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Journalists and Lawyers Report the News: A Little Help From My Friends

Posted on Aug. 24, 2020

To celebrate our 50th anniversary, Tax Analysts is publishing an occasional series of articles looking back at the organization's history — from reflections on the individuals who built the company, to insider looks at how we operate today and visions for our path forward.

In this article, International Chief Correspondent Stephanie Soong Johnston explains how Tax Analysts depends on trained journalists and lawyers bringing out the best in each other.

Stephanie Soong Johnston
Stephanie Soong Johnston

Some journalists grow up wanting to write for a major paper like The New York Times. Others want plum anchor jobs on a national network such as CNN. But the harsh truth is that most of us don’t get our dream jobs, especially in today’s economy — in fact, we’re lucky if we get journalism jobs at all.

If someone told me 20 years ago that I would make a career out of writing about international tax, I would have laughed out loud. There was just no way someone like me could ever write about something as complex as taxation — that was for other people who were way smarter than me. At least, that’s what I would have thought at the time.

And yet, in June 2011 there I was, opening the door to the Tax Analysts building in Falls Church, Virginia, to interview for a reporter position on Tax Notes’ international team. I will admit that I briefly considered turning around and walking away as that little voice of self-doubt reared its ugly head. After all, what did I know about tax issues? I had gone to journalism school — one of the best in the country — but nothing could prepare me for writing about international tax.

At the last minute, I went for it. The interview went well, and I passed my writing test. Within a month, I was setting up my desk and casting about for news leads. My first story was about HSBC suspending offshore banking services for U.S.-resident private clients in response to a U.S. crackdown on tax evasion through Swiss banks. This isn’t too bad, I thought as I filed my draft.

In the months that followed, my journalism training kicked in as I covered all kinds of tax news all over the world — from Russian oil and gas taxes and New Zealand capital gains taxes to Court of Justice of the European Union state aid opinions and the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act. Each topic was like a puzzle, and the more I wrote, the more interested I became in the subject matter. Still, I struggled with understanding more complex topics (what the heck was transfer pricing?), reading legal documents, and writing about court decisions.

I quickly realized that the Tax Notes office wasn’t a typical newsroom.

As I got to know my colleagues, I learned that many of them were lawyers by trade, not journalists. Some of them had practiced law, others had been at one of the Big Four accounting firms, and a few were just out of law school.

It was a bit intimidating to work with them at first, simply because they were so smart and could digest legalese really quickly. They knew how to find and break down court cases. Above all, they were experts at writing for lawyers, and as any reporter understands, knowing your audience is one of the most important rules of the journalism game.

But of course, there were things that my legal reporter colleagues also found challenging — things that came as second nature to me. For my colleague Andrew Velarde, a senior legal reporter for Tax Notes Today International, one big issue was learning to write strong headlines and ledes.

“Law school teaches you to spot issues and see the bottom line upfront, but it’s not quite the same thing as writing like a journalist,” he told me. “Having to try and balance the technical side without getting bogged down in the details high up in the story was certainly an adjustment.”

Kristen Parillo, a contributing editor for Tax Notes Today Federal, agreed that it was not easy for lawyers to make the switch to journalism writing. “It’s a very specialized way of writing at Tax Notes, and there’s no way to really teach it,” she told me, adding that the best way to learn is by following your colleagues’ lead. “Luckily, everyone at Tax Analysts is very willing to show you the ropes.”

Even though I came into the job without much legal training and had to pick up a lot of technical expertise from my colleagues, I’d like to think I’ve taught them a thing or two as well. We journalists are trained to write quickly, clearly, and accurately. We know how to cultivate sources and get those sources to tell us things. We understand how to balance out a story with different voices. We know how to find and interview sources. And we know our beats inside and out.

With every story I filed, with every lesson I learned from my legal reporter colleagues, I grew more confident in my abilities to cover tax and started getting positive feedback from readers. It felt good to go to a tax conference and hear people say nothing but good things about the stories that my colleagues and I write. That’s a real testament to the caliber of our Tax Notes writers.

What’s the secret? We all come from different backgrounds, so we bring different skills to the job. But we also lean on each other a lot. “It’s the rare person that comes at this job with both a legal tax background and a journalism background, so whether it is learning how to issue-spot or how to phrase questions to sources, most of us can learn something from our colleagues,” Andrew said.

Nearly a decade after I walked into the Tax Analysts building, I’m still learning those lessons. That little voice of self-doubt, however, is quieter these days. I can now speak authoritatively on international issues that our readers care about. I have colleagues who have my back, and we get to travel across the country and around the world to report the news. And we’re part of an organization that’s well respected in the tax community.

If that’s not a dream journalism job, then I don’t know what is.

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