist and delusional. Spencer paid them no mind. He foresaw millions of converts–only to see his temple founder.
The recession ended, the economy boomed anew, and with that the anti-immigration engine backfired; it had become too harsh for its own good and had lost its most potent fuel: high unemployment. Today, lawmakers and social scientists regularly celebrate the economic vitality and cultural verve that immigrants have brought to places such as New York City, Silicon Valley and Southern California. Now, Glenn Spencer seeks out new converts in states thousands of miles away, places where resentment against immigrants is only starting to build.
It is easy to dismiss Spencer as a purveyor of hate on the loony fringes of the immigration-control movement, a contrarian voice rejecting the tide of demographic inevitability so evident in the new census. Yet Spencer can also be seen as a man who gives voice to a crude but deeply felt discontent. He is the next-door neighbor who has gradually rebelled against the unsettling sense of change coming too fast. To his sympathizers, not all of them white, Spencer is the man courageous enough to breach one of L.A.’s biggest taboos: He identifies and articulates the collateral damage from mass immigration that has jolted established communities–and to hell with the high-minded, supposed benefits of immigration. Their unease is captured in one phrase: It’s like a foreign country.
9. Look for that special moment when your beat intersects with other beats. Here, higher education writer Ken Weiss found an ad in a college newspaper that led to a fascinating story in the field of medicine:
Slipping away from Harvard for a week last June, a PhD candidate named Rachel, a tall strawberry blond with a creamy complexion and blue-green eyes, jetted to San Francisco for an unusual tryst.
Awaiting her was a wealthy Bay Area couple, desperate for a baby, willing to pay Rachel thousands of dollars to help them realize their dream.
The middle-age husband and wife, who found Rachel through a San Diego broker, were attracted as much to her slender, 5-foot-11 frame and Norwegian ancestry as they were to her Ivy League pedigree.
“You look even more gorgeous than the pictures,” she recalled one of the pair saying.
The next morning, under general anesthesia, a needle poked into Rachel’s ovaries and harvested 17 eggs ripened by weeks of hormone shots. They were then fertilized with the husband’s sperm and implanted into the wife’s womb.
For her donation, Rachel made about $18,000, just enough to cover a semester at an Ivy League school. She was back in California again in February–this time in San Diego, to do business with another couple.
“I asked for a little more this time,” she said, “and they agreed to it.”
California has become the center of a flourishing egg-donation industry that increasingly recruits women from university campuses nationwide.
“Pay your tuition with eggs,” reads one of the ubiquitous advertisements in college newspapers. California brokers now recruit heavily from the nation’s top academic institutions–Harvard, Yale and Stanford–promoting their donors’ eggs on Web sites and in brochures as name-brand genetic material.
10. What pisses you off on your beat? What is simply wrong with the world? Amy Pyle was outraged by the shortage of textbooks that, in many people’s minds, had become a given in L.A. One reason we hadn’t written about the outrage before was that it was impossible to quantify. Amy realized that even anecdotally, the story demanded to be told:
Sophomore Angeles Herrera hurries down the halls of Fremont High School with a single slim notebook tucked under her arm.
She carries no textbooks because she has none.
Textbooks remain the essential guide to education, second in importance only to competent teachers. But book shortages have become so common in big-city high schools that Angeles doesn’t know she should expect more–that, in fact, state law guarantees her a text for every class.
Ask when she last had a textbook of her own and Angeles looks puzzled. Was it French last semester? Yes, she thinks so. And maybe algebra last year.
In the absence of take-home books, she spends chunks of valuable classroom time reading and copying from a class set of 30 books shared by up to 150 students daily. Sometimes there are not even enough of those to go around.
Angeles senses the void most acutely when she digs into her homework at night. “You don’t have the book for examples,” she said. When she gets confused, she telephones a classmate and they try to muddle through together.
Her plight is education’s tragic secret, one that threatens to undermine a generation’s literacy: Across the nation, students routinely make do without textbooks in one or more classes. Those in urban areas fare worse than their suburban cousins. California’s public school students are among the worst off, thanks to lower education funding, radically shifting education philosophies and a faster-growing, more transient public school population.
The problem remains hidden because it is rarely quantified. The 663-campus Los Angeles Unified School District can’t take stock because it eliminated its centralized book purchasing department in 1990 to save money.
Similarly, Patrick McDonnell wrote about a long line that had wound around the INS office so long that it had become a given:
Jorge Custodio is sprawled on a blanket near the Hollywood Freeway, bundled up against the chill as daylight approaches. He is neither homeless nor unemployed, but a middle-class, Internet-savvy homeowner and naturalized U.S. citizen from El Salvador.
“I left my homeland a long time ago, but now I feel like I’m back in the Third World,” an exhausted Custodio says near the end of a 13-hour vigil waiting for the downtown Los Angeles Immigration and Naturalization Service headquarters to open.
At least 1,200 people like Custodio have gathered outside the INS offices by 6 a.m. in recent days, some of them beginning their camp-outs before sundown. They are executives and janitors, grandmothers and teenagers, all in need of working papers or citizenship or permission to bring loved ones to the United States, or some other service.
They seem resigned to one of Los Angeles’ worst breakdowns in governmental service, known simply as “The Line,” a doleful pageant that wraps around the block-square Federal Building like a serpent.
The Line has bulged even more recently as Monday’s deadline for certain legal-residency applications approached. That merely heightened its notoriety in the nation’s new-immigrant capital as a dreaded rite of passage and the worst of its kind in the United States.
For the INS, an agency long viewed as sloppy and heartless, The Line is a daily reminder of the consequence of emphasizing enforcement over service. As Congress has pumped more and more money into politically popular border-policing activities, other functions have suffered. Today, for example, half or more of the information booths at the agency’s L.A. headquarters are routinely unstaffed.
“Bottom line, it’s wrong,” admits Thomas J. Schiltgen, the 26-year agency veteran who heads the seven-county Los Angeles district of the INS, the nation’s busiest. “We have the worst possible conditions for our employees and the customers that we could possibly have.”
11. What do you think about when you go home? In other words, what part of your beat piques your curiosity as a person, not just a journalist? After a couple years on the workplace beat, I had written many stories about cumulative trauma injuries suffered by computer workers. But what was more intriguing to me was what being tethered to a computer did to people–including me–psychologically. That question defied statistics, and there weren’t many experts, and it took me another 18 months before I found the time to finish it–but it meant enough to my soul that I stayed with it:
Shoshana Zuboff, a Harvard University business professor, once asked a group of office clerks whose jobs had recently been computerized to draw pictures of themselves at work.
The clerks variously portrayed themselves as chained to desks, clothed in prison stripes, trapped by walls, deprived of sunlight and food, wearing blinders, surrounded by bottles of aspirin, bleary-eyed with fatigue and frowning.
The stark, solitary stick figures spoke vividly about changes that computerization is making in the office–changes that represent a fundamental and potentially harmful shift in the nature of work.
Computerization without proper social and psychological safeguards is subjecting millions of office employees to a harsher, more isolated and more dangerous workplace, a growing number of researchers maintain.
Too often, clerical-level workers are forced to spend too much time glued to computer screens performing rote activities, or required to work at a pace dictated or monitored by a computer, experts say. As a result, they lose “social support”–normal office chatter and physical movement–and a sense of control over their job.
Those feelings and experiences may seem ephemeral, but psychologists regard them as a crucial buffer against stress-related illnesses such as anxiety and depression. They can often spell the difference between a deadening job and a bearable one.
Business and government are being called upon to rethink basic automation decisions of the past decade. Researchers believe that employers should relinquish their sole authority to decide how work is organized. They believe short-term productivity should be sacrificed in favor of employees’ long-term health.
….Such thinking amounts to the most serious reevaluation of the relationship between people and machines since the Industrial Revolution. It demands, in effect, that office workers be protected against the most enticing quality of the computer–its ability to drastically speed up the number of transactions a worker can perform.
12. Counterpoint the conventional wisdom. It interested me that a labor dispute focused on objections to overtime, when conventional wisdom told us most workers relied on it to survive:
EVERETT, Wash. — Facing furious deadlines, Margaret Nix worked 34 out of every 35 days on the Boeing Co.’s aircraft assembly line. Mandatory overtime, 12-hour days. She gained a pile of money. She lost a disgruntled husband. Then her teen-age daughter suffered an unrelated psychological breakdown.
One day Nix, who asked that her real name not be used, tried to coax the withdrawn girl to recall some of the family’s good times.
“Mom,” her daughter said, “you were never home.”
Such stories, drenched in guilt and anger, contributed to a 48-day strike last fall by 57,000 Boeing machinists. Some of the strikers carried picket signs demanding stricter limits on overtime with slogans such as, “Do your children know what you look like?”
Life at Boeing–where the company now promises to limit overtime to a mere 144 hours every three months–is an extreme example of the pressure overtime work can generate. Yet late in the afternoon each day in many offices and factories, the same kind of tension gurgles in the stomachs of hundreds of thousands of employees who pray that they won’t be asked or ordered to work overtime–and those who are equally hopeful that they will.
America’s work force has a love-hate relationship with overtime. On one side are people desperate for more money. On the other are people desperate for more personal time.
13. After the fire’s out, go back. Watch what happened here long after a nasty strike was settled and the media turned its attention elsewhere:
Eleven weeks after its pilots and flight attendants ended a 29-day strike, United Airlines continues to be plagued by a nasty little war of nerves between many of those who joined the strike and the far smaller number who crossed picket lines.
A substantial number of former strikers are engaged in a calculated campaign–endorsed by some leaders of their union, the Air Line Pilots Assn.–to ostracize the “scabs,” whose refusal to strike helped United maintain about 15% of its flights. That kept the pilots’ union from its strategically critical goal of shutting down the nation’s largest airline.
Patrick Flanagan, chairman of the union’s San Francisco council, explained the tactic in a letter written to pilots in his region five weeks after the strike ended.
“You must reprogram your interpersonal methods of operation” in associating with pilots who refused to strike, Flanagan wrote. “Our wrath and rage should be properly directed towards those who were willing to take our jobs.”
Compared to many labor disputes, the rage has been directed subtly. Still, it has created some surprising situations among a class of workers whose average salary is $90,000 a year, and who have been regarded as lukewarm to the concept of union solidarity.
For example, Ron Ashcraft is a co-pilot, which means that he flies in the plane’s right-hand seat, beside the captain. Protocol among pilots is that the captain allows the co-pilot to land the plane on alternate legs of a flight. But Ashcraft, who crossed the picket line, said that no captain who struck has turned the controls over to him since the strike ended. Union members admit that a small number of captains who supported the strike have vowed with a vengeance that they will never let a “scab” co-pilot handle the plane again.
14. Miss the story? Get it next time–plan ahead. This didn’t come off a beat experience but I always thought my editor made a sharp call: Los Angeles always has people shooting into the air on New Year’s Eve, and one year somebody got killed. My city editor told me on January 2 or 3: Write an advance for next New Year’s Eve. So I had about 360 days to save string, and it paid off with this story the following December 29:
The rural community of Cherryville, N.C., and the metropolis of Southern California will celebrate New Year’s Eve the same way this week–with loud bursts of gunfire.
The only difference is that in Cherryville the folks have enough sense to stage the centuries-old custom of “shooting in” the new year, a tradition they inherited from the town’s German settlers. A ceremonial musket-toting procession will go door to door all night, firing powder-filled caps into the air.
Here, by contrast, Rule No. 1 is that there are no rules. The firing will be spontaneous, continuous and uninhibited, as though it were 1888 rather than 1988 and millions of people weren’t densely clustered.
And the darndest thing will happen: the same bullets that go up in the air will come down.
They’ll come down from as high as 10,000 feet with enormous force, enough to easily penetrate the skin and sometimes to shatter bones, even after smashing through a roof.
If recent history is any guide, a dozen or more people in Los Angeles and Orange counties will be wounded by the random fallout of thousands of shots from pistols, shotguns and automatic weapons that turn the night into a war zone for about half an hour each year, starting at around 11:45 p.m.
Law enforcement agencies will ground their helicopters. Last year, even that didn’t help. Somebody who started celebrating early hit a flying Los Angeles police chopper around 10 p.m.
Police will be very wary about responding to calls of “shots fired,” in many cases refusing to do so unless there is proof of injury. Last year in Santa Ana the sheer volume of calls paralyzed police. So many calls came in that the department’s switchboard went into what officials called “electronic gridlock.”
15. Read “The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle” (published this month by RuggedLand). Historical novelist Steven Pressfield has written a 158-page book on the central problem in the writer’s life: Starting. Pressfield, whose books include “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” calls this principle “resistance.” Frustrated beat reporters who know they ought to be doing more enterprise work will understand immediately:
“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.
“Have you ever brought home a treadmill and let it gather dust in the attic? Ever resolved on a diet, a course of yoga, a meditation practice? Have you ever felt a call to embark upon a spiritual practice, dedicate yourself to a humanitarian calling, commit your life to the service of others? Have you ever wanted to be a mother, a doctor, an advocate for the weak and helpless; to run for office, crusade for the planet, campaign for world peace or to preserve the environment?
“Late at night have you experienced a vision of the person you might become, the work you could accomplish, the realized being you were meant to be? Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.”
Are you a beat reporter who is bogged down in dailies when you know there are great gobs of enterprise waiting to be done? Then you, too, know what Resistance is. Go beat it. Pressfield’s book is a start.