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Archive for November 13th, 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.