Having rushed out of work at 6 o’clock on the dot and gotten off at the wrong Metro stop, I power-walked toward last week’s writing class still a little skeptical. Truthfully, I had expected little from a free course with America’s Future Foundation. Indeed, when I learned that there would be a speaker every week, I assumed that no one interesting would want to talk to my classmates and me.
Then a surprise came. In the third week of the course, RealClearPolitics White House correspondent Alexis Simendinger visited the class.
I soon found out that the week’s speaker had a long and expansive career in journalism; she has covered four presidents, beginning with George H. W. Bush.
But before sharing stories of the presidents and insights from her long time in Washington, Simendinger explained how she had begun her career in Tampa, Florida. She covered courts and cops — and collected a master’s in journalism and a few years of experience — before moving to D.C.
Simendinger went around the room asking each of us who we were and what we read in our free time. Accompanied by a nice dinner from Cosi, she guided the class through the basics of “news reporting.”
Luckily, she began from the beginning briskly covering “the 5 W’s” (who, what, where, when, why and how — for those, like me, not so well versed in the lingo) before moving onto inverted pyramid structure.
She explained that because writers were never sure what parts of their articles would be published or trimmed, articles were structured like an inverted pyramid. The most important information was put in the first few sentences. The less crucial parts of the story were placed farther down the article where the odds of survival were lower. Simendinger also gave my classmates and I simple tips like “quantify anything you can” and reminded us to vet our sources.
But the discussion went far beyond the basic mechanics of journalism.
Simendinger stressed that, regardless of what topic was being covered, it was crucial to find a “human to tell the story.” Whether discussing the most intricate details of the Export-Import Bank or the impact of Obamacare on the economy, finding a person to help tell the story would dramatically improve the quality of any news article.
We had been assigned piece after piece that tackled major issues through the lens of the individual. We were pointed to one article that focused on ransoms for terrorists in the Middle East and Africa. But, instead of addressing the issue as a disinterested academic, the author approached the difficult topic through the eyes of those who had been kidnapped by terrorists and ransomed by their governments. Hammering the point home, Simendinger wisely recommended that we always interview people for our stories.
The conversation gradually moved to Simendinger’s own career as a journalist and stories from her time reporting at 1600 Penn. She told us how each president had run for office as the political antithesis of the previous presidency. She pointed out how, following on the heels of the second Bush Administration, President Obama ran for office promising the most transparent administration ever. When he settled in the Oval Office, however, things changed rapidly. Keeping the NSA spying scandal and Obama’s drone policy in mind, she added, it seems he had abandoned his earlier commitment to openness.
Simendinger also gave our class a few tips about pitching stories for publication. She said that any news story should add something new. She qualified her statement adding that it was often difficult to predict which stories would be most successful.
She recalled that a colleague once wrote up a history of vermin in the White House after seeing a cockroach in the White House press room. That story became the most popular one he ever wrote.