A point of reflection

This is late. But it was intentional. (Sorry, Tom, if too late for my grade.)

I’d have to say advanced reporting was one of my favorite classes in the journalism school thus far. Really, it just gave us all a chance to be really, really nerdy.

In J4450, we talk about stories. We go over who did a good job. We talk about some ethical situations. But most of all, we scratch the surface of everything and all things journalism.

What I loved about this class was getting to dissect this job. We got to talk about the nitty gritty issues in journalism and what makes this job what it is. Everything was a discussion, and a lot of times, there weren’t right or wrong answers. There is so much to be said for getting to talk with your peers and those with much more experience than us about our reporting experiences and about journalism in general—those gems of conversation allow us to continue to grow as journalists. It allows us to get out of the grind and routine of report, write, publish and actually talk about what we’re doing.

I definitely wish there was more of this in the regular reporting class. It’s of great value to students to get to take the time to deeply discuss journalism in smaller groups (like our advanced reporting class).

I also loved the variety of clips. During the regular reporting class, I feel there was a lot of emphasis put on the number of clips we published. This semester, I’ve gotten to try a variety of types of stories, which has improved my reporting all around.

Thanks to a really great group of students for a great semester.

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When informing isn’t enough

Reblogged from my blog:

This school year has been very long.

Of course, that sentence automatically sounds negative. And yeah, a lot of negative things happened to me this year.

But after thinking — cue in the image of a self-reflective member of the intelligentsia — about it, I can’t come out of this year with a negative perspective. Rather, I want to be intentional and active about being positive.

I’m not sure when it hit me, but I’ve been disenchanted with the traditional structure of journalism for a while, for about a year. I don’t know the trigger and I don’t know if it’ll even last, but I do know one thing I want that I’m not getting that I keep on repeating to myself but can’t verbalize to anyone else.

I don’t want to criticize anyone, because I think this program is great. I think it’s achieved many things and it’s developed many great journalists.

But I simply have not been satisfied with it, and I couldn’t pinpoint why.

I think I realized part of it today when I was actually talking to an adviser about something completely unrelated to journalism. I’m applying for a grant after school and this adviser was asking for me to clarify something in my personal statement.

I wrote about how I want to tell stories, how I can’t do anything but tell stories. (Oh god! Just like everyone else!) And he said that was fine. But he asked what the point was to it. He asked me what he expected people to do with the stories I told.

He read a part of my statement where I describe the moment I wanted to go into journalism: it was when I saw one of photojournalist Robert Capa’s photos, and I was so intrigued by the photo that I wanted to know more. Of course, my adviser was right. I wanted to know more and I made myself learn more. I looked up Robert Capa and pored over his photos. I wanted to learn everything about him.

Maybe that had something to do with him and maybe it had something to do with me.

But my adviser told me that the only way I communicate what I want to do will be through telling what I want people to do after they read my story. He said that I should want people to “look for the sequel.”

I had never thought of my stories this way before. The way I perceive writing journalistically does not focus on the receiving end of the story: the reader him or herself. But it makes total sense. We think about the writing of the article and the gathering of interviews and sources and information and we put it all together and make it beautiful and send it on its merry way.

But what if people don’t care?

A lot of work goes into journalism. A LOT of work. But sometimes the output doesn’t match the input, which is one of the huge blockades I’ve run into.

We expect readers to automatically love long features and beautifully written prose. But sometimes they won’t. A lot of the time they won’t.

Of course, that’s not to say that the way I’ve been taught how to do journalism ignores the reader. That’s not what I’m saying. But the way we expect readers to respond is flawed, I think. Or maybe the way I want people to respond to my stories is different from everyone else.

Wanting to do something after you read an article is more than just clicking through links and reading more stories, to me.

But it’s not about “making” anyone like my stories. I don’t want someone to read a story I write and think, “Wow, she’s a great writer.” I don’t really care what anyone thinks of me as a writer, which is why I have such a fundamental problem with journalism awards and dinners and really anything self-congratulatory.

What I want from people who read my stories or watch my videos is not about me. It is about the story. It is about the people I am describing. I want to instill something within people to do something. But it’s different from Nicholas Kristof. I don’t want to be Nicholas Kristof.

I want my stories to be a vessel for people. Maybe it’s just them thinking, “Wow, I didn’t know that” about some kid in Prague or some average post-college guy in some average college town. I want to tell boring stories and exciting stories so that boring people and exciting people can somehow form some connection with each other. I want these boring people and exciting people to know that they don’t have to join the Peace Corps or buy a pair of TOMS shoes to appreciate humanity at a global level — I just want to tell them about each other and maybe look up some Wikipedia page about another culture or cry when they see another crying or laugh when another is laughing.

I want to work for StoryCorps. I want to work for Radio Free Europe. I want to make films like Life in a Day or Tree of Life or Stoker or Bending Steel (for real it’s a great documentary). I want to be involved in things like this because they are activists and humanists, but overall, they tell very simple stories about people — but these stories hold a deeper significance because they really are just about people. No more, no less. No pretention or upside-down pyramid style anything. And I think stories like that can almost be the most effective.

StoryCorps realizes that people cry when they hear about heartbreak, or death, or aspiration, or youth. Radio Free Europe is so much more than just another news aggregator — it takes an active role in the region it’s covering. Life in a Day was so great because it was about people, in a day, doing what they do. Because we all do, and we all have 24 hours in a day, and that’s something so basic but yet so special.

Because even if people don’t do anything after they experience these stories, they feel. Sometimes I don’t think people feel after taking part in the journalism cycle.

Yes, we should have daily coverage of news. But what does it do, at the end of the day? What is the purpose of a story if it does not take an active role in the mind of the reader? Why tell a story if no one wants to do or feel anything afterward?

I don’t want people to think of me as a writer. I don’t want to write a traditional feature. I don’t want to write things that people don’t care about.

I just want to make people feel.

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I know no other way than this


Wednesday, I was asked to write three takeaways from my second semester at the Columbia Missourian. I took 90 seconds to scrawl something incoherent on the corner of some page in my notebook.

The only takeaway is this: I am my own obstacle. When I get an assignment I don’t want to work on, the whole machine shuts down. Paralysis. I wish I had the resolve to say no, or better: to get over it. I don’t know what I’m doing anymore. I don’t know what is fulfilling. But it’s not this.

Not this.

The two scariest words in the English language.

I picked journalism from the pool of writing-based professions when I was 18. I’m too fickle to write a novel, too proud to put a brand on my expression, too terrified to risk a closeted existence of poverty and bad poetry. Reporting. You can learn to love…

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Questions rather than lessons

I think the most interesting and morally confusing thing that happened to me all semester happened in this last week. I wrote my mental health story including the woman I interviewed at the jail. I had a lot of her story in the article. And a lot of it was very personal. On Thursday I went to the jail to try to convince her to let me use her real name in the article. I printed out her sections of the story and sat while she read them. I expected to have to really persuade her, but I just asked if she was ok with it and she said yes, she felt it was time to get it all outside of her and off her chest.

I was thrilled she was willing to do this, but I’m not sure why. I want to say it’s because I think the story is that important and that’s it. I do think that’s a lot of it- I actually hate having people talk to me about my writing and it horrifies me to know that people, especially ones I know, read my writing. But I couldn’t help but wonder if I was doing the story just for the credit I would get, for the clip I can now show to potential employers.

I’ve come away hoping that that’s not it. I loved writing the story and I worked hard on it, and I just want it to be the best possible. Still a little selfish, but not as much. I hope the best possible means that it will have some impact on someone, and that her name will help.

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Had a pretty firm realization in Jefferson City, today. I spoke with Republican Representative Jay Barnes about the medicaid expansion proposal he recently pulled off the table. I walked into his office and he was hunched over his desk, wearing an off-brand, slightly immature-looking polo, visibly exhausted. His blue eyes, preceded by dark circles, were heavy, swollen and a bit red. We only talked for five minutes, and what he said doesn’t really matter, but I quickly concluded that this man was not evil, and that I was silly for ever thinking so. 

I can’t remember what we discussed without listening to the recording, but I remember how the corners of his mouth curled in to a lazy, natural smile. He wasn’t trying to smile. It’s just how his mouth was. I also remember the crude drawings that hung on his wall. “I love you, daddy,” were scrawled on them in a child’s handwriting. 

I think politicians are shortsighted and don’t understand the reach and effects of their policies, actions or lack of action. They’re not stupid, but they don’t quite grasp the fact that there’s more to politics than politics. And I think that’s what the journalist is supposed to convey. That there’s more. There’s always more. That’s what I want the new class of reporters to know. 

There is more to politics than politicians. Don’t be bashful about finding sources (tough advice to take, I know), because people know that journalists are supposed to be a little nosey and too persistent. People are just people, after all. They’ll either talk to you, or they won’t. Politicians are just politicians.

There is more to business. Again, seek out real people. Don’t just interview the bobble head executive or banker and expect to get the story. Don’t expect to get half the story. Finding sources is like navigating an intricate web. Start with the bureaucrats. Learn their bureaucracy. Work your way down. For every bureaucrat, there’s usually an organization that either supports or damns him. Get in touch with the head of that organization. Talk to him. Identify the community represented by that organization. Find a leader in that community. Talk to him. Ask him if he knows any other residents who might be willing to talk to you. Talk to them. Get their stories. This takes a long time, and motivation, to boot. I once sat outside the newsroom for five hours before I found the single source that would connect me with real people. And then it took a week of phone tag and missed connections before I was actually able to schedule an interview. But was it worth it? Absolutely. The sense of accomplishment you’ll feel will practically suffocate you.

There is more than Columbia. There is more to journalism than this school or this class, though you will graduate from reporting and advanced reporting carved from stone. Those two classes by themselves have, to this date, been harder than any of my internships. But I believe that good journalism is borne of hell of a lot of living. The world, I sometimes forget, is huge. The collective pain, struggle, beauty, joy, mercilessness and violence of it all is staggering. The potential for stories—good stories—is endless. And I have way more living to do before I can truly consider myself a writer.

Stay humble. Stay overly humble. Just because there is more than this class and school doesn’t make you better than this class or school. Just because your sources won’t call you back doesn’t make you better than the story that needs to be written. No one will seek you out. You have to seek them out—and at the risk of a wild goose chase. Blowing off an obstacle doesn’t make you above it. And you certainly won’t find out what’s beyond that obstacle that way. Good things always lie ahead. Keep your head down and get to work if you ever want to find out what the future has in store.

Anyway, I need to swallow a massive dose of my own advice and start studying for some finals. I also need to write a story before the end of the semester. Besides, this was starting to sound a little too much like a high school commencement speech. 

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End-of-semester reflections

I had the chance to do a bit of long-form writing this semester, and I loved it. I think my candidate profile was one of the best pieces of writing I’ve submitted to the Missourian, and I received a lot of positive feedback on my final project, which was published earlier this week. It was wonderful to approach stories from a more thoughtful and stylistic perspective, which I’ve never really have the opportunity to do in daily news stories. Learning all about another person’s life–what matters to them, what their most valuable experiences have been, what makes them tick–is really one of the most rewarding aspects of journalism.

But perhaps the most important thing I’ll take away from this semester is a (better) ability to say no. I still don’t like doing it. I still get twinges of guilt when I turn down a request; I still have to bite my tongue to refrain from giving an impulsive apology or explanation. But the thing is: people will only respect you as much as you respect yourself. I’ve spent far too long convinced that what I want and need will always come second to others. No more of that.

I’m a journalist and I think I’m pretty decent at what I do. Maybe I don’t fit the traditional mold; I’m quiet, introverted and more than a little awkward at times. But I still get the job done, and I’m learning that it’s okay to trust my own authority–to have faith in the decisions I make as a reporter.

I don’t remember if I’ve told this story before, but back in March, my candidate wanted me to alter the wording of a few of his quotes–as in go back to the quotes and take out a couple of words. I stood my ground and refused to do it. It was a small thing, for sure, but I was proud of myself. Sometimes making the right decision is going to upset people. That’s inevitable. But that’s part of what journalism is all about: telling the story exactly as it is, rather than the way others think it should be.

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You gotta want it

This semester has been trying for me. I have been in a fairly dark place in my life, and that has reflected itself heavily in the work I have done for this class. For all my classes. To be honest, I’m exhausted. Every story I’ve written has felt like a huge burden to me. I’ve been feeling anxiety from reporting that I never used to experience, and I’m not exactly sure why.

One possible reason is my slow realization over the course of this semester that I don’t really expect to become a reporter at all but instead will be trying to make it as a copy editor one day. Another might be the depression I mentioned several weeks ago and its debilitating effect on my productivity throughout the day. But it also might just be that reporting is pretty terrifying. It’s hard to throw yourself outside your comfort zone day after day. I have so much respect for my classmates who have been able to do that this semester and fully embrace the opportunities in front of them.

I believe I have been able to accomplish or come close to many of my goals from the start of the semester, but I was never able to throw my heart into this class the way  I’ve seen some others do. I’ve learned through this course that reporting is not just a job. You can’t just go through the motions and expect success. We constantly insert ourselves into other people’s lives and stories and to stay devoid of emotion through every topic we cover, you’d have to be truly dead inside. I’ve learned that reporting takes passion and determination and a strong belief in the importance of what you are doing.

I’ve also learned this semester that everything is connected. All the stories and media that enter our website work together like pieces of a giant puzzle, and every role is overlapping. A reporter can edit. An editor can report. And together, it’s vital that each understands where the other is coming from. As an aspiring editor, I think I more fully understand the challenges, both logistically and internally, that reporters face, whether it’s talking to a source about a sensitive subject or swallowing your pride/guilt/fear/whatever to cover a topic you aren’t a fan of. And knowing that will help me to work with them in my role as a copy editor in the future (i.e. starting this summer and fall).

I want to thank my editors for their help this semester and all of my fellow reporters for helping me to stay at least mildly sane as we went through this journey together. I am going to miss the teamwork and camaraderie I felt on the public life beat and across the board. I hope that is not something unique to the Missourian newsroom. Journalism is a living, breathing organism, and we all have to work together to keep it alive.


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