Recently, Jeffrey Toobin wrote a compelling piece in The New Yorker about the Baltimore City Detention Center, and today he had a post on the Internet about how he found some of his sources for the piece.
Toobin’s editor wanted him to talk to former B.C.D.C. inmates about what it was like in prison so that he could write a richer tale and include that perspective. So how did he find those former inmates?
Without much of a clue about what to do, I took the train back to Baltimore. When I arrived, I strolled down the row of cabs, leaning over to ask the drivers if they knew anyone who had done time in the jail. A half-dozen or so told me to go to hell, in various languages. When I was ready to give up this line of inquiry, a driver who had overheard my questions called me over and gave me some advice. “Walk about four blocks that way,” he said, pointing. “Turn left, and go to the McDonald’s. They’re all in there.”
So, without any other tips, I walked to Baltimore’s gritty North Avenue and found this standard-issue McDonald’s. It was late morning, pre-lunch, and there were a handful of guys nursing coffees. I sidled up to one and asked, “Do you know anyone who’s been in B.C.D.C.?”
“Yeah, me,” he said. I offered to buy him another coffee, and we began to talk. After a while, I approached another customer. He had been in the jail, too. Quickly, I changed my approach. Instead of asking if these folks knew anyone else who had been an inmate, I got right to the point: “Have you been inside B.C.D.C.?”
I’ll stop there and direct you to Toobin’s blog for the rest of it, but there’s a simple and powerful lesson here.
We have so many brilliant reporting tools at our disposal now — the Internet, archived video, social media, endless databases, on and on.
Sometimes, the best reporting tool is a cab driver you just met telling you what you need can be found at that place four blocks up on the corner. That’s helpful to remember once in a while.