Appreciation is the world’s greatest journalism award

Last week, I had the chance to interview some of the members of the St. Louis-based Pink Floyd tribute band, El Monstero. I went out to their rehearsal space, talked to the backup singers, lead singer, keyboardists, etc. The interviews were a lot of fun to do, and I loved writing the story.

But what is even more exciting than being pumped about a story you’re working on is when the people you are interviewing are just as excited. Or maybe the better word here is appreciative. But either way, it’s little things like that that make this ridiculous world of journalism meaningful.

A couple days after the story was posted, I got an email from the person who helped me set up the interviews. It was a forwarded message from one of the guys in the band:

Getting that email made my day. It’s so rare that people you write about tell you how much they appreciate what you’re doing. So rare, in fact, that I can only specifically remember one other time this happened. And that was about two years ago.

Very few people realize how much work journalists put into what they do and how little reward they get — unless they are involved in the industry themselves or related to someone who is. For people to go out of their way to get a message to you that they liked what you wrote is one of the best rewards a journalist could ask for. I think that says more than any award you can hang in your office.

Yeah, awards from fellow journalists are nice. Awesome, actually. Everybody wants them. But I’d take printing out a nice, unexpected email to tack on the wall behind my desk over a shiny plaque any day.

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Press releases are NOT journalism

Press releases should GENERATE story IDEAS. They should not be stories themselves. Or even part of a story.

That’s why it surprised me that a poll on a recent Poynter. story about a Kansas City Star reporter being fired for using press releases in his columns had more than 50 percent of (presumably) journalists saying it’s okay to use press releases as long as they’re attributed (as of July 5).

Um… WHAT?

Running press releases is my least favorite part about journalism. Why? Because it’s NOT. JOURNALISM. Running press releases lets someone else — who was not properly trained in the journalism industry — fill precious space that, in most cases, could be filled with original, better work from staff reporters, freelancers, editors, etc.

Though readers don’t see it, it makes the paper look lazy (which, by the way, was my vote on the Poynter. poll). Printing press releases as if they are original news deceives (perhaps, unintentionally) the reader into believing they are getting quality, original news when, in fact, a dozen other media outlets in the area could be running the same story. Word for word.

Plus, what good does it do for a newspaper or website to have large portions of its space/webpage devoted to information that can be found anywhere?

I come from a strict no-press release background. I just wish the rest of the real world held to that policy as much as my college paper and its adviser did.

Feature writing: Why telling someone’s story is better than any FOIA request

Nothing. Not schemes. Not FOIA requests. Not breaking a story. Nothing compares to the love I have for feature writing.

Do I get excited when breaking news occurs? Hell yeah. What journalist wouldn’t? Do I love being the first to tell an important story that impacts an entire community? Um… Yeah. I do. Do I love asking the tough questions and providing readers with important information that can affect their daily lives? Abso-frackin’-lutely.

But I love feature writing more. I love the description. The ability to tell someone’s story. Taking a walk in someone else’s shoes. (Please, ignore the terrible use of a cliche. I am trying to make a point.) Bringing other peoples successes and failures to life with a few questions and some creative thinking. I love it. I love it so much.

Even though you keep your distance and remain impartial, becoming a part of someone’s life just long enough to tell their story requires a great amount of trust between yourself and the subject. It’s a big deal. And some could argue that getting someone to open up about their personal life is much more of a challenge than tracking down a corrupt government official. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. But some might.

One example that comes to mind is a two-part series I wrote for The Alestle about a student (a speech communication major) who uses a wheelchair getting handicap buttons installed outside of the speech comm department offices. At first, it seemed like a pretty straightforward news story. But this girl was willing to talk about anything and everything. She let me into her world and allowed me to see things from her perspective.

In fact, I ended up finding out that we attended school in the same district (different high schools) before going to SIUE. And, I gave her a ride back to campus the weekend I was working on the story. During that time we did the interview. She didn’t have to go on and on like she did, making the interview take up almost the entire 45-minute drive from St. Louis to Edwardsville. But she did. She told story after story, without much asking, and allowed me to create one of the favorite stories I’ve ever written.

It wasn’t just about her making a change on campus. It was about her life. Her accomplishments. It was her life’s story. And I loved being the one to tell it.

You just don’t get the same satisfaction from a well-written news story that perfectly uses inverted pyramid as you do from crafting the words that reveal someone’s life to the world. There’s nothing like it.

Disappearing ethics a common occurence

It breaks a journalist’s heart to read about plagiarism, fabricating sources and stories and being generally unethical in the industry — regardless of how far back into your journalistic history those events fall. That’s why I could barely even generate a response other than, “WHAT?!” to a recent column on the Monroe News, where a reporter confessed to creating scenarios for stories, doing interviews for game stories BEFORE the game occurred with “we won” quotes and “we lost” quotes. Not to mention creating direct quotes from memory.

First of all, I can’t even imagine how someone could allow themselves to do any of those things, let alone write a column about it. I can’t think of a single thing a person could gain from exposing the unethical behavior of their past. There is nothing good that can come from his column, as far as I’m concerned.

You would think that most journalists have enough common sense not to do that kind of stuff. But then again, here’s an established journalist writing about his ethical blunders. Not to mention Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair.

This reporter has pretty much ruined any credibility he had and now sources, editors and future employers have a very real right to worry about the accuracy of his stories. I know I would.

Since the headline is “Journalists: Don’t do this,” maybe he wasn’t just talking about the complete and utter disregard he had for ethics. Maybe he was talking about writing the column too.

But, things like this are just one of the depressing and discouraging thing about this industry I’ve grown to love. From the moment we start out as cub reporters, we have the concepts of ethics and morals ground into our brains. But somewhere along the way, for some people at least, it seems to disappear. And that’s a damn shame.

Staff editorials matter — My college paper just proved it

You don’t realize it when you first start writing for a newspaper (or magazine, or working in broadcast), but people, believe it or not, actually listen to what you’re saying. And that’s never been more evident than on the opinion/editorial page.

I have a soft spot for editorials (individual and staff) because of the opinion editor position being the first editor title I had in college. I was told the opinion editor spot is good for people who you want to be an editor, but you want to make sure they can handle it. There was (usually) only one page of layout, writing more opinion stories than you used to and compiling and editing everything for staff editorials. Sounds pretty simple, right?

Well, it is. But it’s also one of the most important positions on the paper, as far as I’m concerned. People like to read what other people think. People like to complain about what other people think. People like to praise people for having the same beliefs.

But what I like most about the editorial page is that it can elicit change. Did that happen while I was opinion editor? No, not really. I was able to expand the section to two-page spreads on occasion, which was great, but nothing I wrote and no staff editorials under my leadership really made a big difference.

But a recent one at my college paper did.

The staff wrote about how boarded up windows on buildings around campus, specifically Dunham Hall (the mass comm/theater building), are an eyesore and don’t accurately showcase the aesthetics of the school. They suggested, at the very least, painting the wooden boards black so they’re not such an obvious eyesore.

The Alestle’s current editor in chief posted on Facebook a couple days ago that those boards were recently painted black.

It’s just neat to me that what journalists say — especially on the college level — does matter and does make a difference. My only complaint is that it doesn’t happen more often.

Why you’ll never be as close with your fellow journos after graduation

Watching a clip about the new HBO series “The Newsroom,” I was reminded about what exactly it is that makes a college newsroom so special. What exactly it is that makes college newsrooms such close-knit groups. Second families, if you will.

You experience so many things with in your college newsroom. Experiences that will never occur anywhere else and that create a connection that can never be severed.

In my case, our newsroom had to deal with one of our own being arrested on campus on charges I don’t care to discuss. But this “incident” brought us closer together. We had to turn to each other, lean on each other and talk through having to cover the story. Being the one that wrote some of the initial stories about the arrest, I can honestly say, those were some of the hardest stories I’ve ever written.

In another case, our newsroom dealt with accusations of stereotyping and unfair coverage due to race. This also brought us together because we knew we did everything right in regard to our coverage of the incident that occurred. But we still ended up having a meeting with administration to discuss the “issues.” Situations like that make you realize how fortunate you are to have people who understand where you’re coming from, who believe in the same things you believe in and who are willing (regardless of the fact that it’s required) to stand by you and your decisions — and even defend your decisions when you can’t find the words to do so yourself.

Situations like those are what make a college newspaper a family. You spend so much time with them (more time than you spend with your actual family) that you don’t know what to do when you have to leave them. It sucks. It really does. But they’re always there.

They’re there when you’re having a bad day at your new job. They’re there when you have something funny to tell them that reminds you of the college newsroom. And most importantly, you’re also there for them.

Because, as cheesy as it is, I truly believe that the friends you make working for your college newspaper will be your friends — and family — for life. Regardless of where your lives take you.

Leads: Why should I care?

One of my biggest journalistic pet peeves is the lack of attention lead writing. Granted, it is one of the hardest aspects of writing, but still. To look at a story and see a lead that tells you nothing, does not draw you into the story and is essentially a pointless waste of space is, simply put, obnoxious and makes me want to rip my hair out.

Usually you can tell the difference between a lead that’s just thrown on the page to meet deadline and a lead that actually had some thought put into it. What I don’t get is why some people don’t take the time to craft a beautifully written lead.

For the longest time, the lead would be the first thing I write. I would sit and stare at a blank Word document until a lead (if not my best, at least something to get the ideas flowing) popped into my head.

Though coming up with individual leads is a pain, all you really need is one simple question to give you the idea for the lead: WHY SHOULD I CARE?

What about the story you’re writing is so important that everybody who picks up a copy of the paper should read it? That information is the lead. Now, crafting that information with the perfect words is whole ‘nother story. But the basic thought is the same.

Find something — a fact, a statistic, a quote, something that tugs at the heart — to draw people into the story. If you can’t do that right away, then take the advice of my former editor in chief: Write everything BUT the lead. Then go back and figure out what you want to say.

Crafting a lead is different for everyone. Not everyone will take the same path, but everyone will end up at the same place. It just takes time, patience, bouncing ideas off other people (not even fellow journalists, necessarily) and stepping back from the story to see what is truly the most important piece of information readers should care about.

Broadcast v. Print: We’re really not that different

Broadcast journalists are out for the ratings. Broadcast journalists don’t have ethics. Print journalists write too long. Jab. Jab. Insult. Dig. Jab. Jab. Jab.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, I’ll make my point.

For as long as I can remember, there has always been somewhat of a divide between print and broadcast journalists. They have different personalities, different ideas of how to tell a story, and, more importantly, different stereotypes and preconceived notions about how the other medium acts, both as a person and a journalist. And I’m sick of it.

Yes, I used to be one of those print people who not necessarily looked down on broadcast journalists, but didn’t hold them up to the stature they deserve. Why did I do that? I don’t know. It was just the nature of the people around me, I guess. Though I know we are all working our butts off to tell stories, break news and be as accurate and thorough as possible, I had this stupid idea in my head that print was better than broadcast, mostly because it’s what I prefer. It’s the medium I do well in. Put me in front of a camera, and I’ll stutter, stumble and clam up.

But I wasn’t jolted out of my blinded idiocy until the SPJ Reporters Institute  I attended last month. A lot of the journalists accepted to SPJRI were broadcast journalists, which made me a little hesitant. I thought,They won’t have the same problems I do at a newspaper. I won’t understand their problems. I won’t be able to use the information from the broadcast-related sessions. They’ll be perky, happy people and that won’t mix well with my typically pessimistic attitude.

I was wrong. We ALL deal with the same problems. We ALL have issues getting in touch with sources. We ALL have internal newsroom conflicts. The only difference is how we report. Plus, the broadcast people were pretty cool (along with everyone else).

The ‘holier than thou’ attitude on both sides of the journalistic coin just isn’t necessary. We’re all trying to work the same beats, talk to the same people and make a living doing what we love. Why waste time b*tching about the competition when you can build professional, working relationships with them? Especially with the direction the industry has turned toward.

Everybody has to be able to do everything. It’s hypocritical for a broadcast journalist to look down on a print reporter then go write a short article to accompany a video package. Just like it’s hypocritical for a print journalist to mock a broadcast journalist, then turn around and shoot video as a web supplement.

We’re all doing the same thing. Some of us just have more talent in different areas. So instead of continuing this broadcast v. print debacle, how about we all just let it go and start working together? It’s going to happen sooner or later anyway.

Journalism in the real world: A six-month reflection

Well, I’m half way there. Today marks six months since I started living in this weird little place called “The Real World.” And it’s definitely been an interesting venture so far.

When I first started my job as a staff reporter, I was also working at a second internship, which I started around Thanksgiving. Needless to say, the real world kicked my ass. I was working about 50+ hours a week between the full-time gig and the internship, along with doing interviews for InsideSTL’s music section in what little downtime I had left.

About three months in, I gave up on trying to hold down a full- and part-time job and a sporadic writing gig. I quit my internship to focus on my full-time reporting job. (I still write pretty regularly for InsideSTL.) Even though I’m still trying to find things to do to fill my time on my Wednesdays off, I’m glad I went the path I did. I think I would have burned out way too fast if I tried keeping up at that pace.

The only problem is that now I feel like I have too much down time. I went from being a full-time student and part-time journalist (which, let’s face it, there’s no such thing as a “part-time journalist,” even at the college level) to a full-time journalist and somehow ended up with more down time than when I was in school.

I’m not constantly on the go anymore, despite spending the majority of my weeknights covering meetings. I don’t have some work or school-related task to take up every waking (and sleeping) hour of my life. It’s so… weird. So weird, in fact, that I even went back to SIUE to chat with the Mass Comm department chair about grad school. I really do want to return to school at some point and get a Master’s so I can be better equipped to reach one of my ultimate career goals (creating a magazine). But, unfortunately, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

But anyway, to get off that tangent and back on track…

Life in the real world isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be (She says knowing everyone around her is saying, “I TOLD YOU SO!!!”). I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but the transition from a college newsroom to a community newspaper newsroom was shocking, to be blunt. At the Alestle, we had a staff of roughly 20 to 30 to cover one college campus, not including the advertising department. Where I work now, we have a staff of about 10 to 12 including secretarial, advertising, part-time office workers, etc., where my editor and myself are the entire editorial staff.

The staff size alone was a shock, let alone the way stories ideas are generated. Most stories come from board meetings/agendas now. In college, the ideas came from talking to people, searching SIUE’s website, campus events, etc. I just thank the journalism gods that my former managing editor (and later editor in chief) stuck me on the student government beat back when I was a baby reporter. It prepared me more than I could have ever realized at the time.

One of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to make is having very few people to vent to about the frustrations of my first “real” journalism job. Back in college, my best friends worked for the paper too, so there was plenty of time to get out our frustrations in between editorial meetings, watching episodes of Archer in the office and random nights out of the office.

But when your closest journalism friends from college either don’t go into the industry after graduation, or they’re at least 45 miles away, the healthy venting time just isn’t there. And it makes the stress twice as hard to manage.

Even though I’ve made post-collegiate life sound like a depressing hell, I promise it’s not all bad. I am getting great experience and learning new things with every issue we publish. Because our staff is so frackin’ tiny, I also copy edit the entire paper and post a majority of our content online. The small staff does allow me to hone other skills I have but aren’t quite where they could be.

I’ve also been able to write some pretty cool stories. A member of British parliament was visiting Jefferson Barracks a few months back, and I had the opportunity to cover her visit and interview her. And, one of my first post-collegiate stories was about the one-year anniversary of a tornado that ripped through the city of Sunset Hills the previous New Year’s Eve.

So, it’s really not all that bad. But the transition is the hardest part. THE. HARDEST. PART. But you (read, “I”) can’t let the frustration wear you down. Because it will cloud your vision, and you won’t be able to see how much progress you’re able to make and how much you really are contributing to the media outlet(s) you work for.

But because (as far as I can tell) journalists are generally a pessimistic, dark and depressing bunch (with a wicked sense of inappropriate, yet always entertaining humor), I can’t very well end this post on a happy note. So, here we go: When I was texting one of my old Alestle friends about some of these issues, he texted me back John Mayer song lyrics. At first I thought it was funny and a little odd coming from him. But then I realized, it’s so true…

Journalism conferences reignite passion, dedication

Earlier this month, I packed my bags and got a break from the Midwest for a little journalistic re-charge. Yup, I went to a journalism conference. In Florida.

I was one of about 30-something young journalists accepted to this year’s Society of Professional Journalists Reporters Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. Needless to say, I was pretty stoked when I found out I got accepted. But even more so when I set foot at the Poynter Institute, where most of our sessions were held.

The conference was amazing. I met a lot of great, talented and extremely passionate journalists from across the country. But I think most importantly, it was a refreshing break from the day-to-day routine that I’ve grown used to at my newspaper. Having been there almost six months, I think it’s safe to say I have somewhat of a system in place that, as everyone knows, can get predictable at times — even in the ever-changing world of journalism.

So it was nice to just step back, take a break and relax with other journalists. Plus, being half-way across the country didn’t make things any worse, obviously.

I’ve been attending journalism conferences at least once a year since I was a junior in high school. And every time I return from a trip, my head is exploding with new ideas and a new excitement that I just didn’t have before. I guess I always knew how important conferences are to for keeping your passion going, but I never really put it together until now.

Not to say that I was getting complacent before I left for SPJRI — because I wasn’t — but I think I fell into a little bit of a journalistic rut. Most of my friends are still back at school or scattered throughout the country, so I haven’t really had many people to talk to about journalism or my writing or anything along those lines. But then I got to welcome reception the first night of the conference, and all of a sudden there was a whole new world of people to talk to.

They had the same problems, the same successes, the same everything. Regardless of what platform they worked for.

And, even though I was technically at the conference for work, it was a break. A break from deadlines. From meetings. From interviews. From late nights and early mornings. A break that I desperately needed.

Now, having been back at the office for about a week (though this will be dated by the time this blog is actually posted), I’m glad to say that re-ignited passion is still there. I’m sure it will die out in a few months, just like it always does. But that doesn’t mean the passion is gone. It just means that I need another shot in the arm, so to speak, of immersing myself in the culture of journalism. And if that culture (aka conference) just happens to occur halfway across the country again, then so be it.

Everybody needs to re-boot now and then. Why not do it with a bunch of people who can relate to the same things you’re dealing with? It’ll be like a big, happy, journalism intervention. And who doesn’t need something like that every once in a while?