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Essays and posts exploring the state of journalism, teaching and nonfiction storytelling.

  • Writer's pictureTracy Dahlby

Traveling to the Heart of a Story with Tracy Dahlby

Updated: Sep 22, 2018

Anna Casey produced this 2017 podcast of our conversation for The Center for News Excellence & Engagement-- a project of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. I reprise it now for students of journalism who are jazzed about the prospect of reporting from far-flung places. Click to hear the podcast.

Winter at the Summer Palace, Beijing, 1978

By Anna Casey

Tracy Dahlby is author of “Into the Field: A Foreign Correspondent’s Notebook” and is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas in Austin. Born in a working class neighborhood in Seattle, Dahlby spent much of his journalism career across the world, reporting and editing stories in Asia. He has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek and the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review. In this podcast, he discusses the importance of “eyes on the ground” reporting in the social media age, and offers tips for aspiring journalists. Whether you cover City Hall or a foreign country, Dahlby says to “suck that place into your bones,” and the story that you set out to find will be nothing like the one that finds you.

Below are some highlights from the interview with time stamps in case you want to skip ahead. Responses have been edited for brevity. You can hear the entire podcast by clicking the SoundCloud link above.

What is “long-distance reporting?” (2:06)


Today, so much of the reporting that we do is derivative in some way. We’re responding to a tweet, we’re responding to a Facebook post, we’re responding to a flood of information, and that’s okay as long as we manage that well. But I think reporting becomes really interesting when you go to a place that is unique in terms of time and location, and you can tell people back home what that place is all about, why it’s important, and to do it with a degree of complexity that folks normally don’t get with their everyday newsfeed.

With the rise of social media, it’s as if we have “eyes on the ground” all over the world. Why is it important to have a reporter’s eyes on the ground? (3:37) 

Many people are much more aware of headlines and world events than they ever have been. The difficulty comes in trying to see into those situations farther than the headlines permit, to see where news happens and to understand things in a complex and textured way. And that’s a more difficult message to get through Twitter and Facebook than it is through long-distance, painstaking reporting that is done with a purpose. And the purpose is to try to tell folks back home what’s really going on in a level that takes them below the surface. 

Visiting a Dayak longhouse, Kalimantan, Indonesia, 1999 (Photo by Norman Wibowo)

You did a lot of in-depth reporting in Indonesia and research leading up to your trip. Can you talk about your level of preparation? (5:00) 

I started going there in the late 1990s for a story that I was doing for National Geographic magazine. And I found the place so compelling that the magazine story became a book, so I spent several years looking pretty closely at Indonesia…I tried to create what one of my mentors said is really like creating a graduate seminar for one student and that student is you… with Indonesia I read books, I tried to find those “gurus” in New York, where I was living at the time, who I could talk to either in person or over the phone. I did a lot of reading – books, news articles, anything that I could get my hands on… By the time you sort of get all that done you’re more or less ready to go. Then you hop on a plane and a day and a half later you’re in Jakarta and you start realizing that all of that work you did was wonderful preparation for a story that’s now going to give you a message that’s 180 degrees different than most of the preparation you’ve done.  But without the preparation and without the framework, you wouldn’t be able to make those comparisons and contrasts. So what you studied before you go will be different than when you get there on the ground. That contradiction though is very helpful to a reporter, because that’s usually where you find the story.  

Are there things that you learned as a long-distance reporter that people could apply here in the United States? (9:33)

What you want to do, particularly if you want to be a journalist, is to suck that place into your bones to learn everything you can about it. To learn about its arts and letters, to learn about its politics, its economy…at the end of that you have a fingertips understanding of the way that place works and then you can take that as a model…I think great reporters in the United States who never report from abroad do the same thing. They’re assigned to the court house, and they learn everything they can about the courthouse… Each place that I had been to last helped me prepare for the next place.  

Are there places that you feel are overlooked by U.S. journalists? (12:18) 

One of the places we could do a better job is in the United States itself.  I think we saw that in the wake of the recent presidential election. I think the press was kind of tearing our hair out and beating our chest because we did miss important parts of the story that contributed to the election results. The fact that there were a lot of underreported aspects of communities and the way people felt, the kind of realities they were facing in their lives, the lack of jobs and opportunities and all the rest of it that contributed to a gestalt that in some cases the press overlooked. 

How can aspiring journalists balance new digital reporting tools with traditional “shoe leather reporting?” (15:54)

If we were looking for a phone number 30 years ago, we had to go back to the morgue in the newsroom where they kept all of the dead trees and go through all of the physical telephone books. Today if you can’t find a phone number in 60 seconds online it’s unusual. The digital tools are great, the problem is trying to harness them to the kind of things you want to find out… I really think it’s the critical thinking that directs us in finding out what are the important stories to tell.

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