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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?

A few entirely random thoughts that sum up today

Monday, October 15th, 2007

I don’t have anything profound to say today, but there are several random things floating around my head that I figured I may as well share. Feel free to add your own. This could be a fun game.

  • UPDATE, I forgot the most important lesson of today. What happens when you go to make cop calls and get a busy signal. You hang up and finish calling the rest and then head back to the busy number? What happens when that number still rings busy. And half an hour later? Still busy. So, then you call the city (housed in the same building), and guess what, it’s busy? Well, I decided something was up. But since I couldn’t just call down there to find out, I did what any enterprising, curious reporter would do. I walked there and found the IT director. Something was majorly up, apparently there was a huge statewide phone outage. Our police, city and the two city school districts both went without phone service until about 3 p.m. as did several other businesses in our community. Just goes to show, there really will never be a true replacement for face-to-face, shoe-leather reporting. There’s no way I could have worked that story through the phones.
  • Over the past few weeks I’ve done two different stories involving outages with two different phone companies. In light of this, I really think phone companies need to evaluate their media relations. Neither of the phone companies made it easy to a) locate a media representative, b) locate any live person, c) get a phone number that didn’t start with 1-800 and end with my hanging up after getting stuck in a loop of computer mis-guided menus. To sum up my editor’s response to the first of these stories, “The phone company doesn’t have a phone number on its site?!” And then a laugh and attempt to prove me wrong, as if I would seriously admit both my computer savvy and Google prowess had let me down without first ensuring it was worth throwing in the towel. I’m just saying. In both cases, I now have the phone number, name and e-mail of the person I need to talk to should anything else arise. But why make it so difficult?
  • I learned a new word today: akimbo. Apparently it means to put your hands on your hips and bend your elbows. (Think annoyed teenage girl yelling, “But mooooommmm!”) I’m only including this here because I told my editor I would blog about the new word I learned. lol. He used it to describe the “sassy” pose one of the girl’s auditioning for the Purdue Play Boy edition had in her photo.
  • This story, which I first saw on Romensko (and first commented on in my education tumblelog — which is off to a good start, thanks for asking) makes me nervous about ever writing about the ISTEP or other major tests. The reporter wrote a light feature about the testing and inadvertently included the essay topics that many students hadn’t yet written about! Now all the kids have to retake the test. Although, reading his explanation, I’d have to say I do understand he didn’t know he couldn’t include the topics — and really he shouldn’t have been let in the classroom and the teachers and administrators should have flagged it for him not to repeat test questions. Still, I’m not sure I like his defense. I think he’s trying to point fingers by his blog post, and really what it boils down to is, yeah, that’s hella embarrassing and really messes with a lot of kids, but take responsibility and go ahead and say, “I screwed up.” Not doing so is just as embarrassing.
  • I have decided that while I could work the 6 a.m. shift, as in I am capable of waking up, getting dressed and being at work to start posting and picking up cops stuff from overnight, I reaaallly don’t envy the guys who have that regular shift. Yes, it would be nice to have a set shift that didn’t fluctuate from 8 to 4 through 3 to 11 virtually every day depending on meetings and assignments, and getting off (theoretically) at 2 p.m. is so appealing. But if a wonky schedule and a few late nights a week is the price to pay for getting to work during daylight hours, it’s worth it for now. I am way too tired to actually do anything with the rest of today. And as I told the business reporter when he came in at 7:30 a.m., I’m too young to be up at 6 a.m.
  • That’s all I can think of for now.

7 journalism wonders?

Wednesday, September 19th, 2007

What would you nominate as the Seven Wonders of Journalism World?

Poynter wants to know. They’re soliciting nominations in several categories:

  • Documents (such as the First Amendment)

  • People (such as Walter Cronkite)
  • Institutions (such as the BBC)
  • Events (such as the publication of the Pentagon Papers)
  • Technology (such as the invention of the telegraph)
  • Works (such as the front page of the New York Times on Sept. 11)

From the nominations they receive, they’ll narrow it to about 10 per category. Then, they’ll do seeded brackets and let each go head to head to move forward.

I am trying to think of things worthy of nomination. You can check out the feedback on the post to see some other journalists’ suggestions.

Sounds like a neat idea. I’ll be interested in seeing what seven we end up with.

Life lists… as an alternative story format

Monday, August 27th, 2007

NYT: 10 Things to Do Before This Article is Finished

This is a pretty fun, effective way to write that article.

And in case you’re wondering, I’ve had my “life list” online for a few years now at 43 things. Actually, I need to check off one of the items — make a scrapbook of my college years — because I finished it this summer.

You can also see some of the goals I already accomplished, like “learn to play the piano” (which involved a really time-consuming and painfully bad class my final semester of college), and “move out of Ohio, even if I end up coming back.” My practice so far has just been to move out one goal when I accomplish it and replace it with another, so I haven’t really made “progress” on my list. But then, at 22, I have plenty of time to do all that.

And hey, I slept in this morning. (It’s been a long time since my eyelids were closed past 10 a.m.)

The not-so job hunting expert

Thursday, July 5th, 2007

Remember back in middle school and high school when there was still so much you had never done or tried. Remember how your friends who had done those things suddenly became your expert guide as you met each milestone. Dating, driving, etc.

I’m having this weird deja vu the past few weeks. Only this time, it seems, I’m ahead of the curve and everyone wants my advice.

This is the time when all the summer interns are nervously starting to count the weeks remaining not the weeks they’ve been here. As few as two weeks left or as long as a month or two. The ones who are on post-grad internships (as several of my friends are) and even the ones who are looking forward to the next internship (as is the case for others I know) are suddenly wondering where they will find themselves after their summer internship ends.

I’m not an expert on finding a job at all. At all. In fact, I spent much of my final semester of college just freaking out because I just knew I’d never land one in journalism.

Miraculously, I got some nibbles, scored a few interviews and actually did get a job. Because I already went through this ritual and successfully completed it, that suddenly makes me an expert. Or at least, everyone seems to think I know more than they do.

I kind of wish I’d had that “what’s it like” network when I was looking. Though, fortunately, I had the network of professors whose offices I frequented in search of another set of eyes to proof my resume or another opinion on which cover letter to use and where to apply.

I’ve had conversations with four different people over the past week about the best way to go about applying for jobs, finding job postings, copying & sending clips, picking clips, writing cover letters and more. I always start with the disclaimer that I really lucked out in the job search.

In the interest of helping others who want to know what it’s like to find a job, here’s a quick round-up of how my search went. Remember, I was a horrible job hunter, so luck surely played some part in it.

  • I didn’t have time to search for jobs or contact editors or put together beautiful clip packages. I was busy taking a course overload necessary to graduate early, editing my daily student newspaper and trying to maintain a semblance of a social life.
  • The packets that did get sent out (aside from some from the job fair, probably only a half-dozen were mailed out) were put together well after midnight on Sundays after I’d just finished putting the Stater to bed. None of the papers I actually interviewed with received those packets via mail. I think I only actually talked to one of the editors who got the packet on the phone. I got a “we received your application” back from another. The majority of my inquiries went unanswered, though I didn’t follow up on most because by the time I would have I already had some interviews lined up and had decided I would see what happened and if I didn’t have a job by New Years I’d start again with rigor.
  • The others were from an interview at a job fair, an e-mail inquiry or them getting my name and resume/clips online. I also interviewed with a few recruiters who came to Kent, though I didn’t slate myself for all of them though my professors said I should. One of those interviews was with a corporate recruiter whom I’d already been in contact.
  • At least two editors contacted my references before contacting me. (I know because the editors told me or the professors would find me in the Stater office and ask if I heard from X paper.) In a few instances, the editors knew one or more of my references through having worked with them in the past.
  • I kept my options open. I wanted a reporting or online reporting position, but looked at online producing and copy editing jobs in appealing locations as well. My location criteria was I would move anywhere that paid me enough to live. My varied experience was, I think, what made me stand out. The other thing, I’ve been told by the editors who interviewed and hired me, was my passion and excitement for this business and its future.
  • It all happened pretty quickly. One minute I’m taking my news design exam, the next I’m Googling the area code of a phone call to find out where the heck it was coming from to place what paper it could be. One week I’m wondering if the bowling alley would let me come back after graduation, the next I’m touring the Midwest in a suit.
  • I don’t think I was quite prepared enough for the intensity of the job interviews themselves. I think that’s the one thing nobody warned me about. You interview with just about every editor at the paper, and it’s like rapid fire one right after another, from office to office, conference room to conference room. By the third or fourth person, I was always left wondering, wtf just happened? And trying to keep my excitement up as I answered what I would have sworn was word-for-word the same exact question I had just answered for the last three. Luckily, I’m a naturally excited person especially when I’m passionate about something. They all also included lunch or breakfast or both with editors and/or reporters. You get about two bites in, so don’t forget to eat breakfast before you come.
  • Each interview included test stories and written tests on grammar/style/general knowledge. Two of the test stories included mandates to write something for online. One was a bogus crash where I was given the notes/release and had to craft a story. The other was a story about holiday travel that required me to go out and find real people, contact the airport, contact AAA, etc. That story would have been easy, and in fact I had the online update within 15 minutes of getting the assignment, but ran into time trouble after the reporters who took me to lunch took me to a place that took forever to seat and serve us. I had about 15 minutes after that to find the “real people” and get it written, this involved me practically running down main street. I think the editor was actually happy to see the unexpected pressure. When I told her what happened and how I handled it, she laughed and said it would have made a good reality show. As for the general knowledge, I didn’t know who the Indiana senators were and I guessed on the name of the Indianapolis NBA team (correctly, I looked it up immediately after I left). So you never know what random questions could pop up.
  • Since starting my job, I’ve received at least half a dozen e-mails or calls from editors looking for the right candidate for their positions. At least one contacted me again after my 90-day probation to check in.

And there, my friends, in one quick list is everything I know about job hunting based on my own fledgling experience. I hope it’s helpful. If it’s not and somehow you don’t already know, Joe Grimm’s ask the recruiter column is a godsend of awesome advice, as is the journalists community on LiveJournal.

As I have told my friends, there is no right way. The right way is the one that works, for you, for the editor, for the paper that actually has a suitable opening at the right time. Try every way and hope one of them sticks. That was pretty much my method.

Good luck!

Some things to tie you over

Sunday, June 3rd, 2007

This past week has been interesting. Stressful at times, several times, and awesome at others. And I can hardly believe it was a single week at all, as the amount of “stuff” packed in makes it seem like a month at least.

The biggest of the “stuff” is that I moved into a new apartment in Lafayette, about a half mile away from the J&C. (I had been living with students in West Lafayette since I moved here. That was a bad idea on my part.) That’s where I’ve been most of the week, first desparately trying to find an apartment I didn’t hate — I am apparently very picky because every place I looked at had some deal-breaker — and then packing and actually moving my stuff across the river. It probably would have been easier to, uh, take a day off work or enlist the help of friends, but I decided to take the project on myself, waking up early and staying up until the wee hours of the morning.

Though I now need more furniture because my apartment is huge and most of what furniture I did have stayed in Akron because I was subleasing a room down here, I am moved. I never again have to come home from work after 10 hours to a house full of strangers playing beer pong or wake up at 3 a.m. to sirens because my roommate or her friend had to be rushed to the hospital with alcohol poisoning. The sad thing is, both of those situations happened on more than one occasion and are merely the tip of the iceberg, hence my eagerness to find an apartment far away from Purdue.

On the downside, I haven’t yet set up Internet at my new place. So, uh, I’m at Panera right now taking advantage of the free wi-fi and trying to remember where I saved that map I made of free wi-fi in Greater Lafayette region.

Since I don’t access the blog from work, updates will probably be infrequent this week until everything is squared away at home. ‘Til then, here’s a sampling of things I’m looking at, reading or thinking about:

  • 10 obvious things about the future of newspapers you need to get through your head, especially this point:

    Okay, here comes the big one: THE GLASS IS HALF FULL. There is excellent work being done in the new world of online journalism and it’s being done at newspapers like the Washington Post and the Lawrence Journal-World and the San Jose Mercury News and the St. Petersburg Times and the Bakersfield Californian and all sorts of papers of all sizes. You don’t need millions of dollars or HD cameras or years of training to make it happen; all you need is the right frame of mind. So let’s stop writing and groaning about how things used to be different, and let’s start building our own piece of the new world of newspapers brick by brick, story by story.

  • A confusing time to be a young journalist… An interesting read, including or perhaps especially the comments at the end. This reflection from Kathleen Nye Flynn, 25, reporter, Los Angeles Downtown News struck a chord with me:

    “I have wanted to be a newspaper journalist since I was 12 — my goal has never wavered — and ever since then I have worked for some sort of publication. Now I am a reporter for a local paper, paying my dues quietly while others my age have zoomed to the top. It’s worth it, I tell myself, because, after all, I’m in this for the long haul.

    “Now, they tell me, it looks like there won’t be a long haul — newspapers are dying, and the LA Times, every little local journalist’s paper to aspire to, is shedding all the reporters that I have waited for so long to work with. Well, hell. If only I could tell my 12-year-old self to go into advertising, right?

    “But I hold out hope — I have to. Try to tell me that journalism is a thing of the past, that now bloggers do it for free and I’ll never make enough money to support my future family, that if I do end up working for a big-boy paper one day I’ll just be spewing corporate jargon a la Fox News — and I won’t believe you.

    “I can’t. Call me blind or stupid, but I can’t give up on something that I have so much invested in. At 12-years-old, I wanted to be a journalist so I could dig up the facts, spread the word and effect some sort of change. So, as long as there are facts to dig, people to tell, and words to use, I have a purpose.

    “Whether or not I will have a paycheck, I’ll have to see.”

  • My Times — So I’m not sure if it’ll work for any of you, but I received an e-mail Friday telling me to personalize my My Times homepage. This is basically like the Google personalized homepage only not. It’s like, all the news that’s fit to print and then much of everything else I need to know from the mainstream media (including WSJ, BBC, Washington Post, etc. headlines.) Seriously, I’m not sure how I lucked into being one of the beta testers. I figured the service had gone “live” when I got my e-mail, but apparently not everybody’s feeling the love from the NYTimes just yet. Sign up to be notified when it launches, because apparently, that’s how I got included in this round of beta testing.
  • One Last Summer — The J&C’s newest community blogger. A senior who just graduated from one of the county high school’s and is headed to Notre Dame this fall where she plans to major in … journalism. She’ll spend the last summer at home blogging about the time between high school and college. Her first post talks about the ridiculous number of graduation parties she attended — 23 last weekend! and more this and the next few — and getting her wisdom teeth pulled. This is a great example of having someone in the community tell their story as a snapshot of a time in life. I’m looking forward to reading it this summer.
  • Multimedia Reporter — Speaking of new blogs, this is a few weeks old and has been in my RSS reader since I first stumbled on it. I admire any reporter/editor/journalist/anyone willing to take a leap of faith and build their wings on the way down, as it were. Ron Sylvester is not only building his wings as a long-time newspaper reporting jumping into new media, he’s letting us all in on the ride.

What I love about this profession

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

Saw this list of 100 Things Completely Right About Our Job linked at MultimediaShooter. Though it’s aimed at photographers, I wanted to highlight 10 things on this list I totally agree with and love about this profession:

(I took the liberty of striking out a few photo references to make it more relevent to reporting in general.)

1. We could be sitting in a cubicle right now processing paperwork….for the rest of our lives.
14. Everyone has a story and they always want to tell it. All I have to do is ask.
30. History is made in front of me.
40. Every time you tell someone what you do, they NEVER say “Oh, man, that must suck.”
51. Having an excuse to approach a complete stranger and find out who they are. This is probably my favorite part.
54. Never waking up to the same two assignments, shooting the same damn thing, or meeting the same damn people.
59. Seeing your name in print. Does the coolness of this wear off?
69. Knowing that your photo story made a difference in someone’s life.
82. Knowing that somewhere in the country, you photo story has been made into a magnet on a grandmother’s refrigerator. Maybe not a magnet, but chances are it got cut out and is hanging below a magnet or in a scrapbook somewhere.
93. Walking out to the driveway at 7am to see your photo story on A1. Especially when you didn’t know it was slotted for that!

Go read the rest of the list, which was compiled by Chip Litherland of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

As the last line of the post says: The sky is not falling. Amen!