Interview: Tom Sherwood

Tom Sherwood made a name for himself in Washington, DC, political circles through his dogged coverage of former Mayor Marion Barry's administration in the 1980s as a reporter for The Washington Post.

Tom Sherwood made a name for himself in Washington, DC, political circles through his dogged coverage of former Mayor Marion Barry's administration in the 1980s as a reporter for The Washington Post.

Sherwood decided to jump to broadcast journalism in 1989, when WRC-TV, the local NBC affiliate, offered to double his newspaper salary.

Today, Sherwood is DC's only TV reporter who covers city politics on a full-time basis. He's broken several stories about the city's current mayor, Anthony Williams, including a report about signature-gathering irregularities that got the mayor's name kicked off the Democratic primary election ballot in 2002.

Before joining the Post in 1974, Sherwood worked for nine years at the Atlanta Constitution (before it merged with the Atlanta Journal in the 1980s), where he began his newspaper career as a copy boy during the 1964 Johnson-Goldwater presidential campaign.

PRWeek: Do you enjoy broadcast journalism better than newspaper reporting?

Tom Sherwood: I make no bones about this. I switched from working at the Washington Post where I enjoyed what I had done and where the publisher at the time, Don Graham, said, "Don't leave, you can spend the rest of your career here," because I made a lot more money going to television. It was a risk, but I doubled my salary. At the time, my son was 11 years old, and I needed to earn more money. I didn't know if it was going to work or not, but so far it's worked. The station has been very supportive of me through three or four general managers and a half-dozen news directors.

PRWeek: How is newspaper reporting at the Post different from TV news reporting?

Sherwood: When I wrote a front-page story on city politics for the Washington Post, the Associated Press picked it up and all the TV stations in town would jump on it and the congressional committees on Capitol Hill would cut it out and put it on their daily log of stories. If you do a story on television, the Post ignores it for a couple days and then does its own story. The other TV stations don't want to replicate what you're doing. Unless it's a very good story that they cannot ignore, they ignore it and try to do their own story on their own time. The Washington Post is just such an influential newspaper, both in how it affects public policy and in what becomes news.

PRWeek: Describe covering Mayor Barry's administration as a print reporter, and then as a TV reporter.

Sherwood: I came to television in October or November of 1989. And Marion Barry was arrested in January of 1990. I had not even appeared live on television outside of the studio. My first live shot was the arrest of Marion Barry. And I didn't know how to do it. They had to send I.J. Hudson, who's another reporter here, down to the hotel to effectively interview me because I had never done a story for television where I stood out in the field and talked to the camera.

PRWeek: How would you rate Mayor Williams' PR operation?

Sherwood: Mayor Williams is more tone deaf to public relations than any politician that I've ever covered. I've told him that. His administration does a lot of interesting, good things, and he just does not have a very good way of conveying them. And that's partly because he is such a reticent person when it comes to public relations. He has a very successful administration, but he's just not well liked by a lot of people because they don't connect him with the city. He doesn't shake hands like Marion Barry. He's kind of the anti-Marion Barry. Marion Barry would not only shake hands, he would know half the people in the room, or at least remember them well enough to talk to them. This mayor unfortunately is not very outgoing when it comes to that type of politics. In retail politics 101, he gets an F.

PRWeek: What's behind your success at breaking stories in DC?

Sherwood: I once told Mayor Barry that a source is not one person who turns a spigot on, and I just drink from it. A source is much more like a colander with a thousand holes. And all the water drips out, and I have to watch all those little holes. They all drip out, and I get a story that way. I'm lucky if someone just calls me up and gives me a story. So Mayor Williams asked me to give him a colander for Christmas to remind him that there are too many leaks in his administration. I said there are so many leaks you'll never stop them. If every president, every governor, every mayor always concerns himself or herself with leaks, they cannot stop them. It's the nature of the beast. My job is to be in the best possible position to get the benefit of those leaks.

PRWeek: Do you still speak with Marion Barry?

Sherwood: We have a good personal relationship. We talk a lot, but I did not hesitate for one moment to do a story when he did something bad. Now he tells people, "I made Tom Sherwood." Yes you did, and I got all the money.

PRWeek: How would you describe your relationship with people who pitch you story ideas?

Sherwood: I think reporters have to be accessible to all kinds of stuff. If someone pitches a story to me and I don't think it's a story I can do or want to do or will do, I just tell them because I don't want to mislead them. But on the other hand, I don't want to not talk to someone who might have a great story. There are a lot of reporters who don't make themselves accessible.

PRWeek: Do you often get pitches from PR people?

Sherwood: Sometimes I'll stand at the fax machine and look at the faxes coming in. And I'm horrified at how horrible most of the faxes are. Government faxes tend to be the worst. Something that starts, "Washington, DC-The undersecretary to the assistant deputy secretary in the subsection of the whoever what is announcing a cure for cancer." No one ever sees the cure for cancer because they're still stuck on the four pages of titles. I'm always astonished at how press releases don't do the "who, what, when, where" real quickly.

PRWeek: What is your general opinion of PR people?

Sherwood: The best PR people I know are those who don't come on with a hard sell out of the blue. It's the same thing I do with sources. I talk to people when I don't need them. There are people in town whom I know who are either married or divorced or who have kids who are in trouble or are going off to college. I know something about that person. They know I just don't talk to them when there's a big story.

Some reporters in town, you know that, when a story breaks, they're going to call X, Y, and Z. And X, Y, and Z will tell me that they got those calls. And they only call when they need something. I think that's a bad mistake by reporters and by PR people. You have to build up resources.

Name: Tom Sherwood

Outlet: NBC 4 (WRC-TV, Washington)

Title: Political reporter

Preferred contact method:


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