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Control Report from Jim Montague: Willing to bug

Jan. 25, 2023
Fresh details and innovations are out there. We just have to ask—and likely ask again

More than 40 years ago, I attended a college lecture by the editor of a big-time, mainstream magazine. I think it was Seventeen, and I remember she advised against covering any beat for more than two years. I didn’t know what she meant until I started attending and writing about heritage days or whatever other local festivals for several years in a row.

As you might guess, the prospect of covering more of the same for years into the future could be more than a little frightening. And later, it was beyond scary to realize that switching beats was no solution because most local events and issues are basically the same. I’m sure it’s the main reason most reporters are young and most editors are old.

Likewise, I once asked a veteran French teacher how he could stand going over the same material year after year? He said it was the students and their responses that were always different, and kept his curriculum new and interesting. Later, I interviewed a high school principal, who looked like he was in his mid-40s, but turned out to be in his late 70s. He too said it was the kids who kept him young. This is no doubt the same as holidays and other wonders that are best experienced by young eyes or at least as nearby parents or grandparents.

Consequently, when I’m faced with another year of covering Control’s mostly identical editorial topics, it’s very useful to recall these and many other predecessors. Granted, I’m researching and reporting on sustainability, edge computing, Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), data analytics, cybersecurity and wireless yet again. However, I’m always reminded that most of the people I interview and their responses and innovations are new and different as these overall topics evolve.

I know I’m just a conduit for whatever readers want to know about what’s going on in their geographic backyards or professional communities. I merely enable the essential discussions and information exchange that needs to happen between my sources and their readers. Everyone wants to know whose bike got stolen, what their neighbor’s house sold for, how to setup a wireless network, or how to achieve and maintain cybersecurity. Their interest and collective focus is what keeps everything fresh.

So how can we breathe new life into old topics and other projects? Well, the first task is finding and talking to as many new sources as possible. Long-established experts have useful know-how, but it’s the newer players that have the hunger and incentive to innovate.

Either way, it can be daunting to talk to new people. I remember having a terrible crisis of confidence before my first person-on-the-street interview in the about 1985 outside a supermarket in a small town. Who was I to pester anyone with silly questions? But the job had to get done, so I did it. Even after more than 10,000 interviews since then, I still get that guilty twinge about bugging people. However, as always, the job still has to get done.

The good news is, after the first dozen or more people refuse to be interviewed, their reluctance is more than made up for by the few individuals who are open, willing to talk, and almost always provide useful input. It never fails and it’s always a good investment. Whether we’re fishing or researching a topic, we just have to patient and cast a wide net.

Secondly, seeking useful details and serving as the information exchange for any community becomes routine over time, and can take on a ritual quality. Doing the dishes or other chores, or writing a police blotter, products section or magazine story may not be as fancy as the Japanese tea ceremony. However, I’ve been told that any activity can be a form of meditation.

The other good news is that seeking useful details eventually reveals deeper layers in topics we thought were familiar and pretty much exhausted. Just like a good interview, some unanticipated innovation or other surprise will show up when we least expect it. All that’s required is just a teaspoon of desire and bravery to go look for it.

About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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