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Archive for November, 2008

The best stories are where the people are

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

Last week, I wrote a story about a reading program making a big difference in the local Catholic schools. (In a year they increased kindergartners’ average reading by 27 percentage points on a national test.)

As part of my story, I contacted the national foundation behind it and talked to the director about the program. I even had them send me more material than I could ever use in my story about how it works. I spoke to her the day before I had a scheduled visit to a classroom using the program. When I mentioned that — as in, I’m sorry to have to ask you to explain this but I haven’t seen it in person yet — she said something that saddened but didn’t surprise me. She said, “I so respect journalists that still visit the classroom.”

What seems normal practice to me is, I know, not necessarily a reality for many time- and space-strapped reporters.

One of the best parts about having the education beat is all the kids I get to meet — and usually only when they’re being cute kids. It’s hard to not be cheered up after walking into a room of smiling faces who are singing, acting, telling you about their grand ideas or high opinions or whatever. I hate the days I spend stuck in the newsroom, which is why I probably do more short features than many people. I didn’t go to j-school to learn how to cover the science fair, but if that’s what’s happening in local classrooms, why not highlight the kids’ work?

Also, it’s a way to get me into the schools without an agenda. But when I’m there, I’m constantly observing, and I introduce myself to everyone. It helps me develop my beat and get local people in the paper doing cool things. I can turn a quick story in an hour and eight to ten inches, not much of an investment on our part but it means a lot to the schools and kids featured. It also begets more story ideas, both the light features and also harder news to investigate, from the people I meet and even casual readers. They trust me with their stories because they know me.

I also look at those stories as relationship builders. So when something not so positive happens — such as test scores coming back way below where they should be or an embezzlement or bomb threat or whatever — I can call up the teachers, parents or principals and they don’t associate me only with sensationalizing or with bad press. And when I am accused of only writing negative things, I can give dozens of recent examples that highlight positive things in the schools. The administrators, at least the ones I’ve been able to build relationships with, which sadly because the number of schools and districts and geographic size of my coverage area isn’t all of them, are honest with me. I don’t come with an agenda. I come with a story I’ve researched and usually reported already, and I want their input.

Yes, I do meeting stories. Any education reporter, especially one covering as many districts as me, spends a fair amount of time in meetings. But I rarely break news out of a meeting because I’ve done my job beforehand to find what was coming and why it ever was going to the board. Most often, the best stories — the stories behind the decisions — will be given big play the day of or before the meeting. This is also why I do something most of the other media outlets here don’t do, I attend work sessions whenever I can, even if I won’t report a word out of it. That’s where the story behind the story, or decision, comes out. (There are exceptions to this, but it’s been my experience.) That’s when you find out whose agenda it is and hear the reasoning and asides about it. That’s when board members are people not rubber stamps.

I began to think about this after reading Mindy McAdams’ post highlighting something Andy Dickinson posted last week. It’s about the essence of stories and how stories are often superficially gathered and reported online without the key element.

Mindy and Andy actually hit on something about journalism that keys in on why I’m a reporter and why I didn’t take the online producing route immediately out of college, even though I’m really interested in finding innovative ways to tell stories you can’t on paper. The truth is, I wanted a solid journalistic foundation for whatever job or jobs I someday hold. I wanted to be good at finding and telling stories before I moved on to evangelizing how it should be done.

But at the heart of journalism is the story. I want to tell people’s stories, not necessarily tell people stories. If that makes any sense. I feel a sense of pride in helping share a moment or achievement. Even if not many people read it, it’s cathartic for me and the subject. I’d rather tell you the principal cried when he received the test scores than his grand plans to better them. Both are important elements, but the first helps you understand this isn’t just a story about numbers, it’s a story about people.

I find that there are two kinds of articles I truly enjoy: The stories where I have to rush against a deadline or really, truly dig for the truth. And the opposite, stories where I get to spend extended periods of time conducting interviews and just observing people.

That’s why my favorite stories have been those where I’ve gotten to actually see someone else’s world view. Where I’ve gotten to know them, or at least the parts of them relevant to the story, where they’re not just a source or a subject, they’re a person. That’s why I think Andy’s on to something with his statement that “stories come from people.”

They come from the collective experiences, social contexts and relevence of communities. To find a story and know why it’s a story, you have to be part of or active in those communities. That’s something that ‘traditional’ journalism is supposed to be good at. Understanding the communities/audience they serve. Being relevant through the intimate knowledge of a patch. Having the ‘in’ at the ground floor of a story.

He’s talking about how to move the classroom visit experience beyond the physical world and into the virtual world. Certainly, there are stories to be told that way. But life, for now, still exists in the physical world. Even in my own overly digitized life, the story isn’t in my blackberry, on my blog or in my twitter updates. The story is the laughs I share with co-workers and the tears I share with family. You can glimpse me through those digital windows, kind of the way I glimpse the classrooms I swoop in on. And you can tell some good stories that way or from the memories of those who went inside. But the best stories will still come from leaving the office — or if you must report online, leaving your comfort zone — and going, as Andy points out, where the people are.

I know that is time-consuming reporting. Trust me, I work for a 40K community daily newspaper; I often feel overwhelmed with the amount of work I have before me, between online updates, byline expectations and just making sure I get my news covered. I was told once that the way to deal with too much work is to turn what doesn’t have to be great — those meeting reports and quick-hit features — as straight and quick as you can, so you have more time to devote to the things that really interest you, and the things that really matter. I don’t blow off the little things, but I don’t get caught up in them either. Instead, I use them as building blocks for bigger ones. It’s worth the time. If anything can, better reporting not more reporting will save journalism.

A few laughs at stuff journalists like

Sunday, November 2nd, 2008

On a lighter note. During my month hiatus, across my Twitterfeed came a site worth sharing with you all, or at least those who haven’t already laughed at it.

Stuff journalists like. It’s brilliant, and for the most part spot on. I’m surprised it took so long to come to existence. It’s in the same tongue-in-cheek vein as Stuff White People Like, which sadly is also pretty funny. And we could all use a few laughs these days.

A few of my personal favorites from SJL and an excerpt from the posts:

  • Readers’ feedback — I don’t necessarily agree with nasty comments being validation of my work. But I did laugh about the fact that many audience members tend to be “experts” on whatever you’re reporting and relish any opportunity to point out a flaw, even when they’re dead wrong:

    Journalists like nothing more than to stagger back into the newsroom in the morning, not more than six hours after leaving the night before, to get an email from a reader on the difference between straitjacket vs. straight jacket – for the record both are correct. Four five years of higher education can’t even begin to compare to the infinite value of the feedback journalists get back from their loyal readers.

  • “The Wire” — No seriously, if you haven’t already fallen in love with this show, go rent a few episodes. It’s fantastic.:

    [A]s good as seasons one through four are, it is season five that journalists really love. Going inside the Baltimore Sun’s newsroom for season five, reporters feel smug hearing terms like “main art,” “double truck,” or “below the fold.” Journalist like telling their non-journalists friends what these words mean, and that they really use those terms in their own newsroom.

  • Twittering — Sad, but true. Though in my case, my co-workers like making fun of Twittering much more than I actually like it. I’m just sayin’:

    Seeing their work, be it ever so brief, releases that chemical in every journalist’s brain that ensures them they are ahead of 99 percent of the world when it comes to reporting on the presidential debate, hurricane or community bake sale.

If I had to throw my own in there, I’d probably add, “complaining about other journalists” to the mix, especially about those working in another medium in your market. Maybe it’s not complaining so much as feeling superior to them, even if you have no reason other than that you can. At least, I assume this is something all journalists do, certainly it’s been my experience, but I’m young. Others I’d add to my list: Google, reverse phone look-up, charticles, election night and databases/Excel. To my more tongue-in-cheek list: conference calls, press conferences and man on the street interviews.

What’s on your list?

I am alive and still employed

Saturday, November 1st, 2008

To answer the questions I have received in my e-mail from blog readers (I am humbled even to know I have regular enough readers to notice my absence): Yes, I am alive, and yes, I am still employed (for now, more on this later).

My apologies for my month-long absence here. My MacBook hard drive gave out (about a month to the day after my two-year warranty was up, how convenient?). I decided to start an experiment rather than immediately fix or replace it. I wanted to test whether I could survive my high-tech lifestyle sans personal computer.

Surprisingly, the answer was, for the most part, yes. A BlackBerry is a handy tool, and I suspect I’d have had even more success this past month with an iPhone or G1. But alas, other than my blog and a dip in Twittering (both of which I make a point of not doing on my computer at work) I survived. Unfortunately, as anyone who knows me well knows, those are kind of key elements of my digital persona. So I’d hesitate to call my month a success. But there were a few lessons. The one to take away, for me at least, is while most mobile news sites lack the depth of news available on their traditional counterpart, I was able to get most of the news I would want quickly just on my phone. And when I’m just looking for the headlines, I actually prefer the stripped down mobile version of my own paper’s site.

SO… back to my second point above: I am still employed.

As many of you know I do work for a Gannett newspaper. And as most of those reading this likely know, we will be suffering that same 10 percent payroll cut as the rest of the company’s newspapers. And while our newsroom has been spared cuts during my 22-month tenure here, we’ve been told not to expect the same fortune this time.

I don’t know how I feel about even blogging about this, especially since who will be in that 10 percent is undecided still and I know my bosses read this. I haven’t really blogged about cuts in the past. But this is the first time I’ve felt even a hint of “what if it’s me?” Still, I realize part of my mission for this blog is to tell the story of what it’s like to be a 20-something breaking into this industry. Part of that for me, for kids at other papers in my chain and in journalism jobs elsewhere is the reality that everything we’ve worked for so far could be taken away in one conversation and for no good reason.

So I’m going to tell you how I feel about the cuts:

I’m not scared. I’m not unafraid because I think my job is safe. I’m unafraid because I know even if it’s not, I’ll rebound. The truth is, I’ve been prepared for this news since I started. I’ve always felt a job at a newspaper was a precarious situation, even if I prepared myself as best I could by loading up on skills beyond writing and reporting. I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the past week. It would suck, certainly, to be fired (err laid off?) from my first job. But as I told the other reporters when we got the note from the publisher in our inbox, “The only surprising thing about the layoffs is it took as long as it did to come.” One of my questions to the Gannett recruiter I first interviewed with a few years ago was about layoffs, and he was blunt they were a possibility. Unlike some of my older counterparts, I knew the volatility of the industry I was entering. I knew what I was getting in to and that it would likely bring me heart break. But it was worth it to do something I love.

Mentally, I am prepared to at any time have a tap on my shoulder saying thanks for your hard work, get out of here. In this cut or others that may inevitably follow. I almost think I’d feel better if it were me cut not one of those old-timers who have made a home and a career here. I am 23; many people my age haven’t even graduated college yet, while I have two years experience. I also have Web skills many don’t and the willingness and ability to learn pretty much anything. Not to mention, I have networked reasonably well, so I’d probably stand a better chance of finding a journalism job than someone who has been here longer, although I don’t think I’d like to have to compete against the thousands of other people being let go. And finally, I don’t have roots in this town beyond my job and friendships I’ve made, and I don’t have a family or a mortgage to worry about. Even the bills I have to pay every month, I could manage on minimum wage if I moved back in with my parents, which is a lot less embarrassing at 23 than 43. For those reasons, I’d be a logical choice to cut. Of our reporters, I would be the least personally hurt by the business move. But unfortunately, these things aren’t logical.

I work hard and already feel I carry the weight of more than one reporter. I’m also pretty sure I’m their lowest paid or among their lowest paid reporters. I also have contributed in other areas of the business, including helping develop new or better existing products to reach our community. In short, I think I’m an asset not a drag.

So the truth is, it’d be Gannett’s loss not mine. In short: Mentally, I’m prepared to be posting a plea here in a month to help me find a job. I hope it doesn’t come to that. But if it does, don’t feel bad. One of the great things about me is I’m an optimist. I know things will work out just fine. And it would take a lot more than a layoff to kill my desire to do good journalism.