Over the past few years of working as both a journalist and a bartender, I’ve realized that the skills needed for both jobs are pretty much the same. They’re both about convincing strangers that you’re their new best friend.
A few rules that apply to both bar customers and sources:
1. Everyone loves to talk about themselves. In both cases, as long as you keep them talking you’ll be OK. Nod and smile, look shocked when appropriate, ask for more information about boring crap you don’t care about. When bartending, occasionally slip in an offer for another drink, when reporting, occasionally slip in a question you actually want the answer to.
2. Turn on the flattery. People go to bars and talk to journalists because they want validation. In the bar, it’s your job to let people think they’re not losers, that they have a friend in you, and that ohmygod their jokes are SO FUNNY! They’ll want to stay for more, and they’ll tip you as if you really were friends. When reporting, it’s your job to agree with your source’s side of the story (while talking to them, not while writing). Reassure them that they’re in the right, and they’ll keep elaborating for you just how right they are.
3. Let them think they’re winning. Sources tend to think that you’re there to tell the story as they want it told, that you’re some kind of free PR person. It’s usually easier to just let them believe that while you get the information you need. Likewise, sometimes a bar customer who you’ve seen once or twice wants their friends to think they’re a regular. They tell stories about the last time they were there and act like you’re old friends. If you play along and give them a free drink while their friends are watching, you’ll get a good tip.
4. Don’t get taken advantage of. As much as bartending and journalism involve lots of flattery and smiles, both also require finely tuned bullshit radar. No real adult leaves their ID at home and then expects to be served in a bar. Anyone that will argue with you about an ID is probably a teenager. Kick them out. And everyone you interview has an agenda. They’ll tell you what they want to see in print, whether it’s the truth or not. It’s up to you to draw the line and recognize bullshit.
5. Be quick. This one is kind of a given with bartending (or should be, anyway), but don’t leave an empty glass sitting on the bar. Always ask a customer right away if they want another one so they know that your whole world revolves around whether or not they have everything they need. Likewise, when your source starts freaking out (which they often will), respond right away so they don’t start getting paranoid. Be quick with the email version of a finger to the lips and a soothing head rub.
6. Know when to call it. Sometimes a bar customer has just had enough and needs to be kicked out, and sometimes a source is just more trouble than they’re worth and it’s time find a way to write around them.
Lilly O’Donnell blogs about women’s issues for Bust Magazine, and rants about America’s student debt crisis to anyone who will listen. She’s also working on her first book; a biography of her deceased artist father and a study of the creative lifestyle. She tweets.