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Archive for July 26th, 2009

Embarking on a 10-month project *gulp*

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

On Friday, my editor, the projects editor and I finally finished developing the budget for a story I first pitched in May. Yes, it’s almost August.

But this isn’t just any story. I’m more excited about this story, or rather the series of stories, than I have ever been about a story and than I probably should be. Not that two years and seven months working professionally is a huge range to draw from, but this will be the biggest story of my career to date. Maybe ever?

And it wasn’t until I was staring at the wall of white board on Friday, every inch filled with the topics I will pursue, the people I will seek out, the issues I’ll explore… Even after months of pitching it, developing a list of topics I wanted to hit on, getting the support of my editors and the permission of the school and district, it wasn’t until I saw the wall of work ahead of me that it hit me how ambitious the undertaking is. How crazy I must be to think I can pull it off. And how accomplished I will feel when I do. And mostly, how powerful the story will be when it’s all in place.

I’m going to be doing a 10-month series. An entire school year, August through May. Each month, I will write a Sunday package on a different but related angle, with different vignettes and issues. I’m not posting the topic/theme just yet as we’re still working out details, but I’ll post about it when the first package runs Aug. 16.

I won’t have the luxury many people have had — in the past or at larger papers — when taking on projects of this scale. I work at a community daily with fewer than a dozen local reporters. I have a beat to cover, with more than two dozen school districts and hundreds of schools full of stories for me tell. I will still be at every school board meeting I’d normally attend. I’ll still write a weekly Schools Page and maintain my School Notebook blog. I will still cover test scores, graduation rates, announcements, accomplishments, features, breaking news and any other schools-related items. I knew that going in. That’s part of why we’ve structured the stories to fit into monthly chunks. They can see fruits of my labor throughout the year. And I don’t drop the ball on the beat I’ve spent more than two and a half years building.

I also have to do it not knowing what the next 10 months holds for the newspaper business or my own newsroom. Just since I first came up with the idea, I’ve been on a one week furlough and through one round of layoffs. (Obviously, I wasn’t laid off.) Both those events made me question whether it was prudent to launch into something as ambitious as what I’ve proposed and what now is weeks from coming to fruition. I’m embarking on a long journey. I don’t think when I first came here, I even expected to still be here today, let alone committing to at least another school year and likely much more. But this is the type of thing journalists live for. I’m going to a tell a story that’s never been told before, that shows my community the consequences of the choices we’ve made and the policies we’ve instituted, that shines a spotlight on an overlooked but looked-down-upon place to see why it matters, what everyone can learn and what they can do about it. Those are the types of stories that make people worry newspapers will go away. Yes, it’s scary to launch into something like this not knowing. But if you spend your life afraid to overstep your comfort zone, or looking over your shoulder worried it’s not worth the effort, you’ll never accomplish anything. At some point, you have to just jump and trust it will work out.

So, I wanted to document my excitement now.

I also was hoping that maybe some of the more experienced reporters and editors who stumble on it will give me some tips. I have, needless to say, never done anything of this scope. I’m on vacation this week (my 24th birthday is Wednesday!), and during that time I’m going to be putting a lot of thought into how I’ll organize my days and my notes as I proceed through 10-months of reporting. So I figured now would be a good time to solicit any tips from the veterans out there.