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Archive for January 4th, 2008

Never too late for school closings

Friday, January 4th, 2008

I spent a good chunk of yesterday/today trying to figure out how to get the J&C on the school closing contact lists of area districts.

Living in the Midwest, school closings and two-hour delays (a term I’d never heard of until I moved here) are fairly common. In the fall, schools without AC sometimes cancel class when temperatures/heat index top out in the 90s. In the winter, snow drifts out in the county or a not-so-impressive-or-efficient street crew in the cities can keep schools closed several days a year.

For years, when you woke up in the morning and looked out the window to a “marshmallow world,” you ran to your TV to catch the school closings ticker at the bottom of the local news station. Maybe you turned the radio on to the local radio station. Either way, the last place you looked or would ever think to look would be the newspaper stuck in the snow drift on your front porch.

Now, you don’t need to open your door to access the newspaper. And we can get the school closings posted online as fast if not faster than the TV stations can program them to scroll.

We’ve been working on training, for lack of a better word, local schools to call us since I got here. But nobody yet made a concentrated effort to get it done. When you have more than two dozen districts, let me tell you, it takes awhile to find the right person and get in contact with them and then figure out a system that works. The schools in this county are pretty good about calling. The superintendents/their designees often call me when they have cancellations. The outlying counties, especially those on the fringe or those with their own smaller town papers, aren’t as good. Yet. I’m working on it.

I had to actually pause when one of the outlying superintendent’s replied back to my e-mail that he would be glad to call us. But he said, it likely won’t be helpful since the decision is usually made when it’s too late to get in the paper. Yeah, I wrote back, but there is no deadline for the Web.

It’s a process. We’re working on finding ways to get the news in faster (for example, our morning reporting gets in at 5:45 a.m., so we have nothing posted between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m.) and figuring out what news we should get up (everything?). And while we’re working on training the districts to give us a call/shoot us an e-mail, we’re also just as much training our readers to rely on us for that news.

Lessons from year 1: focus, writing while reporting and other things I need to work on

Friday, January 4th, 2008

My greatest weakness as a writer, and I suppose reporter, is my propensity to over-report. I’ve always been like this. I always end up with 10x what I actually need. It’s a good thing to have too much, or at least, better than not enough. Right?

Turns out, not always. But man, it’s a hard habit to shake.

Part of it is my approach to stories. Sometimes, I guess, I’m like a kid in a candy store; my eyes are much bigger than my stomach. I can think of 10 great angles to every story but need to work on narrowing it down to one angle at a time so I can better focus. Then, I can come back and hit some of the other angles separately, which my editor says (probably rightly) would better serve our readers. I’ll also be less likely to be paralyzed/overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of work to be done.

Focus has always been an issue of mine. Not just the “man I can’t focus with the scanner, the TV, the phones, e-mail and the other dozen reporters constantly chattering,” which yeah can be difficult, too. But focusing a story that I’ve over reported can be daunting. What doesn’t make the cut? What great story remains untold for another day? How many unanswered questions are OK? And how many of these questions, which I have indeed answered in my reporting, are the story chatters going to call me out on tomorrow because they didn’t make it to print?

I guess, to use another food-related cliche: I sometimes bite off more than I can chew. Which leads to “indigestion,” when it comes time to report and I end up chasing down angles I don’t use or need, or when I’m stressed trying to pull together a single coherent story from 10 story lines. (Oh, and throw in phrases like “hold to cover” or “12 inches” or my personal favorite, “a charticle out front and the impact inside,” and this makes the process that much more complicated.) By better focusing my ideas (there we go with focus again), I guess it would help me focus my reporting and hone in on just the specifics necessary to tell *this* story. As I said before, I can come back to the other angles. Sometimes, I forget that.

Worst of all? This tendency is compounded by something I really, really, really do need to get over. ASAP. That is, I can’t write until I’ve reported. Until I know who I have talked to, what they’ve said, who can be grouped together, what data opposes what or supports whom, where each piece fits together with the whole. This helps me discover gaps in my logic or my reporting. But I’m told actually writing as soon as I’m reporting each piece would do the same, probably more effectively, and writing earlier would help lead me down the path in a more narrow and, get this, focused manner.

I can bang the story out, usually, once I have all the ducks in a row. Sometimes, on more in-depth or bigger pieces these ducks take on the form of a rough outline, usually scribbled on a post-in stuck to my monitor. But like I said, I tend to over-report, so it’s more complicated than that. I have to sort out the ducks, decide which ones make the cut, which get relegated to the file cabinet, which to the trash and which bits actually make it through to the story I file and ultimately, the paper/Web site. If I had fewer ducks or was better as picking the ducks early on, this step would likely be easier. I wouldn’t have to “kill my darlings” so often. I’d also have more drafts, which would allow more revisions until I was pleased with exactly how it was phrased and ordered.

The other problem with over reporting? It takes time. Time isn’t really a luxury I have when writing two or so stories a day, plus any online updates that may pop up. It isn’t a luxury I’m likely to ever have. So managing what time I do have is paramount.

I both love and hate the emphasis on enterprise reporting here. I love it because I am pushed to constantly assess my beat for these issues worth looking at more in-depth. But I resent it because there’s never enough time to do the stories as well as I think they could be. Maybe I’m a perfectionist. (OK, that’s a big “maybe” and is more likely just “I am.”) But I don’t know. I have written several stories that I liked, but when I look at them in retrospect, I think them merely OK. Nothing stands out. When I look at my writing, rather than being proud of it, I constantly see what I could have or should have done instead. It’s a poor way to live. My sense of accomplishment lasts only as long as I have filed the story and am not on deadline for the next one. It’s really odd because I am such an optimist. But I guess I live in perpetual self-improvement mode, that is I’m always assessing how I did and how I can do better next time. Does this go away as I become even more confident in my writing and reporting? I’m banking on that. I don’t want to get complacent, but I would like to see the good in my work.

Why am I relaying my personal faults here? Well, you all are smarter than I am. (At least collectively.) Surely, I’m not the first person to go through this. I know I’m not, because my editor tried to give me some tips to combat it during my recent annual review (where we discussed some of these weaknesses, but which generally went well.) Maybe some of you much-experienced journalists can weigh in with tips that helped you solve these problems. Here’s one sheet I’ve already found about writing while reporting, which has some good tips to get me started.

So to recap, things to work on now that my rookie year as a reporter is behind me: more focused story pitches, and consequently tighter-focused reporting and writing; following up those big-picture stories through several shorter stories rather than one big piece; writing sooner and reworking/revising more often; confidence that I am in fact doing all right in my job.

All of those are reporting/writing technical issues. Yes, I know. We did talk about some of the other things I’d like to do. I’m going to keep pushing to be involved in things like NPD and to get some multimedia work experience here. But as I’ve told everyone all along, I see this job as the foundation of my career. I need to be a strong reporter before I can be a strong anything else.

What’s really important in all of this, and which I haven’t mentioned yet: I survived. I was scared when I was in school that I’d graduate, get a job and hate journalism. I was fearful I’d hate the city I ended up in or the beat I landed. I wasn’t sure I would like doing this every day, or that I wouldn’t stumble, fall and embarrass myself by even trying. I always left myself the out that I don’t get paid enough to hate my job, and if I didn’t like it, I’d quit and do something else. But, man, it’s been an interesting year. I love it, as much, perhaps more, than I hoped I would. And I’m pretty confident, there’s a whole world out there beyond this city and my beat waiting to be conquered. Once I nail down these basics as well as I’d like to, I’m sure it’ll be ready for me.