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Archive for January 14th, 2008

Lessons from year 1 (take 2): Things I don’t suck at

Monday, January 14th, 2008

I would like to take a moment to observe an important milestone. A year ago today, I started my job here in Lafayette and therefore my “career” in journalism. I cannot quantify how much I have learned this first year. But I can say it’s been a lot of fun.

It’s been amazing. It was chocked full of hard work, long days and longer weeks. It’s been stressful and hectic and full of a lot of flying by the seat of my pants and on pure instinct and sometimes luck and a prayer. There were a few tears and a few times where I was sick to my stomach because of things I saw, heard or had to do. But there were other times, many more, where I laughed so hard it hurt or where a kid’s comments made me smile for hours. There were even a few moments that restored my faith in humanity.

Beyond that, I’ve really gotten comfortable with my beat and role as a reporter. I’ve even come to love this community to my own great surprise. I made friends though I was sure I never would, and my co-workers, seriously, despite levels of stress that are supremely unnecessary at times, make the job bearable and enjoyable on those days when even luck and a prayer aren’t enough. Even if my editor’s favorite pastime is making jokes about me that start with, “Dear Blogger.” (Long story. But trust me, he’s a funny guy.)

I’d say it was a good year. Lots left to accomplish, but many firsts out of the way.

So I realized, even as I wrote it, that my previous “Lessons from year 1” post was a bit of a downer. I tried hard to focus on the fact that those are all things I hope to work at this coming year, but in the end, I suppose it came off as a list of things I’m not doing well enough.

So, I thought it was worth a second post to highlight some of the things I learned and did with my rookie year.

As I wrote in my self-evaluation, I’m a much more confident and competent reporter today than a year ago. In my first year, I took on some stories I’d rather have gone my whole career without experiencing, like writing about a 6-year-old girl killed on her way to school. I also worked on a few that I’m still kind of amazed we actually pulled off, like getting the name and some details on a very tight-lipped closed search for a new superintendent weeks before the board was ready to talk. Those are the two stories that most stick out in my mind for year one. (They were also the two my editor highlighted, so I suppose I wasn’t way off.)

I also tackled some things I thought I’d never write about, including writing about bank robberies, child molestation charges and a prostitution sting, to name a few. I realized I am very much not the reporter who thrives on cops/crime news. In fact, I very much dislike those stories, even if they are a necessary evil. Yet, because they were thrust upon me, I proved to myself that even at my most uncomfortable, even when I have absolutely no idea what the heck I am doing, somehow, I can think on my feet and get it done. That’s probably the most important thing I learned in year one: confidence that I can cover anything. I remember that prostitution story for one reason, and that’s because it was the first time I talked to the sheriff. Without even thinking, I started firing questions as they came to me. Because we had never spoken before, he stopped me and asked, “Are you new?” I replied honestly that I’d been here a month or so. He welcomed me and commented that I must be good because, “You ask all the right questions.” Score one for flying by the seat of my pants.

As far as reporting, I wrote more enterprise stories than weeks in the year, which, for those keeping score at home, is a lot. I learned more than anybody needs to know about teacher contracts as districts and unions clashed again and again this year. (Thankfully, most of them settled for two or three years.) I’m still working on my mastery of the state/school budget process, but spent enough time pestering officials for a primer that I at least understand how to calculate the impact of those numbers on the average tax payer. Along the way, I also wrestled with some ethical questions, which required me to not only consult my conscience, but to lean back on a professor or two. I also, perhaps most importantly, got to have some fun with stories, including ones about teens texting while driving and first-graders learning about geography from the Wii.

Considering I don’t want to be a beat reporter my whole career, I was also glad to be involved in several new ventures. My editor says it’s because I’m willing to speak up and stay engaged and offer constructive feedback and fresh ideas that I got these opportunities. I’m still figuring it was luck. We launched a new schools page, which I like to call my weekly pain in the — you get the idea. But the teachers and principals love it. I like it because it’s a place for things that otherwise would fall between the cracks to find a home. But it still needs work, and I need to find my rhythm. We also launched our first high school micro-site. It, too, still needs work. But the fact that we got anywhere with it still amazes me. And I still see so much potential there once we work it all out. Finally, my invite to the table for the New Product Development committee. There are some very exciting things on the horizon this year, and I love that I get to offer my thoughts, ideas and perspective to a group that is kind of steering the future of the company. I’m both exhilarated and humbled by the mere invitation to be part of that group.

All in all, I would say I look back on my first year as a positive start. When I consider how unhappy many of my peers are at their first jobs or the less than positive experiences I’ve heard about from too many people, I am thankful for a year like the one I had. Sure, there are things I need to improve. God help me when I don’t realize that or think otherwise. But overall, I think I had an pretty OK year. Now that the basics are down, it’s time to find my pace, my place and my purpose.

And, I promise, I won’t forget to have fun.

Report card, report card, what did we get?

Monday, January 14th, 2008

I meant to note this before, when we got the news a few weeks back, but I got caught up in other things and well now there’s a convenient column from the publisher summing up the highlights of the report card the J&C received.

Overall? It’s hella good news for any newspaper (and its subsidiaries, which is probably the wrong word) to be growing readership these days. Here’s what he says:

Publishers, editors, online directors and all of our employees receive another report card every few years.

That report card is the results of independent market research on readership of the print Journal & Courier, jconline and reader answers to questions about their satisfaction with our news coverage.

So, I figured losing a few percentage points in print market reach would be a major victory in a time when many newspapers are losing much more ground than that. Maybe, just maybe, we could come close to making up those print losses with our surging Internet site — jconline.

So we were stunned when we got our report card.

Readership of the newspaper each day was up slightly from our last research in 2005. Seven-day readership of our newspaper (the percent of the market reading our paper at least once each week) was up slightly to 75 percent.

On top of that, our reach of the local market though jconline each week had grown to an impressive 31 percent.

I expected growth in this area, but not to that extent. In fact, the market reach of jconline is No. 1 in the entire Gannett Company (owners of the Journal & Courier). Total combined print and online reach had increased to 82 percent each week.

The researchers told us that reader satisfaction with our coverage of local news and other topics is high, well above most newspapers our size.

They also told us that readers’ reaction to the new newspaper was overwhelmingly favorable.

There’s more. Even more than he wrote in the column. But even without anything else, that’s impressive and happy news. As one of my profs noted when I was home this weekend about the fact that they bought a new press: “It’s a good sign that they’re investing money in your paper.”

And as I told another friend when I forwarded her a job opening here. Those numbers don’t just mean we’re doing a good job reaching our audience, which is true apparently. They also mean something else vital: job security. (OK, I know no job is “secure,” but I’d rather be at a paper that’s growing and making progress than, well, anywhere else.)