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Archive for May, 2008

J&C speller, FTW!

Saturday, May 31st, 2008

Spelling bees were not a big thing where I came from. I suppose they’re probably like that in most places. The closest I ever came to caring was when my older sister won our elementary school spelling bee, but she never made it past the local competition.

When I came to Lafayette, however, I began to care about the spelling bee. First, the Journal & Courier sponsors the local bee. Also, I cover education, so it’s a big story for my schools. But the real reason is our spellers usually do well beyond the local competitions. But never before this well:

spelling bee winner leads Indy Star

That’s a screen grab from the front of today’s Indy Star, where Sameer was the lead story. — I’d have grabbed the J&C’s front where he dominated, but someone forgot to post it last night so I can’t. It’s probably cooler he got such prominent play in the state’s largest paper anyway.

Cool side note, he also got a photo mention on the front of the Washington Post! He garnered quite a few other front page photo mentions; in a quick birds-eye scan of Today’s Front Pages:

(Note: After today, those pages will be different.)

Now, I’ve written before about good news stories, and the public’s hunger for them. This is one of those stories.

I did a Q&A earlier this week with Sameer Mishra, the four-time winner of the J&C sponsored spelling bee whose older sister had won it in the years preceding him. This was his fourth and final time heading to the national bee, and he said he just wanted to beat his personal best — 14th place two years ago.

He’s obviously very smart, but beyond that, he’s hard-working. He spent 4-5 hours a night studying words to prepare. Not that other kids didn’t spend as much time, but you have to be dedicated to do that. The world could use more dedicated people.

Everyone was rooting for him around here. Each time he went up to spell, our newsroom gathered around the local desk TV to watch and cross our fingers. It wasn’t that we were the sponsors, it was that this was a local kid on the national stage and he was totally kicking butt. It was exciting. How can you not root for the local?

I monitored and wrote quick updates throughout the day for our Web site, but we had a Gannett reporter in D.C. writing the story itself, so I was hands-off there. When I left last night, I went out to dinner and out to the movies, so I only got to track him through the 10th round. When I got a call while at dinner from the night editor telling me he had won and they needed me to give them his parents cell phone number so the reporter today can call for a follow, I was elated. I mean, I had a huge smile on my face for at least 10 minutes. I was just so happy for him that all his hard-work had paid off. I honestly am not sure I’ve ever been that genuinely and unselfishly happy for someone else before in my life. It felt good.

Sameer wasn’t just a local favorite, he had audiences everywhere cracking up. Earlier in the semifinals, he would crack jokes, like the fact that the word he received was a dessert that “sounds good now” or when he was told one of his words had five languages of origin and he quipped “That’s wonderful.” But the funniest moment was when he — and most people as you can tell by the audience’s laughter — misheard the announcer saying “numbnut” instead of “numnah.” For your belly-laughing pleasure, that moment’s preserved on YouTube:

‘I guess that means I’m doing my job right’

Tuesday, May 27th, 2008

I am working on a package to run later this week about a retiring administrator who has served here for nearly two decades. In perspective: He’s been superintendent since before I entered kindergarten.

So, I’ve spent the past week or so trying to squeeze in interviews about his impact on the district, which is different in nearly every way today than it was two decades ago.

After I sat down for an extended interview with him last week, I thanked him for his time. I also thanked him for helping show me the ropes of the education beat.

As I noted on one of Kate Martin’s posts about a recent survey of education reporters (to which I actually responded), I am very indebted to some patient superintendents and assistant superintendents who were never too busy to field my dumb questions. Part of it was my willingness to be a beginner and to sit down with the numbers, meet with the people impacted and to go through the old clippings to understand the context. But my beat knowledge of everything from remonstrances to school budgets to contract bargaining comes from on-the-job, need-to-know experience. It came from learning to ask the right questions of the right people.

That’s why I was, I guess the word is honored, when after I thanked the outgoing leader not just for taking the time to sit for my interview, but for his help getting me acquainted with this beat, he made this comment to me: “I always tell (the other administrators) that Meranda has the ability to ask the exact question you do not want to answer.”

I replied, “I guess that means I’m doing my job right.”

And it does. Though I’m not drawn to and would prefer to avoid conflict, I’ve also learned in my reporting experience when to press harder and how to read clues that lead me to those questions they’d rather not answer.

I never thought I’d like the education beat. Honestly, I remember before I interviewed for my job here, I was telling one of my professors about the positions open (county and education) and how I’d probably never want to cover education. I thank GOD we had that conversation. Because she sat me down and explained to me how education touches everything and why it is so vital. As a result, when I interviewed and they asked my preferred beat, it was education I asked for. Looking around at my fellow reporters today, I can say with some conviction that there honestly isn’t another beat at my paper I’d rather cover.

I’m also excited because in a year and a half since starting here, not only do I feel that I’ve done a lot to enhance the depth and scope of our education coverage in the community, but I have also grown so much as a reporter. I am able to find and execute stories today that a year ago I’d never have seen or, if I had, attempted. I love that. I can look back a few months ago even and see things I’d do differently. Though it makes me wish I’d had the insight then, I don’t see this as a bad thing. It means I’m growing — and it means the best stories are yet to come.

QOTD: The most original authors …

Monday, May 26th, 2008

“The most original authors are not so because they advance what is new, but because they put what they have to say as if it had never been said before.”
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Reporting on record gas prices, again (and again)

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

I’ve commented before about how every turn in the wind seems to merit a weather story. And if you’ll recall, that means pretty much every weather story ever conceived has been written.

Now, let’s talk about another reporting phenomenon that’s quickly displacing the *eye roll*-inducing weather story: gas prices.

Why is it so tempting to report on gas prices? For the same reason weather is such a journalism staple. It’s easy to find a few real people to complain about it and throw in the national weather service forecast and totals (or in gas prices debate, AAA fuel gauge/Gas Buddy averages). Like severe weather, when gas prices spike, that’s all anybody wants to talk about. Including those of us in the newsroom.

A month ago, my twitter followers may remember, I noted that my jaw dropped to see $3.64/gal. It had jumped from about $3.44 to that new high mid-day. That $3.40 mark had steadily been reached. It had been inching its way there for weeks, perhaps months, years even. It was still a bit of a sticker shock to me because I remember just last year being utterly annoyed every time a $3 went out front. I even remember the summer I interned, when gas hit $3.15 randomly one day, I called my roommate at work (I was out taking a walk) to see if we’d been bombed or something because that was so high.

I know those in other countries or other parts of the country pay more, substantially more, and I shouldn’t complain. (I’m going to anyway, my mileage rate is 28 cents, and my schools are all over the place in this county and others.) It’d be one thing if it was always this expensive. But consider this, I’ve seen the price of gas nearly triple since I’ve been driving. And I’ve only been driving since I graduated high school — five years ago.

So back to the journalism. We report often when it reaches a record high. In fact, we keep tabs every day of the average price on our business page. But how does one report gas reaching a record high when two or three times a week it peaks again? Today for instance, we saw a $4+ gallon in the Greater Lafayette area.

I agree that is a huge deal, and regardless of records, the $4 mark represents a huge mental hurdle. How many people said they’d reduce consumption at $3/gal? I don’t think that many actually did. $4/gallon is just, well a lot. And put it in the context of the national debate about everything from alternative fuels — hello, that $4.05/gallon was in the same county as Biotown USA — to a gas-tax holiday, and there is definitely interest and likely some news.

But here’s the challenge: How do you make and keep it relevant? How many times can you write about Joe Schmoo spending $80 to fill up his pick-up and how hard it hits city budgets? What angles, what interesting standing features can we come up with to make a timely topic remain fresh and new? And when is it time to reign in the daily feature and put someone on an enterprise, long-term look into some of those ideas and this trend?

I don’t have the answers. But I think it’s a challenge that every paper and news organization really needs to consider. And I’m open to suggestions. I’ve already mentioned a few angles.

I’m going to throw out a few ideas here, and I’m just brainstorming right now. I’m sure many have been done. Some probably done to death. So, if you have any novel or different ideas, share them. I’m sure more than one reporter or editor is going to type in google “gas price story idea” or something of that sort in the coming months looking for an idea his/her paper hasn’t hit on yet. Let’s come up with a few good ones. Maybe then we won’t, and the readers won’t, need to roll their eyes are they read about “pain at the pump” for the umpteenth time this summer.

  • Tomorrow, our paper has a story on cities busting their already tight budgets with gas for their police cruisers/city vehicles and street sweepers who aren’t sweeping as often. What’s your city doing? Anything innovative? Are the cops patrolling as often? Is the dog warden out? Are they cutting back on cutting the park grass? Was their budget prepared with $4 gas in mind? If not, what will get cut?
  • What about schools? If you have rural counties like we do, consider how much it costs to bus those kids. Did your district budget for this jump? Are they considering charging more for field trips using school transportation? (One of my districts just discussed this at its meeting last night. In fact the two geographically largest school districts in my state are in my coverage area.)
  • How’s it impacting businesses:
    • Landscapers need to drive to their jobs and they need gas for their equipment. Are they charging more or cutting corners? What about farmers plowing, planting, harvesting their fields?

    • Other companies do a lot of driving may see a big impact: repairmen, pizza deliveries, florists?
    • Do you have a lake nearby? Are boat or jet ski rentals headed up?
    • Are RV sales down as fewer families take to the open road for road trips? ALSO: What about high school and college kids who might have taken a road trip this summer. Are they opting out or taking different routes?
    • What about taxi cab drivers who are especially impacted by a volatile market? (My father is a cab driver, and they haven’t lowered the lease he has to pay daily because gas has gone up. He’s absorbing the difference and just making significantly less.)
    • What about truckers? Are their profits down as their miles increase?
    • Similarly, will the ice cream man be making fewer rounds this summer due to higher gas prices?
    • Will churches/non-profits who serve elderly patients or make food deliveries need to scale back those efforts? What does it mean for social services in your community?
    • Are there more people working from home or telecommuting to work? Or are they carpooling? Are companies upping gas mileage or are they recruiting less from the suburbs?
    • Are gas stations seeing less sales on extras, like sodas and gum, as people struggle just to pay for the gas? What types of incentives are they trying to offer?
    • Car dealerships, at least around here, are offering things like $2.99 gas for three years or free gas for a year or whatever when you buy a new car or trade it in. Here’s a few things to look at related to this: How good is the deal. If you trade in your new SUV at a lower trade-in than it’s really worth you may be losing more money than saving. Alternately, check out those dealer specials. How much would you really save if you could secure free gas for six months or whatever the terms are. Dealers aren’t going to take a major loss. Arm readers with the knowledge they need to not get duped.
    • Is the local AAA seeing more people running out of gas as they tried to stretch out each fill-up? Could be interesting to follow them out to some people to find out their reasons for running out.
  • And don’t forget who’s benefiting in your community:
    • Are the “tree huggers” happy and getting more believers to join their cause?

    • Are car dealers selling more hybrids or economy cars?
    • Are bicycle shops seeing renewed interest?
    • Is ridership up on your city buses?
    • Has there suddenly been a renewed interest in mopeds or motorcycle riding? Or are you seeing more scooters and segways?
    • Local museums, parks, camp sites, etc. may see a boost in attendance when fewer people opt to go so far away.
  • Want to do human interest? Here’s a few quick ideas:
    • Go out and find five people to tell you about their very first car. When did they get their license? How much did it cost to fill it up? What did they do then that kids can’t do now? OR…

    • Find some individuals doing innovative things to avoid high gas prices. Chances are they’re out there installing solar panels or transforming restaurant oil. If you haven’t come across it, put a call out online or in the paper to ask people for suggestions/ideas. You’d be surprised some of the things you never thought of before.
    • Stand at a gas station or two and just do the following exercise. Fill in the blank: “Gas prices are ____.” Then ask the person to explain. Get a name and head shot, throw the question in a fancy, big font out front and then just have the head shots and answers carry the package. Not earth-shattering, but the answers would be unpredictable and fun.

Any of those stories could have a video or package to accompany it online. Some are more visual than others. Or just put together a fuel price map, which would be useful if you cull the Gas Buddy data or get really active users to offer input so it’s constantly updated.

Anyway, that’s just a quick brainstorming session so later this summer when my editor taps me for a gas price update I have a jumping off point. Any great ideas — especially non-traditional ideas since many of mine are quick-hit features — you guys have are welcome and would be awesome to add to my list.

Poynter’s pointers on managing intern/reporter blogs

Monday, May 5th, 2008

There’s a quick read about how to handle intern or reporters blogs at Poynter’s Every Day Ethics column from Thursday.

The cliff notes version of the entry is this: have a policy, make it known and don’t make it “no blogs.”

As a proponent of journalists blogging and a member of a newsroom with a pretty loose policy (which I think has a lot to do with my editors’ comfort with the technology: the publisher, executive editor & managing editor all blog themselves for the Web site), I think all the suggestions about the policies in the column are reasonable:

  • Write one. Maybe start a blog about policies. But do it now. It’s way too late to claim that blogging is just too new of a phenomenon to merit a policy.

  • Reconsider your policy if it states: No personal blogs. Telling a 20-year-old he can’t blog is like telling a 50-year-old she can’t write a holiday letter. You won’t win that one.
  • Consider what you’re comfortable having employees discuss in public:
    • Nothing about the newsroom at all? That might be unrealistic.
    • Nothing about stories in development? That seems fair.
    • Nothing that puts the company in a negative light? Sure, you’ve got a right to require that, but you might define negative carefully.
    • Nothing about sources? Good idea. Journalists who say things about their sources that they wouldn’t put into their stories are treading in dangerous territory.
    • Nothing embarrassing or negative about your colleagues.
  • I counsel journalists who keep personal blogs to employ a no-surprises rule. Always let your boss know if you have a blog. Ask for guidelines, if they don’t exist. Never say anything in the blog that you wouldn’t say out loud, to the primary stakeholders.
  • I agree most with the items I underlined in those suggestions.

    The first made me laugh, but it’s true. Don’t say I can’t do it, but do set guidelines for me to follow. If you don’t set guidelines, don’t blame me if down the road you’re upset.

    But by the same token, the ultimate responsibility is NOT on the editors to foresee every instance that could need guidance. They have better more important things to do than micro-manage their employees personal time. So if you want to blog, you need to be reasonable and responsible. Never, never, never post anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable defending. Assume Google will archive it. Assume it will be the top hit someone (like your boss or your sources) sees when they Google you down the road. Would you be comfortable standing behind it? If not, don’t say it. If you’re not sure, wait a day. You can’t always take it back.

    When they first heard I had a blog, some of the other reporters and editors told me a story about a group of former interns who had kept blogs that they thought no one read. They were honest, uninhibited. Turns out, the whole newsroom was reading. Assume this will be the case. Think about your reasons for wanting to hide it. Then, think about my last paragraph and find a way to reconcile those differences.

    That goes along with the “ask for guidelines” approach. Although I’d already started the blog when I started my job, I wasn’t sure what if any policy my paper had. I approached the editor about it. Later on, when someone in corporate came across the blog and included a reference in a corporate media strategy blog, she wasn’t caught off-guard by the existence or content of this site. She thought it was cool I got the mention. If she didn’t know about the site, I don’t think she’d have been so happy for me.

    The tagline version of my point is this: As with most things in life, blog responsibly.