By Hugh Lessig
The nation’s military installations come in different sizes and they have different characteristics, depending on the branch of service and what types of units reside there.
I cover the military for the Daily Press in Newport News, Va. Our city is known for its massive shipyard, the only place in the world that builds nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. But the region is also bustling with military bases that span all the uniformed services.
Some military reporters are specialists, concentrating on that single, giant base in their backyard. They get deep into the weeds with one branch of the service, and even a unit within that branch.
I’m a generalist. My knowledge must be broad, but not deep. However, some principles apply to the job no matter what the territory, and I’ll try to cover them here.First, here’s a rundown of the bases I cover:
In our back yard:
- Fort Eustis in Newport News. This Army base is home to the 7th Sustainment Brigade, one of the most deployed units in the Army. As the name implies, a sustainment brigade finds itself in the middle of supply convoys, and warehouses. It moves and schedules and makes connections. It makes sure the trains run on time. (And it actually has trains.)
- Langley Air Force Base in Hampton: The only Air Force base in Virginia, this installation is home to three squadrons of F-22 Raptors, an expensive stealth fighter that has been in the news because of oxygen problems. It also has several other units that I’ll get to in a moment.
Not in our coverage area, but close enough to worry about:
- Naval Station Norfolk is the largest naval base on planet Earth. It is the only East Coast port for U.S. aircraft carriers, currently accommodating five of these floating cities. Because carriers never go to sea by themselves, Norfolk also has numerous destroyers, cruisers, amphibious ships and submarines that often deploy in groups, either in support of Iraq and Afghanistan, or south to help in drug interdiction. The base also has an active military court docket. More on justice later.
- Naval Air Station Oceana: Just down the road from Norfolk, this Naval air base is in Virginia Beach. Carriers have jets, correct? Well, the jets don’t hang out at Norfolk Naval Station. They are at Oceana, the master jet base for the East Coast that is home to several carrier air wings.
The Daily Press doesn’t cover the cities of Norfolk or Virginia Beach. But both the navy base and Oceana are big enough that I have to parachute in there (not literally) now and then because people in our coverage area care about what goes on there.
Chances are, a military installation is “known” for something. Fort Campbell in Kentucky is home to the 101st Airborne Division, for example. Most news pitches will likely be geared toward these stars of the show.
But all sorts of units and commands are scattered around military installations. They don’t always get the publicity, and some don’t want it because of security reasons. But you need to know them.
Start with a nickel tour of the base. Go to the base web site and click on the “our units” tab, or something like it. Your first public affairs officer will likely be someone who represents the base itself. Ask to meet public affairs officers that represent individual units. Get their numbers or ask for a directory.
A couple of examples from my own beat:
Langley AFB: Tucked away in a corner of the runway is an ISR Wing. ISR stands for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance. These airmen (and airwomen) interpret data from unmanned drones that attack and spy on Afghanistan and Iraq. They seldom talk about what they do, but we’ve done a couple of stories. And because we know they’re in our back yard, any national story on drones or unmanned surveillance systems has a potential local tie.Fort Eustis: This Army post in on the James River. As it turns out, the Army has boats. Army boats? Who knew? Also, there’s a Coast Guard unit on the Army base.
Both Eustis and Langley have military working dog units that have deployed to Iraq.
Naval Station Norfolk is a beast unto itself. It has a PAO for the base itself. Each aircraft carrier has a public affairs representative. Individual commands are headquartered at Norfolk with a reach goes well beyond Hampton Roads.
Here’s an example: Visit www.surflant.navy.mil, and you be subjected to the wonders of COMNAVSURFLANT – which means, commander of Naval Surface Force Atlantic. This command encompasses surface warfare ships, like cruisers and destroyers, as well as other craft.
How do you know which PAO fits your story? You probably don’t, at least in starting out. Here’s what I did: On that first tour of the base, I met as many PAOs as I could and remembered the friendly ones. Then, when I needed to find something, I’d call that guy and say, “Phil, I need someone who handles public affairs for submarines. Is that you?” Of course it wasn’t him. But he knew. Do that a few times and you’ll find yourself beginning to navigate a base.
The best advice I received from a veteran military reporter before I started: Be prepared to make five phone calls to get to the right person. You’re dealing with an organization that is famous for its stovepipes. Everyone is in his or her own world.
Two general rules to keep in mind.
- Do your best to cultivate working relationships with public affairs officers. They are your first contact point on a routine story. Life is easier when you both get along.
- What happens outside the base can be as important as what goes on inside. Focus not only on troops and their tanks, guns, and jets, but their families and kids. Pay attention to how the base interacts with the surrounding town or city.
Let’s talk about PAOs first.
If you want to pursue a story on base, expect a PAO to escort you. Obviously, they’ll need to know what the story is about.
How to build trust with a PAO? Start with simple stories. Ask them about feature ideas. Cover a routine change-of-command ceremony or a homecoming of a unit from Afghanistan. These stories won’t make you famous. But if you are accurate and fair, tough and/or sensitive when called for, the PAO will know what to expect from you, and vice versa. Your interactions will quickly become routine.
That doesn’t mean every trip to the base must be a soft, harmless feature that the general will love. Most PAOs realize that controversial or sensitive stories are part of their world. Still, they need to be convinced that a trip inside the base is necessary to report the story.
Once you’re on the base, interaction with a PAO varies. If 5,000 sailors are coming home after spending eight months at sea on a carrier, the docks are a like a circus with family and friends. You’re free to roam around and talk to people, and PAO will need only a general idea of where you are.
If the trip involves an interviews with a high-ranking officer or a subject matter expect, expect the PAO to be at your shoulder. Many times, a PAO will ask for questions to be submitted in advance. I usually submit a list of subject areas I’d like cover, and that seems to work in most cases. You need the freedom to ask a follow-up question that’s not on the “approved” list, right? In most cases, that’s understood.
Sometimes it isn’t, and you have to stand your ground. I’m currently dealing with a middle-ranking officer who wants a list of questions in advance so she can submit them to her commander for “approval.” Excuse me? You can’t let an interview degrade into someone giving you scripted, sanitary responses to questions in advance. What will I do in this case? This particular story is about a health issue. If this officer proves problematic, I’ll seek a subject-matter expert in the civilian world who will actually have a conversation with me.
Expect PAOs to sit in on your interviews, probably reminding your source that the conversation is on the record. They may jump in to clarify things. (The good ones will politely remind the captain not to speak in useless acronyms like COMNAVSURFLANT.)
Some PAOs are obstructionists. Other times – and this is more common – the PAO won’t fight for your story. If the commanding officer says a quick “no,” they are intimidated and say “yes, sir” and relay the message back to you. What to do?
- If the story is really important, contact a superior officer on base who can make it happen. If it’s about the rate of military suicide and you want to localize it, call the health center and ask to speak to a mental health counselor. Pitch the story, and make it clear that you’ve talked to public affairs and that hasn’t worked, but you really believe in the story.
- Call Washington and ask to speak with someone at Big Army, Big Navy, etc. The Pentagon has a press desk divided by branch of service. Call (703) 697-5131 and tell them what you want. It may take several calls and messages to get the right colonel or major on the phone, but the view of your story can be different when pitched at that level.
Will this harm your relationship with the PAO? Maybe, but maybe not. If you run into someone who is an obstructionist or who won’t lobby on your behalf, there isn’t much to lose.
Maybe I’ve been lucky, but I haven’t run into any PAOs who are true jerks, and only one or two who don’t lobby on my behalf as much as I’d like, and that’s probably because they are new.
Covering a military base is not confined to reporting on active-duty military. It’s about families. Troops on base have spouses who go shopping and kids who go to local schools. Watch for opportunities to report on how military families interact with the rest of the folks in your coverage area.
A couple of examples from my beat, which could easily be stories elsewhere in the country:
- Predatory lending: State lawmakers wanted to crack down on payday lenders, who offer short-term, small-dollar loans at high interest rates. Critics complain these lenders prey on young, military families. Military bases have financial counselors and others who help military families get through life. In the Navy, Fleet and Family services supports families in a number of ways. These staffers were more than willing to talk about steps being taken to warn troops about these lenders.
- Spice: This synthetic substance offers a marijuana-like high and, at first, could not be detected through standard drug screenings. It led to the Army and Navy declaring certain “head shops” off limits to military personnel, and an interview with Mr. Head Shop Owner on how unfair this was.
A large base like Naval Station Norfolk has an electronic court docket and a regularly scheduled caseload.
On smaller bases with few cases, the workload will be managed differently. Check with your base PAO and say you want to be kept in the loop on court martial proceedings.
You can learn more about courts martial and military justice in this NSZ 101 by Otto Kreisher, a veteran military reporter.
Non-military activity inside the base
A military installation is like its own city. It has daycare centers and gyms, hospitals and schools. It may sound boring, but it pays to keep track of construction on a military base. A lot of traffic passes through there. Just like your town or city, the denizens of the base like to know why someone is pushing dirt around.
Besides, you’re paying for this construction. You might be surprised what taxpayers shell out to reconfigure a secured entrance at the main gate.
Keeping track of this work isn’t hard. Put your PAO on notice that you’re interested in major building projects. Then contact the congressman who represents the area around the base. Tell his or her press person you want to know about military construction projects of local impact included in the National Defense Authorization Act. If they’re on the ball, they’ll be telling you anyway. In my area, there’s a lengthy list every year. You can search for state and local breakouts in the act in this proposal for Fiscal 2013.
Adapt and steal ideas
Military bases have their own news organizations – usually an on-base newspaper and a web site. Read them. As is the case with other in-house publications, the stories involve good people doing good and interesting things. So be it. When your bosses are screaming for stories to get through the Christmas holidays, you might want to write a quick feature on the culinary competition so you can get on to other stories.
This is always a challenge for the local news outlet. Rank-and-file troops are often reluctant to speak on the record about any subject without permission from someone. This is especially true when the subject is even halfway interesting. (So, how do you feel about women serving on submarines?)
A good PAO will sometimes route you to troops, but you’ll be talking in a controlled, monitored environment. This sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. I recently managed to secure an on-the-record phone interview with a female soldier for a story the changing roles of women in combat. It turned out pretty well. Other times, the troops are cautious and wooden, reciting memorized lines.
Other than this, here are a couple of ways to get comments from the active-duty ranks:
- Try Facebook. Not every unit has an active social media site, but many do. Post messages on there. Say you’re doing a story and want to hear from the troops. You may get calls, emails or texts that are useable. Be careful in your phrasing, because the PAO for the unit will likely see this, too. Check out the Facebook page for the 7th Sustainment Brigade out of Fort Eustis
- Blogs: Put out a general query and say you want to hear from troops on a certain subject. The younger the soldier, the more comfortable they will be texting and emailing as opposed to talking on the phone. Be prepared to interview people this way.
- Spouses: Make sure to include husbands and wives in your invitation. Never discount the influence of a spouse. Sometimes they want to talk because their sailor or soldier can’t.
- Do I go to bars, coffee shops or other places where people congregate: I must admit, I’ve had much more success soliciting comments online than the old-fashioned way of tracking down people where they congregate. Frankly, the Internet generation is much more comfortable texting an answer or a reaction than being accosted by a stranger reporter outside the grocery story.
A military base can be a driving force that affects the prosperity of a city or region. In Hampton Roads, 45 percent of the economy is tied to either active-duty military bases or defense-related businesses.
As the military seeks to downsize and pivot after two wars in the Middle East, this story may be at the top of your list for some time to come.
Sources? There are a few usual suspects.
Contact your local or regional chamber of commerce. In a military community, chances are they have someone on staff who is a liaison with bases.
Contact your city or county. Likewise, they might have a staff person who runs point on all things military. The city of Hampton is home to Langley Air Force Base and (until recently) the Army’s Fort Monroe, which closed in 2011. The city employs a retired Air Force colonel as its director of federal facilities. He’s a good source on all sorts of stories.
For example, fighter jet bases need “clear zones” around the runways to increase safety (and to lessen the chance that Pentagon bean-counters might frown on their operation and, say, close them to save money). The city of Hampton is seeking state funds to purchase land around Langley to do just that.
A city or chamber rep might be a good off-the-record source as a sounding board for rumors. They go to all the meetings. They’re usually up on what’s being talked about, and can separate gossip from news.
Example: In 2010, Defense Secretary Robert Gates decided to close Joint Forces Command, a hybrid installation in Hampton Roads that taught different branches of the services to fight more cohesively as one force. A rumor came out that the closing had been accelerated. It wouldn’t happen next year. It would happen this year – in a few weeks. I sounded out my Hampton source who said, “Frankly, that sounds weird.” He didn’t know for sure, but his gut feeling was spot on. The rumor was worthless.
Looking to go beyond the chamber of commerce or local government? Here are some options.
Most states have some sort of regional government operation that studies everything from transportation to manufacturing. In my home state of Pennsylvania, we had “council of government” groups.
In my area of Virginia, we have the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission. It employs economists who study the region. They can be called upon to talk about jobs, gross regional product or other economic indicators as it relates to the military.
Check out its presentations page. About halfway down the list, you should see one for military bases on the Peninsula, which is our coverage area.
Look to a local or area university for help. Old Dominion University in Norfolk produces an annual State of the Region report that is a must-read for business journalists. Because so much of the economy is tied to military and defense, it’s a helpful document for military reporters as well. And like the planning commission, a single call to the university PR office can put you in touch with a economics professor who can comment on the military as an economic force.
Military-heavy regions of the country always worry about the next round of spending cuts, and for good reason. How do they lobby against them? How do they present a united front in these highly partisan times? And if bad news does come their way, how do they fight back?
States and regions have formed standing groups with the mission of promoting the military, providing information about its impact.
The Hampton Roads Federal Facilities Military Alliance is just such a group. Its current executive director is a retired rear admiral and it provides a wealth of information on the region’s military. Its most recent publication was a paper on the federal government’s footprint in the region.
If the region doesn’t have a special-focus group for the military, the state might. Virginia has the Virginia Military Advisory Council – basically, a liaison between state officials and its various military communities – an extensive presence in Virginia.