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Archive for the 'Career' Category

Another Stater alum joining the Indiana party

Monday, January 7th, 2008

When I got the first e-mail from my now-editor saying he’d seen my resume and had two reporting slots open, would I be interested in interviewing? I didn’t know what to say.

I’d heard of Lafayette. Kind of, sort of, in the way I’ve heard of Portland, Oregon, or Fairbanks, Alaska, or Ithaca, New York. I knew it existed and in which state of the union. But that’s where my knowledge ended.

I fired off a few e-mails to some professors, trying to gauge their collective knowledge of the city and the paper. One had never heard of it or been to the city. One noted the paper’s much-publicized redesign. One said it was a strong community paper. No ringing endorsements, but nothing to turn me off.

When I talked to my editor the first time, I’m sure thought I was crazy (not sure much has changed?). A lot of my questions focused not necessarily on the paper or the job but on the community. I wanted to land somewhere I would enjoy, somewhere I could grow, somewhere I could find my place. Luckily, I did.

But man, moving to a place where I didn’t know a soul, and which I wasn’t sure if I’d even like, was probably the craziest, scariest thing I’ve ever done. I know it comes with the territory of being a journalist. In fact, that was part of the draw to journalism. I obviously survived, but gosh, it sucked at the time.

So it was with great joy that one of my best friends from college came to intern here for the summer. It was with greater joy when another of my good friends from college accepted a job here.

Part of his reasoning for taking the job was that I was already here. How much easier is it to start from scratch in a new place when someone else has vetted the area for you and built a group of friends for you to slip into? A lot.

It helps that I like it here, though. If I didn’t, I would never let another of my friends within a hundred miles. I’d protect them by keeping them away. But instead, I’m helping them find their way to a place that is a good jumping off point.

So, it’s with great joy that another of my former Stater peers has just accepted a job here. She’ll join the copy desk. And more joy yet that another has applied for another job here.

We’re taking over. LOL. Not really, but considering a year ago this place wasn’t on the KSU radar (and still should be much more the territory of Ball State/IU grads), I say we’re on to something. I don’t know if it’s normal for one person to go somewhere and then start a chain reaction. Obviously this is my first job. But I like the fact that the next time a kid at Kent State sees an opening in Lafayette, when they ask about the paper the professors will all respond, “So&so and So&so and So&so all worked there. It’s a good community and strong paper. You should definitely check it out.”

Lessons from year 1: focus, writing while reporting and other things I need to work on

Friday, January 4th, 2008

My greatest weakness as a writer, and I suppose reporter, is my propensity to over-report. I’ve always been like this. I always end up with 10x what I actually need. It’s a good thing to have too much, or at least, better than not enough. Right?

Turns out, not always. But man, it’s a hard habit to shake.

Part of it is my approach to stories. Sometimes, I guess, I’m like a kid in a candy store; my eyes are much bigger than my stomach. I can think of 10 great angles to every story but need to work on narrowing it down to one angle at a time so I can better focus. Then, I can come back and hit some of the other angles separately, which my editor says (probably rightly) would better serve our readers. I’ll also be less likely to be paralyzed/overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of work to be done.

Focus has always been an issue of mine. Not just the “man I can’t focus with the scanner, the TV, the phones, e-mail and the other dozen reporters constantly chattering,” which yeah can be difficult, too. But focusing a story that I’ve over reported can be daunting. What doesn’t make the cut? What great story remains untold for another day? How many unanswered questions are OK? And how many of these questions, which I have indeed answered in my reporting, are the story chatters going to call me out on tomorrow because they didn’t make it to print?

I guess, to use another food-related cliche: I sometimes bite off more than I can chew. Which leads to “indigestion,” when it comes time to report and I end up chasing down angles I don’t use or need, or when I’m stressed trying to pull together a single coherent story from 10 story lines. (Oh, and throw in phrases like “hold to cover” or “12 inches” or my personal favorite, “a charticle out front and the impact inside,” and this makes the process that much more complicated.) By better focusing my ideas (there we go with focus again), I guess it would help me focus my reporting and hone in on just the specifics necessary to tell *this* story. As I said before, I can come back to the other angles. Sometimes, I forget that.

Worst of all? This tendency is compounded by something I really, really, really do need to get over. ASAP. That is, I can’t write until I’ve reported. Until I know who I have talked to, what they’ve said, who can be grouped together, what data opposes what or supports whom, where each piece fits together with the whole. This helps me discover gaps in my logic or my reporting. But I’m told actually writing as soon as I’m reporting each piece would do the same, probably more effectively, and writing earlier would help lead me down the path in a more narrow and, get this, focused manner.

I can bang the story out, usually, once I have all the ducks in a row. Sometimes, on more in-depth or bigger pieces these ducks take on the form of a rough outline, usually scribbled on a post-in stuck to my monitor. But like I said, I tend to over-report, so it’s more complicated than that. I have to sort out the ducks, decide which ones make the cut, which get relegated to the file cabinet, which to the trash and which bits actually make it through to the story I file and ultimately, the paper/Web site. If I had fewer ducks or was better as picking the ducks early on, this step would likely be easier. I wouldn’t have to “kill my darlings” so often. I’d also have more drafts, which would allow more revisions until I was pleased with exactly how it was phrased and ordered.

The other problem with over reporting? It takes time. Time isn’t really a luxury I have when writing two or so stories a day, plus any online updates that may pop up. It isn’t a luxury I’m likely to ever have. So managing what time I do have is paramount.

I both love and hate the emphasis on enterprise reporting here. I love it because I am pushed to constantly assess my beat for these issues worth looking at more in-depth. But I resent it because there’s never enough time to do the stories as well as I think they could be. Maybe I’m a perfectionist. (OK, that’s a big “maybe” and is more likely just “I am.”) But I don’t know. I have written several stories that I liked, but when I look at them in retrospect, I think them merely OK. Nothing stands out. When I look at my writing, rather than being proud of it, I constantly see what I could have or should have done instead. It’s a poor way to live. My sense of accomplishment lasts only as long as I have filed the story and am not on deadline for the next one. It’s really odd because I am such an optimist. But I guess I live in perpetual self-improvement mode, that is I’m always assessing how I did and how I can do better next time. Does this go away as I become even more confident in my writing and reporting? I’m banking on that. I don’t want to get complacent, but I would like to see the good in my work.

Why am I relaying my personal faults here? Well, you all are smarter than I am. (At least collectively.) Surely, I’m not the first person to go through this. I know I’m not, because my editor tried to give me some tips to combat it during my recent annual review (where we discussed some of these weaknesses, but which generally went well.) Maybe some of you much-experienced journalists can weigh in with tips that helped you solve these problems. Here’s one sheet I’ve already found about writing while reporting, which has some good tips to get me started.

So to recap, things to work on now that my rookie year as a reporter is behind me: more focused story pitches, and consequently tighter-focused reporting and writing; following up those big-picture stories through several shorter stories rather than one big piece; writing sooner and reworking/revising more often; confidence that I am in fact doing all right in my job.

All of those are reporting/writing technical issues. Yes, I know. We did talk about some of the other things I’d like to do. I’m going to keep pushing to be involved in things like NPD and to get some multimedia work experience here. But as I’ve told everyone all along, I see this job as the foundation of my career. I need to be a strong reporter before I can be a strong anything else.

What’s really important in all of this, and which I haven’t mentioned yet: I survived. I was scared when I was in school that I’d graduate, get a job and hate journalism. I was fearful I’d hate the city I ended up in or the beat I landed. I wasn’t sure I would like doing this every day, or that I wouldn’t stumble, fall and embarrass myself by even trying. I always left myself the out that I don’t get paid enough to hate my job, and if I didn’t like it, I’d quit and do something else. But, man, it’s been an interesting year. I love it, as much, perhaps more, than I hoped I would. And I’m pretty confident, there’s a whole world out there beyond this city and my beat waiting to be conquered. Once I nail down these basics as well as I’d like to, I’m sure it’ll be ready for me.

10 steps to become a wired journalist

Sunday, December 30th, 2007

If you haven’t yet stumbled on Howard Owens’ post about how “non-wired” journalists can get wired in ’08, do so now. A very succinct list of reasonable objectives ANYONE can accomplish.

A brief synopsis of what you’ll need: a camera (with video); an SMS-enabled cell phone (do they make ones that aren’t?); a twitter, Flickr, YouTube, del.icio.us, MySpace, Facebook, digg, etc. account; a passion that you can stand to read about, write about and that won’t interfere with your beat/day job; the ability to use Google to look up unfamiliar terms like RSS and mashup. Oh yeah, and an open mind.

What were your top news stories?

Friday, December 21st, 2007

It’s that time of year when journalists reflect on the top stories of the year. Today, I saw Time’s edition on the newsstand blasting its top picks. And the J&C exec. editor’s Sunday column this week was about how the top story really differs from person to person.

The top picks we have were up for debate via a poll at the bottom of jconline. My vote — in agreement with more than 50 percent of the about people to vote by the time I did (I can’t find the polll or its results now to compare) — is the Wade Steffey story.

That story began just as I started here. He went missing the day I moved to this town. Though my part in the ongoing coverage wasn’t much, I do feel proud of all our efforts and the work we did on that story and my own work on it. I just think it touched so many people here in so many ways — from volunteers to friends to Purdue policies to just casual readers, students and strangers — and went on for so long, that of the list it probably left the biggest impact.

It’s not that I don’t think property tax is a big issue. It’s huge. Even though I don’t pay the taxes, the delays here are wreaking havoc on the schools I cover. Plus it’s just an ongoing mess. I just don’t think we’ve actually gotten to the crest of that story. There’s a lot more to come. I’d keep it on my list of stories to watch in ’08 — which is where I’ll throw Iraq — which would, for the record, be my No. 2 pick among the list. (I would place it No. 1, except that by this point many people have sadly become immune to the news.)

I also think a change in leadership at Purdue is a big deal for the school and I guess the community at large. But really, not as big a deal as we and many others made it out to be. And the ongoing financial troubles at area non-profits is sad, but isn’t financial trouble for non-profits practically the norm? Ditto on the health insurance debacle.

Local municipal elections, eh. Though there were some interesting results and some changes worth watching, it’s not such a big deal to me. Vote centers and a smoking ban, likewise, seemed much ado about nothing.

And the snowstorm in February that practically shut down everything in the county except the J&C was a huge inconvenience at the time, but it came and went. No lasting impact. As evidenced by this weekend’s wintry blast, no lessons learned either. It will go down as nothing more than a punchline to tales of “This is nothing compared to the blizzard of ’07” during future storms.

In considering the top stories the J&C covered and also thinking about what the heck I did this year worth even mentioning (it’s hard to remember all the stories I wrote even in the past week!) I’m going to list what I think are/were my 10 biggest stories (or more so issues since it’s hard for anything to be taken alone) I covered this year on the education beat:

  1. School funding issues: A new state formula meant some districts (big, growing ones — like TSC) benefited and saw more money, but left others (ones with stagnant, declining enrollment — almost everyone in this region except TSC) to adjust to less state money. Also, the property tax delays are going to cost tax payers hundreds of thousands of additional dollars.
  2. Changes in school leadership: West Lafayette has a new superintendent, who has come in and recently proposed some ideas that could be construed as radical. That will be fun to follow. The search for him was not so much fun on my end. Likewise, Benton’s superintendent has just a few weeks left before his replacement steps up to bat. And the county’s largest district is searching for the perfect new guy to fill the very big shoes of the current 18-year incumbant when he retires this summer.
  3. Consolidation talks: The three Tippecanoe County districts commissioned a study to look at whether it would be feasible, cost-effective or in their best interest to consolidate resources. Pretty much what came out of it is a collaboration committee to meet annually. This year they met, rehashed what they already work together on and discussed the possibility of a joint charter school. Schools in White County have commissioned a study to look at the same issues. And a recent state report is encouraging these discussions, even suggesting such consolidations (for districts smaller than 2,000 at least) ought to be required. Definitely a trend to follow in 2008.
  4. Full-day kindergarten: The legislature offered it to more students than ever this fall as the governor pushed it through. More implementation is on the way. This has caused a glut at some of our local space-starved schools. But generally has good support. Will be an ongoing issue.
  5. ISTEP/NCLB/PL221 fall-out: Seems every month or so someone was failing at something according to these numbers/results. I’m working on a few bigger stories that look at some of what the numbers mean — achievement gaps, how poverty/transiency/race affect them, etc. The implications of these numbers, what they say about the schools and the community and what they may mean for both’s future, is interesting and telling about how well students are being reached. Again, something to keep an eye on.
  6. Teacher contracts: Benton and WL both finally came to an agreements after a few years of ongoing disagreements as teacher’s finally backlashed. TSC had a relatively minor (compared to those) scuttle with its teachers, approving a contract they rejected, but it did take state intervention to settle 3/4 through the first semester.
  7. Graduation rates: Too low in this city, according to the state’s formula which was used for the first time in the rates released in 07 for 2006. Disparities not just between our city high school (which posted a 65 percent) but surprisingly also among two otherwise equal and pretty similar county high schools.
  8. School construction, renovation, reuse, demolition: To build or not to build. If not, to put portables outside growing schools or renovate and add another wing. To consolidate schools and close some or restructure/redistrict. To refinance old bonds or not to. What to do with buildings no longer of use/when to just tear them down. What old schools are being/can be used for. What to name new schools as they come on line. Etc. I wrote all those stories, mostly within this county but also in some outlying counties. I suppose this is an always ongoing issue. But taken all together, it is crazy to think how many different hands are being played all at once and how vast the differences between each player (i.e. district) is in their approach.
  9. Private/charter schools gaining traction: The one charter in this county is growing. So are all the private schools — especially one of the high schools which of late has become a major player. Another small private school is seeking a charter — from a school district that’s never done it before. Virtual schools were OK’d, then denied, then … well who knows where they’ll end up eventually.
  10. School safety: “Hit lists”, accidents and more sprinkled the year. Additional security cameras went up in several schools. Grants for more sidewalks and cross walks were won. Crossing guard times were reconsidered after a fatal accident on the way to school.

So as you can see, I would say I got a pretty amazing schooling on the education beat this year. (That pun was entirely intended, how could I resist?) I’m looking forward to following these and other stories this coming year with a little less “Wait, what does this mean? I’ve never covered this before can you start at zero?” and a bit more in-depth probing on my part.

In addition, I could write a novel of “firsts” I covered this year off my beat — from bank robberies to court sentencings to county commissioners and enterprise looks at some of those non-profits’ issues. I won’t, but the point is, I have grown a lot this year. In a good way.

Enough about me: What were your top stories or projects this year?

Another thought on the evaluation

Sunday, December 16th, 2007

Now that I finally looked through this evaluation form I noticed something interesting. One of the about two dozen skills to be ranked on my upcoming evaluation is “Consistently breaks news online.”

I guess that makes it a priority (as if I didn’t know).

But it’s also funny because it’s in the section above deadlines for daily and enterprise stories. Isn’t the point the deadline is always now?

Evaulation time already?

Friday, December 14th, 2007


That was the first thought I had when my boss handed me a form this morning and said, “Self-evaluation. It’s due Dec. 27. Just attach any narrative at the end.”

Um. OK. I can do that. Even though I’ve never done it before. Ever.


How do I do that? Narrative of what? What am I supposed to do with these pages? What do these questions mean? Where does this form go? Who sees it? What do my answers matter? What if I’d rather explain than rank? What if I really fall between two rankings? What if I don’t want to play along? What if I just fill in all 1s and set my expectations low? What if I overshoot, and he really thinks I’m terrible and will wonder WTH was going through my mind? What if I undershoot and he realizes I think I suck? What if I do suck? What if he regrets hiring me? What if he lets me go? What if… I’m blowing this all out of proportion? I know.


I knew this day was coming. A year ago this weekend, I graduated. A year ago next week, I was interviewing for this position. A year ago next month, I established residency in the Hoosier state.

  • What have I learned over the past year? (Too much to put into words, and yet, never enough.)
  • What have I accomplished with my rookie year? (A lot, but not as much as I hoped.)
  • What have I to show for the first 52 weeks of my professional life? (More bylines than I thought possible — lessons attached to most. Connections I couldn’t have fathomed. Golden opportunities I lucked into. But too many questions unanswered, lessons unlearned, personal goals not met.)

But what’s more, or at least, all I can think of at this point:

  • What haven’t I learned that I should have? (A lot, I’m sure.)
  • What haven’t I accomplished with my rookie year? (Too much.)
  • What haven’t I got to show for my first 52 weeks of my professional life? (More than I’d like to admit.)

I don’t like this feeling of uncertainty. It’s unbecoming. I am more a “pull off the band aid quickly” type of person. When I sit around and actually dwell on this, I grow less confident instead of more. I don’t like that.

Am I proud of what I have done here? Hell yes. I should be! I’m working way too hard not to be.

I stumbled my way through many difficult tasks/stories this year with gusto. I do feel like I am doing well overall, though certainly I have room to improve. (Hello, if I didn’t realize that I’d be delusional.) But just today, four different people on my beat commented to me — one through e-mail, one passing in the hall, one in an office as I was signing into a school and one in a phone conversation — on what a “great job” I have been doing on this beat. Three of the four have been part of less than positive coverage within the past month — so it’s not even me doing a great job making them look good! I don’t look to external validation, but I do feel like to the readers and to the members of the community I cover, I have proven myself and made a positive impact.

But that’s not the point of the self-evaluation. Is it? The real challenge is have I proven myself to my toughest critic: me.

And after the self-eval, have I proven myself to the powers that be?

And beyond that, to the entire point of an annual review: What can I take from all I have learned and how can I apply it to making me better?

I wish I could pull that band aid off right now. But ah las, maybe it’s best to leave it on a little while longer and let things fall as they may. Good, bad, indifferent.

Shooting my (future) self in the foot with ad blocks?

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

I am a horrible person. No really.

I understand the economics of newspaper publishing. I understand that the number of inches in my story is at the least indirectly related to the number of ads our reps can sell. I know that though we’re certainly not making a killing with our online advertising, anything we can do to draw more visitors’ eyeballs is much appreciated by our ad staff, who can hawk those page views to the highest bidder.

I don’t dwell on these things, but I do know they pay my salary, however meager it may seem. (It’s really not that low.)

And yet, I am a horrible person.

Why? Because the addition of one more set of ads was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. The in-text Vibrant Media ads (featured on, or rather within, news stories here, here, and here, to name a few) has pushed me to a place I’d long considered but held off on precisely because I know the the indirect correlation between these ads and my financial bottom line and therefore to my future.

But I couldn’t take it anymore. I put up an ad blocker on Firefox that means I’ll never see green again. Or at least, not until those pesky advertisers figure out a new way to annoy, err trick, me into seeing their wares.

There’s a lengthy Wall Street Journal story from Tuesday and shorter Business Week article this week discussing the green in-text ads that drove me to the ad blocker.

For an interesting take on this trend, read this blog post, which details the issue at the Indy Star. The comments are particularly interesting. He also has a follow-up post that’s equally worth your time. From the follow-up:

When online (Big Corporate Media) opts for the short-term revenue bump that these kinds of ads promise to provide, they’re being penny-wise and pound-foolish. Annoying readers is not a good way to increase traffic over the long run. Undermining the credibility of the news they provide diminishes the only product news organizations have to offer. And bilking advertisers with borderline click-fraud doesn’t seem likely to appeal to those advertisers in the long run either.

And all this says nothing of the ethics, which Paul Conley has more than beat dead in posts deriding the practice among B2B publishers.

For me, I’m less concerned about how these in-text ads might influence editorial copy (at least here, I’m confident the answer is it won’t). I am deeply concerned, however, with how this will impact the user experience.

First, it is annoying. It annoys and frustrates me when I highlight a paragraph and end up with a box blocking half the text I want to read or when an ad forces me to interact with it to shut off annoying sounds, animation or to get it out of my way. Though I surely spend more time with news Web sites than the average consumer, I also have a higher tolerance for these ads precisely because of what I said in my introduction, these pay my salary and salaries of my peers. I can’t imagine an annoyed reader is a happy reader, and unhappy readers will likely move on to another site that is less annoying.

Second, not all readers can tell the difference between these advertiser links and intentional links endorsed by the writer/news organization. Sure a green link with a double underline is obviously not the norm for a link, and the blue box does clearly indicate advertisement. But it’s still misleading. This also leaves out the potential for actual meaningful in-copy links, a la NYTimes linking to archived stories on major news topics or companies.

All of this isn’t to say advertising doesn’t have its place. It obviously does, both from my selfish desire to be paid to the need for businesses to reach customers and for consumers to find the items and services they need and want.

Online, I’m a huge fan of the Google text ads precisely because they are unobtrusive and usually relevant, neither of which the Vibrant Media ads can claim. I also don’t mind banner ads that fit in their rightful place, so to speak, stripped across the top, bottom or side of the page — as long as they don’t talk to me without asking first or send me into near seizures. To be honest, even video pre-roll ads and those splash-screen ads that jump up between links I click and stories I want to read don’t bother me, as long as they’re infrequent (maybe one per five or more stories?), and the larger display and captive audience on that page are probably more effective anyway.

I do wonder whether my turning to ad blocking programs is an ominous sign and yet another unneeded hurdle for newspapers to jump in the new media game. It’s so simple to do, why shouldn’t Web users install these ad blockers? If you annoy them enough or push them to their limits, they will.

It took about one minute for me to find the appropriate extension to nix the offending ads. I didn’t want to, but for my sanity — both as an annoyed reader and writer — I had to do it.

For my future? I hope the Internet and I, or more importantly other users, can come to some sort of understanding whereby advertisements and tolerance for them can peacefully and profitably co-exist. I just don’t think these in-text ads help that cause. If anything, they are giving it the middle finger.