A former editor whom I hold in high esteem once said: You can put a reporter in a room, and in five minutes, he will know what is going on, and what the story is.
In an ideal world, this is true, and I have gotten by by winging it more times than I am proud of (e.g. hung over, lacking sleep, and in the clothes I slept in). Sometimes, though, you get handed something like this, which is winging it by way of Icarus:
Angara said he and labor committee co-chair Davao Rep. Prospero Nograles will continue both investigations to take appropriate actions against the company’s alleged violations of the labor code. DOLE-National Capital Region Director Alex Avila’s initial report on Friday stated that Kentex used a subcontractor that was not registered with the department to hire its workers, 70 of whom died in the May 13 fire.
The problem with winging it, and getting away with winging it, is that you might assume (for some reason) that the Philippine legislature is unicameral, and that Prospero Nograles — former House speaker and losing candidate for Davao City mayor — is still district representative of Davao City instead of his son.
I am a firm believer in the value of specialization. More than (presumably) knowing how to write, the most important asset that a reporter has is his knowledge of the history, organization, and culture of the institution that he covers.
Having a beat, and knowing your beat (and, from another editor whom I also hold in high esteem but whom I have never formally met, respecting it) will help you put a story in its proper context. Knowing, for example, how a senator has acted and voted in the past, and comparing that with how he is acting and voting now, could help you help the reader understand an issue better.
Otherwise, you will have to rely on Google and secondary sources for background on a story, which is often not the same thing as context.
There is nothing quite like being there and, to be honest, there are times when there is nothing else but being there.
With the Internet, you don’t even have to actually be there, but you have to be present at least in having the presence of mind to read up on a subject and knowing why it matters, or why it should.
It is increasingly easy now to just phone it in, and that is the worst kind of winging it, because although you will get away with it for a while, it is only a matter of time before you lead someone astray because they trusted you to know more, and care more, about an issue than they did.
If you’re not going to make the effort to deliver, then it’s best to forget deadlines, lose the byline, and be a reader instead.