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Being a reporter isn’t about being comfortable

When I first started working at the Daily Kent Stater, I remember I was absolutely petrified talking to strangers.

It wasn’t that I was shy so much. I could get up in front of my classes and give presentations without a sweat, and I gave regular pep talks to my softball team. I could dance and cheer with the sports teams and get up on stage in drama club. I could stand before a room and put out my controversial opinion and even debate and defend it reasonably well. But I couldn’t ask the clerk at Borders to help me find a book.

My mom used to be so annoyed because I refused to walk up to clerks at stores or even call and order a pizza. The summer before college, I made HER spend hours on the phone with financial aid because I was so scared of calling strangers and sounding dumb. It was painful for me. I mean, painful to the point of tears. I remember her reminding me of this when I picked journalism as a major.

In fact, a large part of my choice of journalism was to overcome this, I guess the best term is, “shyness.” It took me a long time to be able to pick up the phone and just make the call. I still sometimes pick up a phone and hang it up two or three times before I follow through, confident I have done enough background to ask intelligent questions and not come across as a fool. (I’ve been told this is more common than you think among journalists.)

My first reporting job at the Stater was as a part of the print beat reporting course. We were each assigned a beat we would cover for the paper for the semester. We’d answer to student editors and our unedited work would be graded by the professor. One of the things we had to do was come up with story ideas and beat contacts each week. My beat — which I adored — was student finance. It was kind basically consumer reporting, but all of it aimed at college students needs and wants.

I knew it was do or die that semester, and I knew I’d have to talk to other students and strangers on a regular basis. So, to get over my fears and to build up a list of story ideas my peers actually cared about, I spent an afternoon walking up to every single person in Risman Plaza and the student center. My script was essentially, “Hi. My name is Meranda Watling, and I’m the new student finance reporter at the Stater. I wanted to talk to you about what you’d like to read about this semester.” The first few people were painful. I had to spend 10 minutes pacing around before having enough courage to approach each person. Gradually, it got easier. It got to the point where I could walk into the student center or cafeteria and know who would talk to me, where I didn’t even think twice about asking a stranger for a few minutes of their time and where I didn’t take it personally when people turned me down. My script was essentially the same except I’d sub in illegal downloading, identity theft, saving money, etc. My stories were always better for this. I ALWAYS found a way to get real people in and make them the central focus of my stories. That was something I really focused on with my reporters when I went on to editing.

Now it’s full circle and I’m the reporter again, and at times, I feel like the girl pacing around the student center. I sometimes get nervous approaching strangers, and it’s grown increasingly difficult to find the right strangers. (Man how I miss the days of knowing where the art students hung out and where to find business majors, where I could time residence hall kids and commuters to the time of day and the cafeteria of choice. It made finding the right sources so much easier.) Now, my community is bigger. But finding the right “real people” (as we call the impact sources) is just as important. And I still strive to include them in my stories.

This week I’ve been working on a story where I’ve struggled to find the people. It’s about an increase in subsidized housing and families moving down here and the impact it’s had on the schools in one community. I wrote the story without any of those families. And my editor gave it back. It needed those voices, he told me. I knew it, but I was scared of going out there to find them. Not scared of the people, but scared of their reaction, scared of tripping over my words or insulting them or saying the wrong thing or saying it in the wrong way. (I only half laughed when my editor cautioned “be careful” when I go and when one of the other reporters told me she knew where the complex was because the police just had a meeting about how to clean it up. That’s always reassuring.)

The first time I drove out there, nobody was out. I mean not a single soul in either of the complexes at the center of my story. There were bikes scattered from end to end, abandoned on sidewalks and near doors, but not a single adult or child visible. It was 98 degrees, no wonder. I was prepared to say, “I tried.” But my editor wouldn’t hear it. He held the story and sent me back. This time, knowing I couldn’t fail, I went at a different hour and waited until I saw a couple with a few kids in tow. I mustered up all the confidence I could and clouded out the misgivings of that girl pacing the student center plaza. I got out of my car and approached them. The woman, at first apprehensive, talked to me outside on her front stoop. She was exactly what I was looking for, had kids in the schools, had moved here recently from Chicago and so forth. It wasn’t so hard. I’d just built it up in my mind.

No matter how uncomfortable I am doing something, I didn’t become a reporter to be comfortable. In fact, as I said before, one of my motivations was to break out of my comfort zone, which is necessary to grow. I have. I do every day. Whether it’s going to court for the first time (which I did this week) or calling a parent who lost a child (which I almost cried over when I did the first time last summer), those are the new experiences that make journalism a thrill, that help make me more confident.

I’ve always said that I’ll stay in a job as long as I’m still learning. That’s always been my threshold for when I will know it’s time to leave. This week has only proven again to me how much I have to learn. And the truth is, that’s what keeps it exciting.

3 Responses to “Being a reporter isn’t about being comfortable”

  1. Dana Says:

    Kudos to you…I never quite got over my talking to strangers fear. Sources who were expecting me or any number of celebs or rock idols whom I set up interviews with…no problem. Sure I can chit chat with Tori Amos like we’re old pals — but walk up to Joe Blow in the Student Center?!?!?!? egad!
    I wish I had approached such assignments with your mindset. I just got it stuck in my head that it was nothing I could really change.
    But I love working the copy desk, so I suppose it all worked out.

  2. Grace Says:

    I also still never quite got over the talking to strangers fear, although I did become a LOT more outgoing in the course of my j-school education. I think I might have gotten over it if I’d thrown myself into it like you did, you know, making it do or die. (Sorry, the copy editor in me could not contain herself.)

  3. Maria Says:

    Thank you for your honesty — I’m still there, nervous to pick up the phone. Oddly I find it easier to talk to people in person rather than on the phone (strangely ironic in that most of my interviews are phone-based). You’re right, it’s that thrill of accomplishment that’s both exhilirating and humbling isn’t it?