Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Sweet Life

Every reporter knows the job demands chocolate just to survive, but this week I got to eat chocolate for my job.

When I walked into my GA shift last Friday, I expected the worst- life stories, fires (I did drive out to one, but the fire truck was leaving just as I pulled up), accidents, etc. I didn’t expect my editor to walk up to me and ask if I had time to write about a chocolate bar. I always have time or will make time to write about a chocolate bar, so I answered yes.

Writing the article was almost as time consuming as tempering chocolate. I conducted four interviews, went through edits three times, and even trekked across campus to try the chocolate bar for myself. Of course, I brought it back to the newsroom for the photographers, then broke off a few pieces for myself and stragglers still left in the newsroom.

I didn’t think the story would go further than giving a few chocoholics a virtual sugar high online, but when I picked up my copy of the Missourian today, it was on the front page. Now that’s a productive GA shift, I’d say!

 

How to hit the right notes

A shot from my second interview with Marching Mizzou. The color guard doing their thing.

I started working on my article about Marching Mizzou on August 28. It’s been almost a month of attending marching band practices, conducting multiple phone interviews, several rewrites and of course learning a lot about marching bands (of which I almost knew nothing about when I took on this assignment other than what I saw at a few Michigan games attended in my high school years) and I’m finally done. It’s a huge relief to be able to move on to something else and know that I’ll approach it a little differently than my SEC marching bands piece based on what I learned from writing it:

1. Don’t go for the obvious angle.

My first draft  came off as a fangirl piece- “yay, Marching Mizzou is traveling and we’re all excited!” The only noteworthy information it contained was that yes, the band is traveling but that’s enough for a tweet not a full article. My editor encouraged me to pursue a more anthropological angle- what is the culture of SEC marching bands we’re getting into? It wouldn’t have been my first thought (that’s why you have an editor after all), but it made the article so much richer. Although it’s important to get the obvious angle, once you’ve done the initial reporting ask “so what?” (What’s the larger context? Why should the reader care? How could we report on this topic in a unique way?) It’s something my editor always says, but I only understood it after working on this article.

2. What do you mean by that?

Another Schnellerism that I hear all the time but didn’t often apply to my interviewing process…until now. When your subject tells you about the meat and potatoes of their organization that you’ve never heard of, it can be tempting to save face and just nod along  because you think you’ll look stupid if you ask them to clarify something so self-evident to them. Actually, what makes you look stupid is not following up. Chances are, if you don’t know what it means, neither will your reader. Or even worse, you will confuse your reader when you attempt to write about something you don’t understand. And contrary to popular belief, asking “what do you mean by that?” doesn’t make you look like an idiot to your subject, but a keen reporter bent on doing her job right. (Also, people who love what they do love to talk about it and will love to explain things to you.)

3. Be patient with yourself.

Sometimes I get caught in the insecurity of thinking that because I’m in grad school and edited for my college paper in undergrad, I should know what I’m doing. However, a lot of times I don’t ask the right questions or not enough of them, I struggle trying to structure an article, I get stuck in convoluted writing trying to be “artsy fartsy” and only come off as “fartsy”; basically, I’m still figuring it all out. I’ve never been a real reporter before. That’s why I’m in grad school. If I knew what I was doing, I wouldn’t be here. I’m here to learn, not be perfect all of the time.

4. LISTEN to your editor.

They don’t think you’re incompetent, they’re just trying to teach you how to be better. They also say a lot of helpful slogans (see above) for a reason.

I’m really proud of how the story turned out in the end. It’s a clip I’ll carry around until I get a better one and the lessons I learned from it will follow me throughout the rest of my reporting career.

Even Veteran Reporters Screw Up

Michael Lewis’s profile of Barack Obama for Vanity Fair is fantastic. Profile writing is always a bit of a challenge. After all, how do you accurately capture a person’s essence in a few hundred or thousand words?  I can only imagine how daunting it was for Lewis to convey just who Obama is, a man whose persona is completely assumed just by his job title. The result is utterly fascinating, asking questions I’ve always wondered about and ones I never even thought to pose.

However, Lewis doesn’t just make it about Obama. He frames the piece around Tyler Stark’s, a US Air-force pilot, plane crashing in Libya and just who the man was who made that decision to deploy Stark in the first place. Following Libya allows Lewis to really delve into the president’s decision making process, something he couldn’t have done so easily if he were less specific.

Lewis also puts himself in the piece. He directly admits when he was a weak reporter, which is encouraging to see as a fledgling reporter and it’s why I’m blogging about it. You can be a prominent nonfiction writer and shadow Obama for 6-months, yet still screw up.

As I was still a little groggy and put my question poorly, he answered a question it hadn’t occurred to me to ask: Why doesn’t he show more emotion? He does this on occasion, even when I’ve put the question clearly—see in what I’ve asked some implicit criticism, usually one he’s heard many times before. As he’s not naturally defensive, it’s pretty clearly an acquired trait. “There are some things about being president that I still have difficulty doing,” he said. “For example, faking emotion. Because I feel it is an insult to the people I’m dealing with. For me to feign outrage, for example, feels to me like I’m not taking the American people seriously. I’m absolutely positive that I’m serving the American people better if I’m maintaining my authenticity. And that’s an overused word. And these days people practice being authentic. But I’m at my best when I believe what I am saying.”

That was not what I had been after. What I had wanted to know was: Where do you put what you actually feel, when there is no place in your job to feel it? When you are president you are not allowed to go numb to protect yourself from whatever news might happen. But it was too late; my time was up; I returned to my seat in the cabin.

Although the profile has been criticized for its occasionally corny literary language and overall fawning-tone, I appreciate the more existential insights into Obama’s character.

Breaking Character

Covering the Heritage Festival may have been my weirdest interviewing experiencing to date. This is the 35th year of the event and we’ve written about it almost as much, so I was hoping to find a unique angle. Turns out, this is the first year they are employing historical re-enactors, so I knew I wanted to chat with a few about the experience. However, I was worried we would end up having an entire conversation in character and therefore enlisted the help of the Boone County Historical Society’s executive director to help guide me around. Although I cannot thank her enough for introducing me to who I needed to know, I will admit that I got a bit caught up in getting the right quotes and forgot one of the fundamental rules of good reporting: observation. Although I’m happy with the overall article, I think it would’ve benefited from the small details that only come from just watching what’s going on in front of the curtain and not trying to get what’s behind it.

The other surprising thing about this event was how reluctant its attendees were to talk to me. I thought I could just grab a few quick quotes on my way out, but I ended up desperately searching for one affable visitor to talk to for 30 minutes. Out of the 9 people I approached, only 3 were willing to talk to me. The rest either politely declined or were a little harder to deal with. One woman just put her hand and shook her head, irritated I would even ask. Another man said that yes, I could take notes, but when I asked for his name, he declined. It was frustrating, to say the least. I even called the ACE on duty to get some tips.  I dunno if I’ve just had good luck in the past with approaching strangers or if these people were atypically anti-social (especially for a fun family event), but I finally learned that not everyone likes reporters. I hope it isn’t a common problem for me, but at least I know how to handle it.

Stepping into History

Here’s my event preview of the Heritage Festival and an excerpt below:

“The Heritage Festival and Crafts Show is adding a new tradition for its 35th incarnation.

At this year’s event, all of the buildings in the Village at Boone Junction will be inhabited by historical re-enactors from the Maplewood Barn Theatre players.

“People are really stepping back in time,” said Jenifer Fink, executive director and curator of the Boone County Historical Society. “There’s so much more with experiential learning when you can smell the smells and hear the stories. It brings history to life.”

I wonder if the historical re-enactors I meet tomorrow will speak to me in character or not.

When A Stranger Calls

I used to be afraid of the phone. Not in a cliche horror movie way, but I hated making phone calls due to the sheer awkwardness of cold calling someone and accidentally talking over them during the interview.  When I schedule interviews, I use email and prefer to meet the subject in person than over a Sprint tower to avoid these fears coming true. Don’t get me wrong, I do phone interviews when necessary and call people if it’s the only way to get in touch, but my heart rate goes up with each ring. It must be a generational thing, but yes, I’d rather communicate through a screen than a telephone line.

However, yesterday, I did something uncharacteristic for me. After combing through a predictable press release, I decided that the best way to get information on the event I was previewing was to call someone. Sure enough, I found out what I needed to know and got a tip off that will make my future event story unique (hopefully.) Oh, and I’ve been added to the priority parking list and now have a contact that will introduce me to the important people. Maybe this all would’ve happened had I just gone through the press release and then pulled up on Saturday sporting my reporter badge, but it would’ve taken a lot longer. Turns out more than just awkwardness can happen over a phone line, sometimes you can develop a rapport. None of  this ever would’ve happened if I hadn’t gotten over my fear to hit the green “call” button. Yes, making the phone call may seem hard at first, but it will make your story easier.

Reporting for the Missourian is making me step outside of my comfort zone and I have to admit, it’s a great thing.

Orientation Assignment

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Where: State Historical Society of Missouri

Who: Jeff Corrigan, Oral Historian

Jeff Corrigan has worked as an oral historian and reference librarian at the State Historical Society of Missouri for 4.5 years. He works primarily with the One Room School House, political and environmental collections. The best interview subjects are “retired people who can look back on their career,” Corrigan said. Most interviews lead to others and Corrigan finds most his subjects via word of mouth. An average interview lasts two hours but Corrigan said a 95-year-old man once talked to him for six hours straight. Corrigan’s favorite subject was a WWII Navy pilot. “He had cheated death several times,” Corrigan said. First, the pilot’s plane was shot down and he lived on a raft with his co-pilot until the USS Shark submarine picked them up. The pair became submariners for a month but was dropped off in Hawaii. When the USS Shark submerged again, it was torpedoed, making the two pilots its only surviving crew members. Later, the pilot was on the USS Lexington when a kamikaze hit the room he was in. He was the only one that survived. Despite the turmoil, the pilot retained all of his flight logs and retold his stories to his social studies students.

Where: Columbia Farmers Market

Who: Jeannie Nobis

The pies at Grandma Barb’s Pies at the Columbia Farmers Market aren’t actually baked by their namesake. In fact, Barb’s daughter-in-law, Jeannie Nobis, has been baking for the stand for seven years now. It’s a full time job requiring Nobis to bake six days a week to sell at various farmers markets in Monroe, Mexico, Hannibal, Paris but Columbia is the busiest location. Nobis bakes everything from simple sweet breads to more time-consuming onion cheddar breads but her chocolate chip peanut butter chip bread is her most unique item.  Her baking career started 30 years ago when Nobis baked 2 pies for a diner every morning when she was 17. Now, you can find her pies at weddings. Her largest order was 400 cupcakes for a wedding. However, a different cake trend has been taking over her oven, cake balls. Nobis generally doesn’t say no to a request. “If I can do it, I try my best to get it done,” she said, as long as she’s given two week’s notice. Despite the popularity of her baked goods, Nobis doesn’t plan to open up a store because she appreciates the flexible schedule of the market. “If something happens and I can’t bake, it’s not going to ruin someone’s life,” she said.  “And I’m never hungry,” she added.

Where: The Activity and Recreation Center

Who: Josie Ostrowski

It doesn’t bother Josie Ostrowski that her work place always smells like chlorine. “I don’t even notice it,” she said. Ostrowski has worked as a receptionist at the ARC for a year, although she has tried to quit three times. “It sucks you in and you never leave,” she said.  As a receptionist, Ostrowski assures customers are being helped and satisfied, solves problems and signs up new members. Customers mostly inquire about the class schedule. Ironically, Ostrowski hasn’t taken a class since she started working there.

Where: Boone County Historical Society

Who: Majorie Motley, Docent Coordinator, Volunteer, Director of Centralia Museum

Marjorie Motley’s favorite artifact in the Boone County Historical Society’s Civil War exhibition is a pair of binoculars with a bullet hole through them. “They probably saved the man’s life,” she said. She is equally impressed by the size of gigantic cannon shells. “I was a quail hunter,” she said.  Motley is a docent of the museum, however her personal items are on display too. In the University of Missouri Football Exhibit, you can find her game tickets and books from the 1950s.

Where: Cosmo Park

Who: Drew Deubner

Drew Deubner is the founder of Como Polo, Columbia’s bike polo club. He started the club in March 2008 after reading up on the sport and realizing Columbia didn’t have its own chapter. Although he only started riding bikes in college two years prior, he said he had always been interested in mechanics. The bike Deubner rides today is a mountain bike customized to single speed. The club practices twice a week, Wednesdays on the roof of Hitt Street Garage and Sundays at an unused hockey rink in the back of Cosmo Park. “We call it bike church,” he said. Sporting helmets and wrist guards, two teams of three take on each other, circling on their bikes with mallets. The sport can be rough. “It’s frustrating and it’s painful,” Deubener said. He has shattered his hand and tore a ligament in his right ankle at a tournament in Colorado a year ago. That Sunday, he had a bloody fingernail and scraped elbow.

Where: Stephens Lake Park

Although the signs may say “No Skating,” Stephens Lake Park was still benefitting from the summer weather last weekend. Children splashed around in the lake, teenagers studied on the grass and couples walked their German Shepherds on a Sunday afternoon. The autumnal wind sennt smells of barbeque through the air. The“No Ice Fishing” sign won’t be relevant for quite some time.

Where: Columbia Cemetery

You can find the origin of every local street and university building name in the Columbia Cemetery. Names like Lowry, Rollins, Douglass, Hitt, Stephens, Gentry, Lenoir and others are chiseled on the tombstones. Next to these massive marble blocks are fake flowers and sometimes mementoes like a toy car and baseball glove left for a little boy who would’ve turned five this year.

Where: J.W. “Blind” Boone Center

The plants outside of the J.W. “Blind” Boone Center aren’t just decorative; they are part of the community garden. The children and staff of Moving Ahead grow herbs and vegetables. The Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture supports the project.

Where: Voluntary Action Center

Newspapers claim they can no longer generate revenue via job ad placements, but not everyone looks them up online. The Voluntary Action Center has a whole bulletin board of newspaper want ads.

Where:  MU Research Reactor

The MURR isn’t exactly journalist friendly because they have a gate that only authorized personnel can enter around it.