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April 1, 2013

Hot Off the Press: Jonathan D. Silver, Investigative Reporter (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Jonathan D. Silver, investigative reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Jonathan D. Silver, investigative reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

As for my writing career, I started off reading comic books, that great American art form. The X-Men taught me great vocabulary. My father worked for 35 years as a television writer, editor and producer for NBC in New York City so I had journalism in my genes. I didn’t want to go into journalism at all until the end of my freshman year at Cornell University. I was a pre-veterinary student but opted out when I realized it wasn’t for me. Plus I had allergies. And I almost killed a chicken. But that’s another story. I got heavily involved in my college paper, eventually spending 40 hours a week there. From there I went to an internship at the Orange County Register in southern California on the business desk. That allowed me to work in London for the AP-Dow Jones News Service covering corporate markets and precious metals. I left for a four-year stint at the Madison Capital Times in Madison, WI, where I was a business reporter and assistant city editor. From there I returned to AP-Dow Jones as bureau chief in Caracas, Venezuela. I left there about 17 years ago for my current position at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

-Jonathan D. Silver

1. Today it seems that everyone is capable of capturing news and reporting it. Camera phones, blogs, and social media networks allow people to gather facts, organize those facts, and disseminate it. Did the amount of journalists in the world increase, or are there still certain skills that make a journalist a journalist?

Without a doubt there has been an explosion in the number of so-called “citizen journalists” thanks to technology and the Internet. These citizen journalists have risen to prominence most notably overseas in situations involving documentation of government/military/police repression. Their reports hit the web and go viral. Cell phones and other recording devices have become invaluable for documenting human rights abuses. Just because someone can snap a picture or take video, however, does not mean that person is transformed instantaneously into a “journalist.” Indeed,  there are skills that make a journalist a journalist. While we don’t go to med school or law school and, frankly, many of us (myself included) don’t even go to journalism school, we learn on the job over the course of years. Journalism requires skepticism, idealism, aggressiveness, persistence, intelligence, creativity and other traits. Then all of that information needs to be assembled, often quickly, in a coherent, readable fashion. We must be fair and accurate. We must be careful not to libel or defame our subjects. We must not misrepresent ourselves. We follow a non-uniform but generally agreed-upon code of ethics. Merely gathering facts, voicing opinions and taking pictures does not a journalist make. Thankfully there are also plenty of aspiring journalists in the U.S. who work at their high school and college papers, take journalism courses and snag limited — hence coveted — internships each summer. So there continues to be a proliferation of journalists in this country who are undergoing either formal training at a journalism graduate school or in college, or are learning while doing in the field.

2. What has been the highlight of your career?

My career has had numerous personal highlights. I’m reluctant to pick one so I’ll run through a few. I was fortunate, early in my career, to work in London and later in Caracas, Venezuela. Those overseas postings had a tremendous impact on my career and my life. The current storyline I’m covering involving a scandal at the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police has been exciting. I worked for several years on the investigation into the crash of US Airways Flight 427, which happened in 1994. Several colleagues and I put together a special section on the crash of United Flight 93 on 9/11, the plane that went down outside Shanksville, PA. And early in my time at the Post-Gazette I did a long profile on Pittsburgh Steelers hall-of-famer Mike Webster, who was undergoing massive personal turmoil.

3. Out of all the careers that are available for writers, what attracted you to journalism?

Journalism allowed me to witness historical moments, be in the middle of the action and write about it. It’s an idealistic profession, and ideally one believes, as I do, the old adage about journalists comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Every day I come to work wondering what information I can ferret out to  shine a spotlight on government to expose misdeeds or wrongdoing and, in so doing, stick up for the proverbial little guy — ie. people like you and me.

4. Recently, you have been covering the misappropriation of Pittsburgh Bureau of Police funds. How do you approach a story of that magnitude?

Very carefully with lots of sourcing, documentation and thought. Every morning my colleagues and I get together to assemble a to-do list for that day. We have had so many leads to chase down that it was starting to become unwieldy, so we became methodical in our approach. Spreadsheets help. And for me, a messy desk is (usually) my friend. It doesn’t work for everyone, but I find it helpful. We’ve had a lot of late nights. Most importantly, we begin each day with confidence that we are going to uncover some new information that we’ll be able to get in print. Usually, despite all of our planning, around 4 or 5 p.m. something happens — a source will call, unexpected information will come our way, news develops — that causes us  to scrap all of our earlier plans.

5. What advice can you give reporters who want to improve their writing?

Advice for writers can be summed up in two words: Read. Write. Read anything and everything you can – fiction, non-fiction, essays etc. Look at how other writers structure their stories. Read Hemingway, Naipaul, Talese. Read magazines, newspapers, books. And then write. Write, write, write. Try to find your own voice. Learn the inverted pyramid. Once you know the rules and can follow them, then you can break them. The most important thing about clean, well-structured writing is well-structured thinking. Do your homework and know your subject. The more you know, the more authoritatively you can write. Eliminate superfluous attribution. Abolish cliches. Whittle down quotes.