What Keeps a Journalist Passionate About Reporting on a Long-Running Story?

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April 1 2014 9:04 AM

What Keeps a Journalist Passionate About Working on a Long-Running Story?

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Charles Duhigg, staff writer at the New York Times, author of The Power of Habit:


I find there are two things that keep me going.

First, there's an emerging fascination with a topic the more you learn about it. When I started working on the iEconomy series, for example, about Apple's supply chains in Asia and the factories that manufacture iPhones in China, I really didn't know (or, for that matter, care) much about electronics manufacturing. But each world unfolds like a puzzle the deeper you get inside. Soon, I understood the tradeoffs between just-in-time deliveries and just-in-time workforces, and how dramatically that could influence the pace of innovation. I learned why memory chips manufactured on one continent sometimes worked better, but slower, than those manufactured elsewhere and how that influences industrial design. I became fascinated by the details—and I've found this has happened again and again, whether I'm writing about water pollution or the housing finance markets. Learning becomes interesting unto itself.

But, to be honest, that's not enough to keep me going. Learning is cocktail party fodder. To become committed to a series, I have to find something that taps into a deep, unrelenting sense of anger and injustice. When people die manufacturing electronics, that seems like it should be scrutinized. When people become sick because their water supplies have been polluted by nearby companies, that seems like it should be scrutinized. When finance types reap millions (and billions) building a system that extracts its toll from first-time homeowners, that seems like it should be scrutinized. I am not saying that those fact patterns alone deserve anger; I'm not claiming they are unjust. Oftentimes, they are simply outgrowths of how the world works, with no blame or favor to go around.

But sometimes when bad things happen, they are not inevitable. And at those moments—when there is a better choice, a better way, a more just alternative that has been ignored or unseen or willingly pushed away—I find in myself in an emotional frame of mind that makes it much easier to wake up early and charge hard all day.

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