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Leaving the newspaper biz, but leaving the door open

Monday, October 4th, 2010

I no longer work for a newspaper. That’s actually old news by now. But I continue to be asked about it because, well, I haven’t made it official or explained myself here. So here’s the short and long (sorry) of it.

Tuesday, Aug. 17, was my last day as education reporter at the Lafayette Journal & Courier, and potentially at a newspaper. I started Aug. 18 at a new job at Angie’s List Magazine as an associate editor. Before we commence the tar-and-feather “how could you leave journalism??” bit… I didn’t leave journalism at all. I found another niche within it at a magazine that is part of a growing company doing work I think serves a good purpose; it’s actually an award-winning magazine with solid original reporting, so a company newsletter it’s not. I’m still writing and reporting, just about more consumer affairs issues and less (or rather not-at-all) about school boards. I’m also honing a different set of writing and editing skills for a different type of audience, and I’m working in a very different type of setting and keeping regular office hours.

Why change? (Here comes the long part, full of very honest self-reflection) (more…)

QOTD: Give em hell and try to have some fun

Sunday, July 18th, 2010

“Give ’em hell and try to have some fun while you’re at it.”
— Julie Doll, parting advice from the now-former executive editor of the Journal & Courier whose last day was this week

This was Julie’s short and sweet parting advice in an e-mail to staff before heading out the last time. It reminds me a lot of another favorite quote about journalism, which actually was emblazoned on the backs of the Daily Kent Stater t-shirts the semester I was editor:

“It is a newspaper’s duty to print the news and raise hell.”
— Wilbur F. Storey

Either way, I just wanted to post this quote to add it to my collection and to inspire other journalists to keep the work in perspective. It can be incredibly difficult and sometimes you have to put some feet to the fire, yes, but sometimes, you can also have an incredible amount of fun. It’s a balancing act, and Julie managed it well.

What I’ve learned two months into a 10-month series

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

You know it’s bad when even your boyfriend, who is not a journalist, keeps telling you that you need to update your blog. My last update was the end of July, so I didn’t want September to slip completely by, as August did, without any updates.

I also want to update everyone on the series I wrote about before the school year began and sent me into a crazy-busy tailspin.

As I previously wrote about, I began in August the first part of a 10-month series. The series is basically a year in the life of a local elementary school on the brink (it was then at least…) of restructuring because of No Child Left Behind. The idea was and is to go inside and spend time at a “failing school” to see what takes place in the classroom, on the playground, in the office, at the homes, etc. and examine why this school is in the position it is and what we can learn from it. It’s a comprehensive look at all the different factors that come into play, each month focusing on a different facet.

The August package was setting up the series, explaining all of the changes this year, introducing some key players and terms and spelling out why we are focusing on this one elementary all year. The second part, in September, was a look at the make-up and motivations of the teaching staff, with a look at how much researchers say those teachers matter to the kids success. The October story, which I’m just beginning now, is a look at the families that make up the high-poverty, highly transient population of the school.

Miller series part 1, August 2009. Miller series part 2, September 2009.

You know what they say about the best laid plans, right? I began work on developing and pitching this story and getting the permissions I needed during my second furlough in May. It took all summer to plan and prepare. And four days before the first story ran the school district dropped a bomb shell: The school’s changes — including an eleventh-hour agreement with the teachers union to extend the school day and year — were enough to constitute restructuring per the Department of Ed. It doesn’t have to worry about closing or replacing staff or hiring private management. That is great news for the school. But it meant a last-minute rewrite and refocus that was not at all fun.

The initial premise of my first version of the August story was essentially that this year was the last great effort to save the school. Once that news broke on Thursday afternoon, I had to not only write a story for online and then Friday’s paper. But I also had to completely start over on the mainbar of my Sunday package. Oh yeah, and Friday morning I had to work the 6 a.m. cops shift, which kept me plenty busy besides finishing that rewrite! It was a great exercise in Plan B and not cracking under pressure. I remember several people coming to me and saying, “I’m sorry about your series…” because they thought I’d give up on it since the premise had shifted. Not at all! The topics I and my editors identified are still important, and whether this school has “restructured” or faced the possibility doesn’t diminish what those areas can tell us not only about our community but about other schools that could reach this fate in the coming years.

Overall, the experience to date has been fascinating and frustrating.

I have absolutely enjoyed the hours I’ve sat in classrooms at the school just observing. Sometimes it’s entertaining and sometimes it’s heart-breaking. I’ve never been a teacher and don’t have the patience to become one, but these sessions have helped give me a glimpse of what exactly goes on in different classrooms and different types of classrooms. It’s been great really getting to talk to staff members and parents on a level I’ve never been able to reach before. It’s funny because the week before the second part ran, I spent nearly the whole school day there several days. A few of the teachers even asked when they were going to start paying me to be there since I was there so much.

Probably the greatest part so far has been the community feedback. In the months leading up to my series, I was writing a lot about the school because it was facing this major dilemma. And people were weighing in, not always constructively, with their opinions. Since the series started running, the discourse I’ve heard both personally and through letters to the editor and even story chat comments seems to be much more proactive. It makes me feel this is helping people understand what is happening (and has happened) and why it matters. Two weeks ago, I was covering a school board presentation at another local district. After the meeting, I was talking to some parents when another man came from across the auditorium and interrupted us to tell me, “I’ve been living here for decades, and you are the best education reporter we’ve ever had.” He specifically cited the first part of the series and said it laid out so clearly the issue that he felt he finally understood. What more could you hope for?

It’s been frustrating, however, because as much as I’ve been able to do, I don’t feel it’s been enough. I knew going into the school year this was going to be an “in addition to” project. That is this package is in addition to everything else I have to do to continue to be the best source of education news in our community. I knew that we were short staffed as it was. But it has been difficult to make this project a priority when the daily paper also needs fed and when there are dozens of other interesting stories I want to tell. Because while this is interesting, there are only 315 students at the school out of 20,000+ in the entire county.

It’s also been both helpful and frustrating working with the photographer on this series. It’s the first time either of us has really latched on to a major project. We’re both young and have lots of ideas but not a lot of time. Bouncing ideas off each other has been helpful, but sometimes we’ve snagged between working out vision out with our schedules. Sometimes it’s been from lack of communication between us or from us to the editors. We’re getting better, and I’m thankful to have her thinking about this as well. She has a multimedia background, so she’s done some video and is continuing that. This package, to date, hasn’t had as much multimedia as I’d like for the same reason I haven’t done as much as I want period: time. Our paper is ~40K circulation. We don’t have a large staff, which means we don’t have time to drop the ball on other things. My priority has been on finding and telling the stories (each package has been the front-page plus a spread inside on two pages), and time hasn’t allowed as much alternative story telling as I’d like. While my editors have been relatively gracious as my deadline approaches, I personally still worry about my time. Finding the time and carving it out to do this package right has definitely been my biggest challenge to date. I’m still struggling with it, but I’m getting better.

That last sentence is important: I am getting better. I am already a better reporter than I was two months ago when this began. One of the reasons I wanted to do this series was it is an opportunity to grow professionally. Not many people get the chance to do a story like this, whether for lack of ambition, buy-in from their editors or access to their sources. I am fortunate I am in a position to be able to tell theses stories. It has challenged me to improve my reporting, my research and my writing. I know, as the year continues, I’ll grow even more.

You can read and see what we’ve already produced and follow the series throughout the year: http://jconline.com/miller (The presentation leaves A LOT to be desired. But we’re stuck with this template, and yeah, it’s frustrating. But I’m trying to focus on things I actually can change.)

I’m still excited about what’s ahead. Glad to be one-fifth finished, but looking forward to more stories to come. If you have any feedback or ideas, definitely share them.

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.

A pun-filled story that was a bit too “well done”

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

I meant to post on this weeks ago when this story first aired on the local TV station, but I got busy and forgot. I was reminded of it again today and since I’m off work today (I’m working Saturday and avoiding the newsroom so if there are any lay offs today there I’m not witness) I thought I’d share my ROTFLMAO moment now. It’s still funny.

The reason I want to share this is its over-the-top, pun-filled groan-inducing writing. I have never seen so many puns in one story before, waaay too many not to be intentional. And the reporter says them (you can watch the video) without even cracking a grin and acknowledging the absurdity.

The story is about how bakeries are coping with the economic downturn. A hint at what’s to come: The title is Bakeries rise in the recession. Subhead: Pastry chefs whipping up dollars.

At the risk of copyright infringement, I’m not going to copy and paste but instead link to the entire story. (For any professors/readers who come across this post after the story has been killed out of the system, I did save a copy if you’re interested it.)

But I am going to bold and bullet each of the bakery-related puns/cliches I could spot.

  • … one type of business is rising to the top
  • whip up dollars
  • … just scraping by
  • … earning money during the recession is frosting on the cake
  • … Quality takes the cake
  • … Creativity is O’Rear’s special spice
  • … is mixing it up
  • … share their secret success ingredient
  • … with a sour economy, there’s a demand for something sweet
  • … each cook up a variety

With the title and subhead, that amounts to a dozen (not a bakers dozen, but close) in one 340 word story. Check out the story and see if I missed any. And comment to tell me what you think. Am I overly critical? I realize it’s not a story about murder or anything, but just seems a bit silly to see a professional organization producing stuff like this.

How many stories in the print edition?

Monday, March 30th, 2009

Jay Rosen is collecting story counts of local newspaper’s print editions. I grabbed the past week’s Journal & Courier’s (March 24-30) and am posting my findings here. I counted 143 total local stories, for an average number of 20.4 local stories per day over the past seven days.

Overall, I have to admit the number was lower than I expected. I’m not saying it’s bad low, just less than I would have guessed. I was surprised also by the proportion of local to wire content, but as I note at the very end, my standard for counting wire was lower than for counting local stories. Still, my perception I think is skewed because the only section I read cover-to-cover daily is local, which usually had one or two wire stories at most. Really, glancing through the comments on Jay’s post, I’d say our team is doing a pretty good job. Maybe it just seems since we’re always working so hard, it should be more. But that probably has more to do with what isn’t counted in the print edition — all our blog posts and web updates, photo galleries and videos, for example. Also, the qualitative measure doesn’t scratch the surface of quality of stories. But that’s another day’s discussion.

The Local news section, which has the most reporters and includes myself, produced about as many as I’d expect but the number definitely ranged greatly daily — depending on space in print. There were more sports stories than I expected, but that may have something to do with it being March madness; both Purdue men and women were competing. There were fewer local features stories than I expected. That’s probably because I rarely read our features pages, or maybe that’s why I rarely do? I do not know.

Another factor affecting the numbers may be some people were off a day here and there for furlough. I myself was out a day and a half with the flu. It would be interesting to compare this to a week without furloughs. But that would require going back to like December or fast-forwarding to at least July, so it’d be hard to really compare.

Hometown: Lafayette, Indiana
The name of your newspaper: Journal & Courier
The url for its website: http://jconline.com
Circulation: about 33,000 daily and 40,000 Sunday

Tuesday, March 24

Number of pages: 28
Number of local, biz, features: 13+2+2 = 17
Number of local sports: 5
Total number of wire stories: 31
Total stories in the paper: 53 (local 41.5%)

Wednesday, March 25

Number of pages: 24
Number of local, biz, features: 12+3+1 = 16
Number of local sports: 7
Total number of wire stories: 25
Total stories in the paper: 48 (local 47.9%)

Thursday, March 26

Number of pages: 28
Number of local, biz, features: 12+2+3=17
Number of local sports: 6
Total number of wire stories: 25
Total stories in the paper: 48 (local 47.9%)

Friday, March 27

Number of pages: 20*
Number of local, biz, features: 10+1+?=11*
Number of local sports: 3
Total number of wire stories: 21*
Total stories in the paper: 35 (local 40%)*
* not counted: TGIF tab

Saturday, March 28

Number of pages: 24
Number of local, biz, features: 11+2+2=15
Number of local sports: 8
Total number of wire stories: 26
Total stories in the paper: 49 (local 46.9%)

Sunday, March 29

Number of pages: 40
Number of local, biz, features: 15+1+4=20
Number of local sports: 5
Total number of wire stories: 35
Total stories in the paper: 60 (local 41.7%)

Monday, March 30

Number of pages: 14
Number of local, biz, features: 7+0+3=10
Number of local sports: 3
Total number of wire stories: 25
Total stories in the paper: 38 (local 34.2%)

I know this was a bit more than Jay actually wanted, but I was curious. I’d be curious to see how it stacks up to another paper of similar circulation.

To understand who was writing this copy, here is the number of reporters in the newsroom.

Local desk: 1 communities/religion, 1 business, 1 county government, 1 city government, 1 k-12 education, 1 higher education, 1 courts and 2 ga/cops.
Features: 1 features/health and 1 arts/entertainment.
Sports: 5 reporters, but some with desk duties.
Total: 16 reporters.

Final thoughts to consider in weighing the numbers and their relevance:

  • Our paper is a Berliner format. At most we run three-story fronts. Quite often, we run A1 with just two stories and other refers. This also means, our paper has less actual column space than many. We have four sections most days, including a local front, nation & world, opinions; local; sports/biz; and features that vary by day. On Mondays, we have two sections.

  • I did not count ANY opinions page copy, including local editorials, letters, guest columns or columns by editors.
  • I did count local freelance columns/stories in the other sections. There were few of these during the week.
  • I did not count briefs, even those based on meetings/events/games/trials/etc. actually attended by a reporter. Likewise, the sports agate; business, schools and communities notebooks; and things to do calendars were not counted. Some of each of those items are from releases and others from original reporting.
  • I counted all wire stories that were distinctly set apart, not packaged as briefs even though some were short enough to be briefs.
  • I did not count stand alone photos.
  • I counted stories packaged together as separate stories if they carried distinct bylines on each.
  • I counted bylines, taglines and “staff reports” all as one story, even though in our actual byline counts they aren’t counted equal. This means a short charticle counted the same as our Sunday A1 package. I also counted staff & wire reports as one.
  • Not counted are obituaries and our weekly “records” pages with police blotter, meetings list, marriage licenses/dissolution, restaurant inspections, property sales, home permits, etc. Those items don’t carry bylines but do require reporters to actually go out and collect the records and then input them.
  • I did not have a copy of our Friday entertainment tab at home. So I didn’t count the entertainment stories that day.
  • I also didn’t count inserts/classifieds/etc. in the page count. Those are strictly news pages.

The readers care about the journalism too

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

I don’t normally read the story chat segments of stories, except on my own articles. Even on those I always jump in with some trepidation about what blasphemy readers will say I’ve committed today. Even if I reported my heart out, seems someone will always find or make up some fault. Mostly, I can’t get past the obnoxious, holier-than-thou and sometimes down right ignorant comments too many people post. I’ve gotten past the point where, except in extreme cases of stupidity, it riles me.

Tonight, I happened to scan down into the comment sections on a few stories and it actually made me hopeful. There are people out there, our readers and our community members, who do believe in what we do. Who do understand why it matters that places like Denver (and to be fair nearly every other city, though not quite at the same level of drop-off as closing a Pultizer-winning newspaper) have fewer reporters covering the streets today than a decade ago.

Too often, I guess, I feel like the debate about this business feels as if its taking place in a silo. It’s probably the people I listen to and the publications I read, but I feel often like we’re debating something without asking the most important people — the readers — what they think. While we’re out there busting our butts, reporting our hearts out and teaching ourselves new media skills to stay relevant and reach more people, it feels like no one really appreciates what we do, except us. You hear people say, let the dinosaurs die. But, and I’m saying this as a 23-year-old journalist with my feet in both the print and moreso the digital world, to be honest, I haven’t yet seen a better model of covering a community than the feet-on-the-street beat reporters community papers have canvassing their region. Perfect? Absolutely not. But worth continuing? I think so. Whether the work gets printed on dead trees or coded in bits and bytes, the cadre of newspaper reporters do a better job than other models I’ve yet seen (real or hypothesized) to make sure what matters gets published. When there are fewer ears listening and eyes watching what happens, that affects people. I don’t think newspapers, not as we know them today, will be here forever. But I’ve got to hope the work we do will endure.

I’m going to re-post two comments on the Sunday column from the executive editor of my paper. This week Julie wrote about how newspapers still supply much of the original reporting that matters, instead of spouting undocumented claims or fixating on the latest missing child/homicide/natural disaster du jour as some media are prone to do. She writes:

I had early hopes that the Internet would provide new and expanded ways for accountability and watchdog journalism. But it’s been disappointing to see how little original reporting is actually done by Web-only enterprises. For the most part, it’s newspapers and their Web sites that are providing the databases and online reporting that have taken public-service reporting from print to cyberspace. That’s because solid reporting takes a lot more resources and commitment than most people realize.

Public-service journalism isn’t the kind of news that attracts a Geraldo, but as media continue to evolve in varying forms, the public will need to decide what kind of news they and the country wants and needs.

Two readers posted encouraging comments on her column today:

JoeKr wrote:
Newspaper journalists seem to be the only ones who have the training and experience to do in-depth investigative work. This is essential in any free society. Furthermore, only print journalism can provide side-by-side opposing views in depth. Talk shows can provide two, three, or four talking heads, but there is little discipline to what is said and exchanged–just as was noted in the previous post. (and often the talking heads talk over each other or passed each other–with only frustration for the listeners or viewers.)

luvlafayettein wrote:
It is too bad that so many newspapers are struggling and closing. I’ve always loved print media. The discipline of objective news gathering and reporting, a “free press,” is essential to maintaining a free America, and this must continue at the local level. (“All politics is local as they say.”) News organizations that can develop distribution methods that consumers want, in a manner that is economically sustainable, will survive. Print is becoming less sustainable–both economically and environmentally. It seems necessary to figure out how other electronic distribution methods can generate enough revenue to cover costs and generate a profit. An awesome task … and I wish you well as you evolve in this time of seismic change in media.

The Indianapolis Star had a nice piece today that is exactly the type of watch dog journalism newspapers are so good at, but that requires tremendous resources to pull off. They looked at the striking amount of nepotism in township governments in Indiana. They also tied it into an interesting database about township spending. This is important because the state legislature this session has been hammering on the excesses of township and county government.

So there were a few comments on the Star’s story I also wanted to highlight:

Dave72 wrote:
This is excellent journalism; nice job Star!! This is an example of why we need to support the Star with our subscription dollars.

My request now is that the Star point its floodlights at the CIB. The amount of money the Pacers are requesting is far greater. And we simply haven’t heard anything lately about what is going on with negotiations. Even if the Star’s editorial board supports giving more subsidies to the Pacers (if for no other reason than to sell its papers), its owes it to the citizens of this city to report on this story.

Digging even deeper, I hope someone, either at the Star or in acedemia takes on the City’s amateur sports strategy going back to the early 80s.

The strategy has clearly failed us in many ways, and now its architects — Swarbrick, Glass, etc. — are skipping town as the city burns. It paid off handsomely for these music-men. But they need to be publicly shamed in the same way these township trustees are being shamed.

I liked that comment, for one, because it recognized the amount of research that went into this and encouraged people to support the endeavor. Then, it tossed out a story pitch worth looking into. (These types of story ideas are one of the reasons I do bring myself to read story comments.)

Anyway, here’s the final story chat I’ll highlight. What I’ve found, in reading the obnoxious comments I loathe, is often the community polices itself. The others who comment are perceptive and realize when a comment is out of line or just stupid. And sometimes, like this one, they say the things we would say if we could jump in and say it ourselves:

evilwoman wrote:

Replying to IndianaJane:
The Indystar has the slowest website on the net. If I didn’t have high speed cable I would be able to read any of it – some pages don’t even load. Now, they’ve added advertisements to make it even slower.

“Now, they’ve added advertisements to make it even slower”

Are you friggin’ serious?!?!?

Wow – the world must be a strange and confusing place for you…

How the HELL do you think this, or any other website generates revenue??? Do you think there is some magical pot of gold at the end of a rainbow that deposits money to the website’s owner when someone views it???

Everyday I am just amazed at the utter stupidity of people on this planet. How do they even get through the day????

Ok, so maybe that was unnecessarily sarcastic. But it made the point. (For the record, I’m pretty sure the J&C’s site loads slower than the Star’s. Both have been blessed with a different version of the Gannett overloaded Web site stick. I know I shouldn’t, but I’m just saying.)

I guess this silo isn’t such a silo anymore. Not when you have major TV news outlets reporting on their evening newscasts about dropping newspaper stock prices and the Rocky Mountain News shuttering. And when magazines like The New Republic and national newspapers like The New York Times are throwing this out there for everyone to digest. Even our own business page prints the corporate quarterly results and announces our cuts and cutbacks so everyone in the community, at least those who read the newspaper, will ask about it the next time they see you.

I went to a school board meeting last week in a town I cover only as often as there’s something of note. Before it started, I was talking to a few of the regular attendees, whom I’ve met before and even talked to over coffee at McDonald’s after filing on deadline. One of them asked about my job security because he’s read about the furloughs, layoffs, etc. I said, honestly, I felt OK. He crossed his fingers, as if to indicate, “good luck with that.” I laughed. I don’t want sympathy. I want people, like that man, to support what we do. I want people to know that it matters what we cover and would matter more if we stopped. I need a solution that will ensure this type of work, the public service we perform, does continue. But until then, I’m encouraged that people do care.