The 8 Types of Capitol Hill Reporters
Want to get a reaction in Washington D.C. media?
We might have been a bit harsh, but at Roll Call such stories about staffers and the important work they do are a mainstay of what we cover.
But all’s fair in love and journalism, so we decided to point the pen in our direction. While both of us still can’t believe that we get paid to do our jobs, we recognize that the Capitol Hill press corps can be a thorny bunch (and yes, we might be guilty of at least some of the following hack sins).
So, by popular request, nominations from the Twitterverse, and a few suggestions from good-humored congressional flacks, here are the eight types of Capitol Hill reporters.
1. The Ladder-Climbing Hack: Hill staffers aren’t the only ones who see their jobs as stepping stones. This journalist will do whatever it takes to end up on the White House beat, land a show on cable news, or be named the heir-apparent to take over Playbook when Mike Allen retires. But a ladder-climbing hack likes contacts, so you’re apt to get a “hello” and friendly handshake if you cross paths on the reception circuit.
Our suggested approach: Proceed with caution. This climber might help you get a good quote placed today but will step on your head tomorrow if it means another rung on the ladder.
2. I-Tweet-Therefore-I-Am Hack: When do these “reporters” have time to write? They’re tweeting their off-handed comments at every whim, only taking breaks to do a television hit. Even then, we can’t see their fingers, so we don’t know what they’re really doing below the chyron.
Our suggested approach: Whatever you do, do not engage on Twitter — that’s a conversation you’re not likely to win. Establish ground rules early, “on background” and “off the record” mean different things to different reporters. And be prepared for your news to travel fast, even before it’s fact-checked and/or edited.
3. The Been-There, Done-That Hack: No longer a doe-eyed reporter fresh out of J-School, this journalist has either become cynical after years of covering the ins and outs of Congress, or depressed by the rapid changes technology has brought to the newsroom (Remember the fax machine? Some of us do). This journalist covered George W. Bush’s failed efforts to change Social Security, the 1994 midterms and the government shutdowns in the Newt Gingrich years. As a result, this veteran likely concluded that everything that’s happened since 2010 is just a rehash of earlier times and will yawn at most of your pitches.
Our suggested approach: Brush up on your history. The seasoned hack has seen a lot of changes to an industry still near and dear to the heart (otherwise, let’s be honest, the jump would have been made to the flack corps by now). Your respect will go a long way in building a lasting relationship. And while it’s the young reporters who star in “House of Cards” and get birthdays listed in Playbook, it is the veterans who are churning out great news on a daily basis, and you’d be wise to have your boss be part of that.
4. The Trade-Publication-You’ve-Never-Heard-Of Hack: Does your boss want press on a great idea she has to change the way some obscure industry works? This is the reporter for you. Unfortunately, you may have no idea who this person is and the publication in question might have a website that looks like it’s from 1995. But if your office has a strong legislative team and you’ve got a good pitch, this reporter can be your favorite, even if you have no idea what the readers of such a reporter look like.
Our suggested approach: Know your material going in and don’t fake it ’till you make it with these reporters. If they peg you as someone who is all spin, your calls will soon be going straight to voice mail. If you don’t know an answer, ‘fess up and promise you’ll find out. In the world of Wikipedia, most of the information you need is a few clicks away. If you do get your boss in the story, prepare to be amazed at how many people later congratulate you on getting such a great piece placed.
5. The Ideological-Warrior Hack: This journalist started out running a partisan blog or writing for an openly ideological magazine, and then was picked up by a traditional media outlet to provide political commentary. The warrior tries to hide obvious political leanings behind newly minted press credentials, but a quick scroll through the old Twitter feed and you can see the opinions haven’t been left too far behind.
Our suggested approach: If you don’t share the worldview, it doesn’t hurt to decline the interview. Sure, this particular reporter might take it the wrong way, but it’s unlikely there was going to be a flattering write-up in the first place.
6. The Party Hack: The kind of reporter who typically writes best after a hard drink, or two (hey, it worked for Hemingway!) But on Capitol Hill, this party hack is better known for socializing than prose. The partier is everywhere about town nearly every evening, hopping between happy hours as soon as deadline is done, and sometimes before. This reporter is also usually most likely to date a source.
Our suggested approach: Schmoozing is the key to this hack’s heart, or liver. But make sure to also keep up contact before drink specials to maintain professionalism. And a word to the wise: Try and keep the drinks conversation off the record whenever possible.
7. The Ego Hack: This is the reporter who starts a phone conversation with, “Sorry it’s taken me so long to reach out. I was just on MSNBC.” Sure, nearly every reporter on Capitol Hill has some healthy ego; it comes with the byline. But the ego hack makes it abundantly clear just how highly you should regard his or her degree of loftiness. (Hint: very high.)
Our suggested approach: Stroke that ego gently, just enough to play along. At some point, skill level will catch up self-esteem. And if it doesn’t, the ego minder isn’t likely to last very long — either in journalism or in Washington.
8. The Edward R. Murrow-In-Training Hack: This journalist takes the job seriously and understands the symbiotic relationship between hacks and flacks. They respect that people get their jobs done more effectively by working together. You won’t always like what the Murrow acolyte writes, and this hack won’t always like it when you can’t comment, but mutual trust is easily built. Murrow Jr. will end up giving you as much background information and gossip as you provide. This reporter might not end up a household name, but is the type of person who will be around for awhile.
Our suggested approach: Keep nurturing the relationship over time. Read what this hack writes, even the stories when your boss isn’t mentioned, and help out whenever you can. And don’t burn bridges. It’s a bad idea to do in any case. But it’s even worse if you have a good reporter who plans on sticking around D.C., long after your boss is gone.