Use your own head

Executive Editor Jim Montague implores us to think and act like a reporter, don’t trust opinions (including mine and yours), remember to take all stories with a grain of salt, and of course, don't despair.

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Jim Montague, Executive EditorBy Jim Montague, Executive Editor

I REALLY hate columnists. Puffed up with the gas of fermenting expertise, most swell like bagpipes, Whoopee cushions or large intestines, and can spout sage wisdom and sublime thoughts on many topics. However, to me, it usually looks like just another lazy attempt to phone in another column, and get paid for little or no work. Talk is cheap, and generalized opinions and unspecific advice are the cheapest of all.

Do I sound jealous? Well, sure. That’s because I’m not an expert. I have no reservoir of knowledge to drawn on. As a reporter and editor, I’ve always had to go out and find the sources and experts for virtually every story I ever wrote and many of those I edited. But I can’t do it any other way because I don’t know enough on my own. So, I’m naturally a little envious of those who can talk extemporaneously, and write without reporting. Still, I think I’ve had to listen and learn more about what’s actually happening. I’m just a conduit for people on the plant-floors or whatever community I’m covering, whether defined by technology, profession, or geography.

So what can I tell you? Have I stored up any overall knowledge or gathered any common threads after 8½ years of covering industrial control and automation? Certainly, just give me a second to inflate, I mean, inhale.

First, try to think and act like a reporter. Treat areas of your professional and personal life as reporting exercises. Go out, interview folks at the scene, try to be friendly and helpful, answer the reporter’s classic questions (who? what? why? when? where? and how?), and write it up with concrete nouns and active verbs in a few clear, prioritized paragraphs.

The payoff for asking enough questions is (ta da!) answers, which are often surprising, entertaining, highly counterintuitive and enlightening. For example, when seeking cable and connector trends for this issue’s feature, I was reminded that going wireless actually requires more cables and connectors both on the sensor/transmitter side and at the receiver/data processing end. Similarly, this issue’s cover story ["Traing, Tips and Techniques"] shows that inadequate training can actually make Ethernet more costly than other networking systems.

Second, don’t trust opinions (including mine and yours) of anyone who apparently hasn’t gotten up, gone out, and found out what’s going on for himself. Even reporters usually wait around to be told what the story is. See the police reporters in the classic movie, His Girl Friday, with Cary Grant and Greer Garson, who do nothing but play cards until their phones ring. Today’s less-amusing examples include the endless parades of celebrity drivel, tear-jerking shock trials, revolving/conflicting health breakthroughs, “How Clean Are Those Hotel Sheets?” and most wars, which serve to distract U.S. citizens and taxpayers from the fact that many of their pension funds and health care insurance are poised to vanish faster than you can say Savings and Loan debacle and Resolution Trust Corp. Remember?        

Third, take all published stories with a large grain of salt. Even the best, most conscientious efforts are snapshots that are constrained by time and context. Just because it’s in print doesn’t mean it’s written in stone. I’ve always thought many readers might trust the media more and resent it less, if they participated more in governing their communities, and didn’t rely solely on media accounts that consequently made them feel somewhat captive. I’ve also found that people don’t mind paying taxes as much when they attend the budget/spending meetings of the taxing bodes that affect them. There are always plenty of seats, and most boards are starved for public input because they’re unsure about many decisions, and feel guilty if they just try to look busy.          

Fourth, don’t despair because it’s also a self-focused opinion that’s probably wrong too. (Ha!) Every 10th or 12th person will have something useful or even priceless to say, which will more than make up for all uncommunicative, unimaginative ding-a-lings in between. In fact, many boneheads will almost involuntarily come up with some useful input if you ask them a bunch of questions, and then give them time to percolate. Editors are a fine example. Burp!

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