Several years after I returned to New York from Oregon, I made a strange discovery. Bank accounts I was certain I had closed were inexplicably racking up service charges. It seemed bizarre, particularly because I had gone in person to a newly opened local branch of my West Coast bank to make sure the accounts were shut down.
The failure to pay these charges (bills were sent to my old address and never caught up with me) resulted in penalties and a report to a credit agency. After an increasingly frustrating series of exchanges at the local branch, the bank agreed to wipe out the charges but said I would have to deal with the credit agencies on my own.
It seemed outrageous, and as the editor in chief of an investigative news operation, I thought about asking Paul Kiel, ProPublica’s crack reporter on bank shenanigans, to take a look.
But then I stopped myself.
There’s an old saying in the journalism business for this sort of thinking: News is what happens to an editor.
As with so many newsroom aphorisms, it’s meant to be proclaimed with an eye roll and a tone of deep sarcasm. Reporters view editor-generated stories as the bane of their existence, and not without reason. Random events and pet peeves are not often a great starting point for serious stories.
Early in my career, I worked for a newspaper chain whose leadership was obsessed with the weather. Virtually every summer day, editors assigned stories on the heat or thunderstorms to some hapless reporter unfortunate to be sitting in direct sight of the city desk. (To be fair, Landmark Communications ended up creating the Weather Channel, an asset that eventually sold for $3.5 billion. Maybe they weren’t as dumb as we thought.)
Determined not to be the editor whose life events turn into assignments, I did not ask for a story on the refusal of Wells Fargo to set things right with the credit bureaus they had notified.