One of the greatest sins in journalism is to assume that you connect with a source, that you understand a complex situation before you actually do.
It’s a mistake that former Kansas City Star projects reporter Mike McGraw never made.
McGraw, “Mick” to many, died Saturday evening. It was not unexpected. Many of us who adored him as a friend and worked beside him as a colleague knew that his heart was still strong, but that his body was fading to cancer.
Now, as the broader community hears the tributes and perhaps marvels at McGraw’s impressive array of awards, this column might explain what set him apart and why his death is so difficult for many local journalists. I wrote much of this in April of 2014 for a Star celebration when he retired. At the time, our staff was grappling with McGraw’s departure from the newsroom, yet rejoicing that he’d be able to spend more time with his beloved wife, Ruth, their sons and grandchildren.
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McGraw embarked on each assignment by reminding himself that he knew little, if anything, about his subject. That might not sound like a winning approach.
The truth is, it’s not a secret formula that could shape a budding reporter into the caliber of journalist that McGraw was.
His methods were never hidden, nor were they complex. And McGraw was willing to share them with anyone inquisitive enough to ask, or smart enough to observe during his long career. Efficiency was his key.
McGraw simply worked hard and with diligence. And he did it without complaint, complacency or hubris.
The hubris element is important. Integral even. It’s also why there may be some confusion about McGraw’s genius.
An easy assumption might be that McGraw’s outstanding string of successes is due in large part to the fact that he worked primarily on long-term projects.
His forte was in-depth articles, so multi-layered that it was necessary to break them into daily segments for publication.
Time is certainly a luxury when trying to report and write a complex story. Freedom of Information requests are not generally fulfilled overnight. They can take months, if not years, to yield dividends.
But watching McGraw work a breaking news story was informative. The process didn’t change. He took the same approach, just clipped by time constraints and the desk demanding copy.
An anecdote to illustrate the point: Years ago, McGraw was asked the sort of passerby question many reporters hear. He was months into whatever it was he was researching. The specifics aren’t crucial here. It could have just as easily been any number of his prize-winning stories. The point is his method.
“So, how’s the project coming along?” was the query.
“You know, I’m just beginning to understand a bit of the truth about this,” was his reply.
McGraw wasn’t trying to be evasive. Mind you, this is six months into the project. And his days were long and structured. There was always water cooler time for colleagues, but otherwise, his hours on the job were focused, his fact-finding meticulously organized.
A humble approach allowed McGraw to find nuance and context for stories that in another’s hands might simply be a collection of factoids.
Truth is often complex. It can be conflicting, shifting with time lines and not always readily apparent.
Good reporters know this. Dedicated reporters are mindful of it. McGraw lived and breathed it.
McGraw was always skeptical but was rarely cynical. It’s a distinction that can make all the difference when determining not only what happened, but also, more crucially, why it happened.
There are the words that he will no longer write. The sources he will not cultivate. The important stories that will be spared his scrutiny. Other reporters surely will step up and attempt to fill those voids.
The lucky ones had the privilege of learning a few lessons from McGraw along his way.