Michael Scherer is TIME magazine’s Washington D.C. Bureau Chief. He joined TIME in December of 2007 and became the magazine’s White House correspondent following the 2008 campaign. He has written a number of cover stories in recent years, including The Informers, The Gunfighters, The New Sheriffs of Wall Street and Yo Decido: the Rise of the Latino Voter. He won the 2012 National Press Club’s Lee Walczak Award for Political Analysis for his series on how the Obama campaign harnessed technology to win the Presidential race. Before coming to TIME, he worked as a Washington Correspondent for both Salon.com and Mother Jones magazine, and as a beat reporter for the Daily Hampshire Gazette of Northampton, Mass.
An Interview with Sam Skopp
After graduating from U.C. Santa Cruz with a degree in literature and creative writing, Michael Scherer entered the working world as a beat reporter for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Massachusetts. He has since worked for Salon.com, Mother Jones and Time. Initially working for Time on the campaign trail during the 2008 election, he is now Time’s Washington D.C. Bureau Chief. Scherer was awarded the 2012 National Press Club’s Lee Walczak Award for Political Analysis for a series on the use of technology in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.
I spoke with him after attending two Q&A sessions for journalism and creative writing students where he spoke as part of a panel alongside Nick Miroff, writer for The Washington Post, and Martha Mendoza, Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press journalist. I had a chance to ask him just how he made the transition from being a literature student to writing for major news publications, as well as go over some of the challenges that come with being a journalist.
Sam Skopp: What kind of student were you at UC Santa Cruz?
Micahel Scherer: Initially not very focused, and bored. Then, in my junior and senior years I was pretty serious. I became someone who tried to pick hard classes and push myself harder than I wanted. I became very serious, but it took me a while to get there. I was here two quarters freshman year and then I took a quarter off backpacking and another quarter traveling Europe. When I came back, I got re-settled and re-focused. When I graduated, I think I had done well in my classes. But I never thought about my career until I graduated. I just thought about working really hard and figuring out how to learn this stuff.
SS: How is journalism different than writing fiction? What went into journalism that you might not have been expecting?
MS: There are conventions and a structure to newspaper or magazine stories that I had to learn that really isn’t present in fiction. So it’s a very different style of writing, and there’s a formula you have to learn, and then once you learn the formula, you start improvising on it. Initially I was a newspaper guy, and I was a very straight newspaper guy. I didn’t get to do literary stories. I wasn’t doing magazine pieces or anything like that. But yeah, it is very different. I think what Nick [Miroff] said was right, there’s an artistic element to writing for a magazine or newspaper, but it’s not art. It’s different than, you know, trying to write a poem or short story in which you’re trying to create something and enter it into the world. You’re writing this stuff and you’re trying to make something great, but you’re working for somebody. You’re doing a job, and they’re paying you, and you have an editor. It’s not entirely your own work. It’s not the same category of stuff.
SS: Does the specific publication you’re writing for influence what you end up writing? For instance, if you were given an assignment by Time, and that same assignment by Mother Jones, would your end product be at all different?
MS: Yeah, I mean, the biggest difference is between newspapers and magazines, but then different magazines have different styles of stories. I think, at Time, I do lots of genres of stories, so all of my stories are not the same genre, and the overlap with Mother Jones is pretty similar. I think the stories I do at Time and the stories I do at Mother Jones are similar. I think the difference is that in Mother Jones it was an issue of the topics. I think if you took my stories from Mother Jones they could run in Time, but the topic selection of Mother Jones was narrower than what Time writes on, because Mother Jones is writing for a liberal audience, about a specific type—or at least when I was there, it was about a specific type of outrage, or problem. You know, someone’s doing something wrong, there’s a big scandal here, a big scandal there, sort of investigative work along those lines. But yeah, a straight news story and a magazine story are totally different, and there are some magazine stories I write that are reporting delivery vehicles and there are some that are storytelling vehicles and there are some that are far more in-voice than others.
SS: When you say “in-voice,” are you describing a particular sort of journalistic voice that you bring to your stories?
MS: Yeah, so voice means how long your sentences are, how casual they are, how much fun you’re having with the writing. And it matters a great deal. Finding a voice that’s appropriate for the story is often the hardest part of magazine writing. I mean, they’re all my voice, but some stories are just more serious and solemn, or more technical, so they have to be written that way. Some stories are just yarns, some stories are funny, and they should be written funny. A lot of the job is trying to figure out how to write different ones.
SS: When you’re given a new assignment, do you feel that—maybe not so much anymore, but maybe when you were starting out—that you tend to go in with expectations about your subject, or about what you’re going to end up writing?
MS: Yes, I think by default you kind of go into a story with a thesis, and there’s plenty of times where the thesis changes as you’re reporting the story. And there’s other times where the thesis is so different that you just abandon the story. For every story I do, there’s another I don’t do, just because it doesn’t pan out. It’s just not there, or it’s just not happening. You know, you think something really interesting is happening in some place, but it turns out it’s just not.
SS: For political writing, I think it’s pretty clear that your audience tends to be opinionated. There are a lot of people with strong opinions. Do you expose yourself to that, for example, by reading the comments sections of your articles?
MS: I don’t actually. I used to, initially. When blogs first came out, I would spend a lot of time in the comments, and I would reply to them. Since Twitter came out, I kind of have given up on comments. I don’t really read them now, because I feel like the conversation’s moved to Twitter. I get a lot of hostile or friendly tweets after my stories, and I read them. And there’s that kind of response from a stranger somewhere you’ll never meet, and there’s a lot of feedback you get from sources and people in whatever world you’re writing about, and there’s a lot of energy spent. I spend a lot of energy digesting that, because it’s important to know you’re not wrong, even after you’ve published. Like take the criticism and process it and figure out if there’s a point there, or if there’s a factual issue, or if you missed something. I consume as much as I can. In 2007-2008 I spent a lot of time in comments, but now just Twitter. If someone really wants to get angry at me, it’s either there or they write a vicious attack on their own blog.
SS: You’ve written profiles on these big figures, like Edward Snowden, Mike Bloomberg or Joe Biden, for example. I’ve noticed you incorporate both these people’s human element as well as the side they show to the public. How do you find that balance between human and public persona?
MS: I think the task of a magazine story is to tell a human story. So you take a policy issue or something like that and you turn it into sort of an elemental tale—a mythical tale in some way—and you do that by finding details that make whatever your subject is really come to life for your reader. So yeah, I think in profiles it’s a huge part of the task to turn them into real people. And they are real people, and in my job you get access to people in ways that, you know, Snowden returns my emails. But he doesn’t return many people’s emails. I can go to Europe with Bloomberg and basically spend three days walking around with him, and other people don’t get to do that. So I have a responsibility to deliver, to kind of bring readers into it. A good magazine story takes the reader somewhere they wouldn’t otherwise be able to go, and introduces them to people they wouldn’t otherwise get to meet, so that’s very much the task. Especially in those big profiles about the sort of famous person crowd, like the presidents, VIPs or billionaires.
SS: How would you recommend someone at the student level with an interest in journalism get started?
MS: I think you have to write a ton. Even here, I actually created a class here with Micah [Perks], one of those independent study classes. I basically had to type out 10 pages a week on a typewriter, and it didn’t matter what they were. So that was the whole class. I don’t even know if I got credit for it. But basically I was just forcing myself to write, and it was very difficult. I wasn’t a natural writer. But I think at the student level ,when you’re starting out, the most important thing is to be writing every day and trying to get published as much as possible, as well as reading your betters. And reading as many people as you can. But it’s the writing. It’s a craft, not an academic pursuit. You’re learning a trade, and the only way to learn a trade is to do it. You can’t think your way to it. You actually have to make stuff, and make it badly for a while before you can figure out how to make it better. And find a way to have fun in that process. Because if you’re not having fun while you’re making it, it won’t work.