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Archive for the 'Lafayette' Category

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.

Completing my collection of Clinton campaign coverage

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

Today I got to cover the last of the Clintons. This one is the one that really matters, at least for now. Hillary Clinton was here in town. She spoke for about an hour in Riehle Plaza in downtown Lafayette.

Hillary Clinton talks about jobs in downtown Lafayette, Ind., on April 30, 2008.

Previously, as you’ll recall, I wrote about our coverage of Bill Clinton when he visited a local high school.

In the intermediate, as Indiana has become a Democratic political battleground (no seriously, someone pinch me because I never thought I’d see that happen when I took this job), we’ve also hosted Chelsea Clinton.

(Barack Obama came too, but he came the day I went home for my mother’s birthday. I told her that was how much I loved her that I gave up the chance to cover a potential future president to spend time with her. She told me I should have stayed. Ungrateful. Er proud? Several others have also stumped for Obama, but other than covering his economic policy advisers in a Q&A discussion, I haven’t been assigned to any of those. — Rumor mill is telling me that Obama may be back this week, so perhaps I’ll get my chance before next Tuesday?)

Well, I got my chance today to cover a potential future president (no I’m not taking sides here, I’m just saying, regardless of which side of the partisan isle or which Democrat you support, they’re all potential until one of them folds or loses for good). My assignment to cover Hillary Clinton was the same as bill: fast and frequent updates online preceding and during the event.

With Bill Clinton, it was our first attempt at live blogging. I’d say it was a success, but it was imperfect.

Since then, when I covered Chelsea, I couldn’t send as many live updates because of the set-up. I offered a few updates before, as it started and immediately after. It was a much smaller event, so not worth blowing out of the water like the others. I was also tasked that day with writing the A1 package about that event, unlike with Bill & Hillary, where my main role was simply keep the content fresh and help if other reporters need it.

At Obama, we threw the kitchen sink again. They sent live updates, but I was on vacation and wasn’t paying attention so I’m not sure how frequent or what they consisted of in terms of writing. They also tested live video streaming for the first time that night and it was, er, less than successful.

Tonight, again, I was tasked with the live updates (the time stamped ones in the middle of the page). And tonight, we had live video playing on the homepage. (We were actually working with a local high school student to do the live video. A great example of working with the talents of your citizens!) Throw in a video package and a photo gallery plus three other reporters — and Clinton got the kitchen sink as well.

More as an aside to the “real” journalism, but I also updated twitter throughout. I’m looking at Twitter in that case as more stream of consciousness and scene setting. The meat and potatoes of the speech was definitely going (quickly!) into jconline.

I noted last time that pressure for quick turnaround hampered my creativity and that nearly ever update began “Clinton discussed.” I’m proud to report not a single update tonight began with those words. In fact, because I was self-conscious about it, only four of the 16 updates I sent began with any form of “Clinton said…”

I tried to make it more engaging by not starting everything the same way. I also spent more time writing through some of the items rather than try to get everything verbatim. I’m not a court reporter in this case, I’m still a journalist. And a reporter’s job is to help readers make sense of not simply transcribe an event. I had a few typos, but overall, I’d still put this in the win category.

I think this is the type of thing you get better at as you do it more. I hope. I still felt a bit overwhelmed trying to get it all processed and written so quickly. It was fun, but I mean, literally it was non-stop for an hour. And that was all after I’d come in and reported and written the local page centerpiece this afternoon — plus already written several updates at the scene.

While I don’t anticipate any political powerhouses will be visiting the Hoosier state beyond next Tuesday’s primary election, I do think the groundwork we’ve laid during this campaign is vital.

We were training our own reporters and photographers to create this online content. That is definitely important. We know now what works and doesn’t, and we know what we are capable of when it comes to this type of coverage for other things down the line.

Perhaps even more important than training our staff, we were training our readers to expect it and to look to us for it. At points more than 250 people were watching jconline’s live video. I don’t know how many stopped by our live updates, but I suspect it drew at least some. I know I gained a few twitter followers during the event.

Long post short: Another win for the future of journalism. Another awesome adventure in reporting.

18 online updates and one story for Tuesday’s deadwood edition

Monday, March 24th, 2008

If you know Indiana, you know we’re usually fly-over territory for presidential candidates.

That’s why, when we heard late Friday that not only was Hillary Clinton’s campaign coming to Indiana, but Lafayette was going to host her husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, we became, to quote my editor describing me and another reporter, “Giddy.”

I was in college in Ohio during the last election. So I have seen several presidential hopefuls in person. But tonight was the first time I’ve been in the same room as anyone who ever commanded this country.

Let me say this, the experience was intense. But not because of what he said or the 3,000+ crowd in the gym, another gym and the school auditorium. It was intense because of my assignment.

The only story I wrote for tomorrow’s paper was a look at the preparations the high school underwent and the excitement from the students. That makes sense, since I’m the education reporter and all. I headed to the school at lunch and talked to the principal and some students. I came back and wrote an online version of the story to kind of give a feel during the day of the atmosphere. Then, before 3 p.m., I’d filed that story for print and moved on.

Today was also a big day on my beat, so I worked a little on another MAJOR story on my beat that will go online early tomorrow morning, followed with a more in-depth story for Wednesday print. The Adequate Yearly Progress results — basically, whether a school is failing or not under NCLB — were released with a 10 a.m. Tuesday embargo.

I was also, throughout the day, talking to the campaign, the schools, etc. checking on information we were hearing and answering questions our readers asked. Lining up logistics with my editor, other reporters and photographers.

And then, at 4 p.m., it was time to really tackle my assignment: Updates from the scene throughout the night. That was three hours before doors opened and four hours and 40 minutes before Clinton took the stage.

All told, I sent my editor 18 updates from my laptop at the scene. I know because I counted the number of e-mails when all was said and done, and I could finally breathe.

my updates e-mailed to my editor

I had started them with subjects, “Clinton update #1,” “Clinton update #2,” etc. By number 11, I’d lost track. That was also about the time he actually arrived. My subjects became: Clinton arrives, clinton iraq, clinton economy, clinton education, etc.

Some of the updates were detailed narratives, describing the crowd, the atmosphere and talking to people lined up. Some were just a short synopsis of where it stood: Police chief says Clinton left previous stop, expected by 8:30.

I adapted my method in the middle. I wasn’t looking at jconline throughout the event, so I didn’t really know how my editor was playing what I submitted. I was trying to get my next update reported and keep the information fresh. There were a few other reporters in the crowd as the event start approached, and they were also there helping catch some color from the lines and feeding it to me to send in with my updates. By about 7:30, I just started typing them with time stamps and then jumping in with what I was hearing and what was occurring. This, as it turns out, was a pretty efficient way of writing the event backwards, much like a twitter stream.

Actually, at the same time I was writing for and filing updates to jconline, I was also trying to post updates on Twitter. Though, obviously, my priority was on the J&C, which reaches far more people than my Twitter account. Though it was cool, and you kind of see it in my updates, I was even interacting with other people back at the J&C and also across the room from me.

Bill Clinton event live blogging on twitter

You can look at jconline and see, my updates were fairly regular. As Clinton began to speak — an hour and forty minutes after doors opened and the crowd started streaming in — I started to chunk the topics into five or six graph break downs. I tried to mirror that while the e-mails sent with my snappy posts on twitter. What Clinton said, a little context and any crowd reaction.

It was difficult, as you’ll see I noted in one of the twitter updates, to both be there and not be there. I was present, but I spent a lot of time basically taking diction and then trying to make it digestible, readable updates. While stream of consciousness might work for twitter, it wouldn’t cut it for the J&C. So I was using a skill I’m not sure I’ve ever had a chance to practice: I was both listening to what he was saying in the present and writing a story live about what he had just said while monitoring the discussion for what would come next.

I’m sure my writing wasn’t my best work — for one thing I used the word crowd entirely too often, and most of the speech updates start “Bill Clinton discussed.” But I wrote fast, and I wrote a lot. And give me some slack, I’ve never — in fact I don’t think my news organization has ever — done anything like this.

Twitter aside, my work for J&C was half live blogging and half writing for the newspaper audience online. All my work was funneled through my editor to be posted. So there was about a five-minute delay. But considering how furiously I was filing, I am glad he was there to read over my shoulder and relay any questions or fix obvious mistakes.

As you can see from my Gmail outbox above, a few of my updates, especially early on, included e-mail exchanges with my editor. I talked to him twice, after I sent the first update and once immediately after I sent the last one. None of those updates, by the way, will appear in tomorrow’s newspaper. Some of the reporting may in another reporter’s story, but my entire assignment/direction on this, as taken from the budget, was:

• After school lets out: Are people lining up. Meranda
• At 7: An updates as crowd assembles. Meranda
• Update from the scene as Clinton speaks. Meranda

So there was a lot of figuring it out on the fly. And you know what, like I said, it was intense. But it was awesome! It was even quite a bit of fun.

I don’t know if every event deserves such rapid-fire updates, but this was something that was changing by the minute early on, and which had a great deal of interest in our community. It’s not every day a president drops by small-town Indiana. I’m not sure how many page views we generated today or if that even matters. I’m not sure what part my updates played in any of that, but I hope our readers who were planning to attend, did attend or couldn’t attend benefited from the pretty comprehensive look at the day the former president visited our community.

With that said, it’s now approaching midnight. I worked from 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. today coming off a 2 to 10 p.m. shift Sunday. I need to get in around 8 a.m. tomorrow to finish the AYP story for online.

In short, though I’m pumped with all that journalism-is-alive adrenaline from my day, I’m also exhausted. I think it’s time to put the computer away and wind down from probably the most exciting day of journalism career to date.

Public officials blogging, do you quote?

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

The ethics of quoting blogs has been discussed (probably to death) before.

I understand that very fine line and have even danced dangerously close to it. On MySpace or Facebook or LiveJournal, or whatever your chosen platform, many people often have the (mis) perception of privacy. I get that you wouldn’t (or probably shouldn’t) just take it and run with information they posted in perceived confidentiality. This is for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the same as when you deal with inexperienced sources who aren’t as press-savvy: they shouldn’t be harmed because they’re naive. Or something more eloquently put than that. But you know what I’m talking about.

Now, tell me what you think about a scenario like this: An elected official in your community has a blog. The blog identifies him/her as that elected official and discusses issues related to that office as a means of reaching out to constituents. You have confirmed it is that person writing the blog.

Would you consider that blog fair game?

What if the first post in that blog instructs readers to “think of this as a press release”?

This conversation came up today and we didn’t all agree. So I was curious what other journalists think about it. I’m open to being wrong, but I’d like some help thinking through some of those issues that maybe just don’t appear to me because I am so open to transparency and new technology.

My stance is that blog post is more than fair game. My only concern is to confirm the material was posted by the individual and isn’t some type of hoax. Once you have that, why wouldn’t you use it — if only for a jumping off point for further reporting on issues raised. Heck, they want us (well their constituents) to consider it a press release. Even if they didn’t say that, I think if you’re going to stamp your name on a blog, tout you are a public official and use that as the topic of your blog than you have no reason to not expect people to hold you accountable for what you say the same as if you’d mailed out a flier with that message or said it during an open meeting.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am. However, I’d be interested to hear what you guys have to say.

I’d also be interested to see what types of blogging your local officials do. Are there any university presidents, mayors, city council members, school board trustees, county commissioners, prosecutors, sheriffs, etc. keeping blogs in your community? Are they mostly PR/buzz? Or are they good sources for tips? How do you handle them? I know the city manager in Kent (where I went to college) keeps a blog about the city. But I can’t think of any other examples off the top of my head.

(BTW this was not a public official on my beat and there isn’t any controversy. It was just an interesting discussion in the newsroom.)

Everyday problems can be great stories

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

Maybe it’s the way Indiana handles its testing, or maybe it’s the nature of the education beat. But I spend a lot of time reporting on standardized tests — results, impact and changes they are undergoing or forcing schools to undergo.

One thing that keeps coming up as I report those stories is how student transience, that is kids moving frequently, was causing some schools to do even worse than they otherwise would. It’s uncontrollable, administrators would tell me, and it’s impacting us big time.

It’s not that I didn’t believe them. I know it’s bad when you move around a lot. I didn’t experience it because my mom planted us firmly and didn’t budge until we’d all crossed the stage at graduation precisely because she’d been subjected to more schools than I have fingers AND toes. (Yes, that’s more than 20 schools before she crossed the same stage I would nearly three decades later.) The impact wasn’t lost on her, and it’s something that continues to affect her everyday life even today. How could it not?

But how big of a deal it was in my community, and whether the schools were making a bigger deal than necessary, was a question I had from the very first time it was offered up as an excuse reason for some of the low numbers. It was something I wanted to look into. And finally, after initially proposing the idea this fall, I got to work on it at the beginning of this year.

On Sunday, that enterprise package ran on A1 as the anchor to our annual Grading Our Schools package (which is the annual performance reports detailing how each and every school in our coverage area performed on just about every possible thing the state measures).

I think it was one of the stories I’ve worked hardest on possibly ever. It required requesting data — it actually required schools to collect and compile that data for me — and cross-referencing it against what data I could get elsewhere. (I spent a lot of time creating and looking at spread sheets this past month.) It required getting into classrooms and talking to teachers, several I didn’t even end up using. It required leg work to find a family to help tell the story. It required patience to find an outside expert to discuss the issue. And it required a whole lot of concentration for me to finally rein everything in last week and focus the story. And then, it required killing quite a few of my darlings to tighten it and make my point.

It’s not 100 percent my favorite story I’ve ever written. But it may be my favorite story I’ve reported. If that makes sense. Yes there are other things I’d like to have had time to do with it. A multimedia component tops my list (though there were graphics in print, which didn’t get posted online?). Like all enterprise here, I had to work it in between my daily assignments. Even this past week when my editor laid off of me quite a bit on daily copy and let me wrap it up, it wasn’t my sole priority. But I think it accomplished what I hope it would. It’s just nice to see something I worked so hard on come to fruition.

All I had to do to find teachers and principals willing to open up to me was mention the topic of my story. Their anecdotes came pouring out. They all knew exactly what I was asking and why I was asking about it. This isn’t just the topic of a story to them, this is a real problem they are struggling with everyday. So there’s another lesson in this: Everyday problems can make for some of the best stories.

Sure, it’s not a government corruption exposé or anything. But it is an underreported and understudied problem, that does lead to real consequences, not just for the schools but for the kids, even long after primary school ends. My mother being exhibit A above. What I hope it accomplishes is that it makes at least one parent stop and reconsider moving her child or even one community member step forward and volunteer to help those kids. It is a problem that has been ongoing for, well, probably forever.

(As a side note: Sunday was another first for me. It was the first time I’ve ever had an all-Meranda front page. I know it’s not as big a deal when you consider our size means fewer stories on covers. But still a pretty cool feat.)

The new media bug is contagious

Monday, February 11th, 2008

I’m very happy to welcome one of my bosses Henry Howard to the blogosphere. (Well to the non-work blogosphere. He actually is the East half of the J&C’s East meets West blog as well.)

Henry’s the managing editor at the J&C. The one who recruited me to the New Product Development Committee, which he leads, and one of the few (perhaps the only one?) who doesn’t roll his eyes when I talk about Twitter (which he also joined recently). He also accepted the invitation to Wired Journalists, and has jumped into the discussions whole-heartedly. He’s been on LinkedIn for awhile, and Facebook since at least the Wade Steffey disappearance when I got to give all the non-recent grads a tutorial.

I’m excited to see some of my co-workers current and former (a few of my former Stater colleagues have been springing blogs on me of late and are starting to find Wired Journalists as well) catching the new media bug. I’m sure they’ll all find awesome new ways to use these tools, just as I have, and they’ll be teaching me, which I can definitely dig.