The Killing Cycle, by Mark DiIonno: An incredible inside story about homicides in Essex County, New Jersey. A long read, but very worth it. I’m honored to have worked with Mark at The Star-Ledger this summer and learned a lot from him about writing styles and voices during a training session.
Night Lives series, by Dan Zak: One of my favorite continuing series, this chronicles the goings-on of the D.C. metro area after dark. The detail Zak includes is phenomenal, his writing style is nearly poetry.
Ombudsmen’s Columns: An ombudsman functions like a reader advocate. They are considered an independent check of sorts on the newspaper and often critique (although sometimes agree with) editors’ decisions in a weekly column. They discuss the ethics behind these decisions and try to help readers understand why that graphic photo was run on A1, etc. If you read any part of a newspaper regularly, read the ombudsman’s column – I consider it one of the most important parts of the paper. (This link is for The Washington Post’s ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton’s blog.)
I’m sitting at my dining room table in Italy after a long trans-Atlantic flight and nearly 12 hours after I landed, all I want to do is write (I’m studying abroad for the semester, by the way. And I’m not being lame (wow, great vocab) by sitting here and blogging — my roommates and I are going out to dinner later and they’re all getting dressed now).
My internship with The Star-Ledger ended a few weeks ago and I haven’t updated this blog for what seems like forever. I apologize profusely – blame it on packing and too-short goodbyes – and if I don’t update more regularly while I’m here, someone come to Italy and smack me.
That out of the way, I’d like to do a post-internship performance review. I thought of it recently, and I’m starting to believe everyone should do it. So here goes:
- Energy and Enthusiasm: I was one of the youngest people in the newsroom, but I think I made up for it with a boundless supply of these two. This is also known as being over-excitable and awestruck on a fairly regular basis.
- Adaptability: I worked on General Assignment, which means I could be thrown onto any story at any minute. Which is pretty much the coolest thing ever. I covered a local murder one week, and a few weeks later, I was trying to figure out why ice cream prices have risen so sharply in the last year. Adaptability also translates into breaking news, as well: you can send me out on an assignment with very little to go on, and I think about 90 percent of the time, I’ll come back with pretty good stuff.
- Workaholic: I love what I do. I love reporting and writing and everything about it (minus editing, sometimes). So staying late to work on a story until my editor and I were happy with it is not a problem for me. I probably demand more perfection, or as close as I can get to it, from myself than anyone else.
- Cheesy: I tried so darn hard to incorporate puns into my stories – usually too hard. There’s a definite line between what works at what doesn’t. But, as my editor says, the first step is acknowledging that you have a problem.
- Color: I’ve blogged about this before, and I think I’ve improved a lot, but getting color for a story is something I still struggle with a lot. I’m amazed to see what other reporters notice and turn into their ledes while I’m still puttering away with the 5 W’s. In time I’ll get the hang of it, I think. Practice makes perfect, right?
- Pitches: Each publication you work for serves a different audience, and when pitching stories, that’s something really important to take into account. The Star-Ledger serves the entire state, with a focus on a few northern New Jersey counties – but I lived in the central/southern part, which sometimes made things difficult for me. I really regret not spending more time in Newark just to see what makes it tick, outside of the newsroom and breaking stories.
Lessons (besides how to think like a monkey’s uncle)
- Man on the Street: ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS get the person’s name, age, hometown and phone number. I’d never asked for a phone number before, but if there’s breaking news in Person X’s hometown, you already have a source you can call.
- Listen and Absorb: As I’ve said before, I had the best seat in the newsroom. I could hear pretty much everything that was going on and I tried to soak it up. I learned different styles for interviewing and techniques for dealing with frustrating sources, among many other things (very, very valuable lessons).
- Print Stories Out: I’m a fan of line-editing, which is easiest when you print your stories out and scrutinize them, line by line. Helps you spot errors quickly and easily.
Basically, I had the best internship experience I could have asked for, and then some. If you ever get the opportunity to work at The Star-Ledger, take it. I learned so much from some of the best people in the journalism industry and I can’t thank them enough. Studying journalism is one thing, but actually doing it is another.
Not that long ago, I had some serious doubts about being a reporter.
I knew I had the skills to make in this biz, but I wasn’t sure if I had the guts, too.
And then the last few weeks happened. )A thousand apologies for not posting in half a month, but if you keep reading, you’ll see why.)
In the past 17 days and 15 stories, I have learned these five lessons (and would like to impart said knowledge onto you):
- four A1 bylines is pretty much the coolest thing in the world (read the stories here, here, here and here)
- covering a heat wave requires a lot of sunscreen and just as much luck – like when you’re driving home from covering a kids’ rugby tournament in that weather and you happen to notice an albino man working at a gas station. Remember my post about paying attention? Exactly.
- being an ambulance chaser isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Two Saturdays ago, I covered the heat beat all day at work. Then went home, then went to a friend’s house. Driving home, noticed police activity on the river and … chased two ambulances to a rescue operation. And proceeded to stay there all night, despite no official statements, forcing me to file this story over the phone solely based on observations. And had the time of my life until 6 a.m. Go ahead, laugh, but it incredible.
- cops are people, too. Sometimes, I think journalists forget that (occasionally myself included), but my last few stories have reminded me that we’re often very alike. We’re both very dedicated to our jobs, often to the detriment to the rest of our lives.
- Google is open to everyone. I use the search engine every day to find out stuff about my sources, but I forgot they can do the same to me. (If you’re reading this, Sergeant, thanks for teaching me an important lesson!)
So after 17 days and 15 stories, I’ve realized I have just enough guts combined with just enough sheer insanity to be a reporter (because no sane person chases ambulances on their night off).
But more seriously, that few moments of doubt is terrifying. This business doesn’t have room for anyone that doesn’t believe in themselves and their work. But it’s natural to wonder if you’ve got the chops. And sometimes, even if you know you do, you start wondering if you can make it.
Journalism is a thankless field – the long hours, the terrible pay, you’ve heard the stories.
The real question is, is it worth it for you?
Well, one gas station and two ambulances later, I’m sold. Again.
I remember saying at some point in time that I didn’t really care about seeing my name in print. I believe it was around the time when I’d written my 100th story for The Eagle. Didn’t really care too much anymore. Or so I thought.
Yeah, well, I lied. More of, didn’t realize the truth.
So this morning, when I may or may not have woken up early and then forced myself to stay in bed that extra 10 minutes I usually allot to keep from running out to grab the paper, I was lying to myself again.
My story for today was slotted for the front page. A1. The big time.
And I wasn’t sure if it would stay there between when I left the office last night and when I woke up this morning (all I can say is, a) thank goodness for early Wednesday deadlines for ad inserts and b) thank you, Newark, for being relatively quiet last night).
So 8 a.m. rolls around, I shuffle out of bed, pass my mom and walk cool as a cucumber to the front door. And then, as soon as I’m out of my mother’s sight through the glass door, I sprint to the curb.
YES! A1! I MADE IT! HALLELUJAH! YEAH BABY! (Here’s the link.)
Yeah, I did that. In public. At 8 a.m. Wearing pajamas. Neighbors, you saw nothing.
Moral of the story is, never lose that excitement. No matter how many bylines you get, no many how many political scandals you uncover, no matter how many words you write, always savor the moments that make you dance around in your P.J.’s on your front lawn.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: I don’t trust anyone.
Which is good. As a journalist, we’re not supposed to trust anyone. Corroborate facts with multiple sources. When your mother says she loves you, check it out. Yada yada yada.
But the problem here? I trust myself the least.
I know I’m a halfway decent reporter and writer (yes, they’re different) and I know I’ve got the reporting part down, most of the time, but when I sit down to write – well, it’s not always so pretty.
I get so lost in the minute details of process, in the way the facts can twist and turn, that the “color” doesn’t always come.
Sure, I make a conscious effort to get the color – I dutifully write down that the paint was peeling, that the horse was looking out the barn window, that the man was wearing his faded baseball cap backwards. I’ve got notes upon notes of color. Probably too much.
And then I get back to the office. And I panic. Because I don’t trust my observations.
Was the peeling paint off-white or gray? Did the horse look baleful as it stared at the hay (terrible pun, I know)? Was the baseball cap actually faded?
I want to paint a picture, but I don’t trust myself to be the artist. I start second-guessing what I’ve seen, even though I remember it perfectly. And many times, I leave that color out in favor of a plain, boring story.
Which is terrible. Really, really awful.
Don’t ever do that.
So why do I, still?
Because I don’t believe in myself.
It’s stupid, really. I have enough brains to notice these tiny, minute details, but then I pretend like I never saw them. I hide behind the procedural details, instead.
And of course, we had a lesson on “finding your voice in your writing” today at work.
Finding your voice is slightly different than finding color, but they’re related. The color you see helps, well, color your voice. To find your voice, you have to trust it.
Writing with your voice, allegedly, happens when you lose yourself so deeply into the story that you stop thinking about the words. They just flow. There’s very little, if any, revision on the part of the writer, they say. There’s not that process of fiddling with every word in a sentence, tweaking it for what seems like hours until it’s ‘just right.’ The words just come and they sound like you. They’re speaking in your voice.
Admittedly, this has happened to me a few times. But always between the hours of 1 and 3 a.m., when I’m so bone-tired and exhausted that I can’t think anymore. I don’t revise and I don’t reword because I don’t care, at that point. I just want to get the story done.
And that’s sometimes when my best work comes out.
Why? Because at that hour of the night (morning?), I’m not second-guessing myself. I’m not, not trusting myself. I’m not doubting every single word and its sound and its rhythm and even its dictionary definition. I’m just letting the words type themselves and it looks like my voice comes through. Somehow.
But it’s not usually possible (nor advisable) to write most of your stories when the moon is high in the sky. Deadlines loom, classes and homework can’t wait and it’s not particularly healthy to do this, night after night.
So during the rest of the daylight hours, my voice is mute. Because I’m too scared to speak and don’t trust myself to try opening my mouth.
And so, dear readers, I’d like to hear from you (again with the terrible pun). Do you face the same problem? Have you overcome it? Or are you like me and just pretend it’s not a problem? If you’re not a journalist, rather a reader and news connoisseur, I’d like to hear your thoughts, too. Do you prefer stories with “voice” and picture-like detail?
I know you’re out there, because it’s not just my parents that subscribe to this blog. And I can see pageview stats, too. So please comment, I’d really like to know I’m not alone here. Speak up! (OK, I swear I’m done now with the puns. Really. I promise. Oh God, if terrible puns are my voice, I’m really screwed.)
So I spent my Saturday shift at The Star-Ledger chasing a baboon across the western part of my county.
Best. Saturday. Ever.
Backstory: People reported baboon sightings starting Thursday in Ocean County, not far from the Six Flags Great Adventure Wild Safari. The park does not count its baboons, so they weren’t 100 percent positive it actually escaped from there. But they were operating as if it were. So a team of police, vets and other rescue-related people went in search of the monkey. With a fellow intern and photographer trying to keep up on Friday. Another photo intern and I took over on Saturday.
Because this story really needs to be told from the beginning, with journalism lessons interspersed throughout, here goes:
Saturday, 6 a.m.
Alarm goes off, check email and local news websites, see if anything happened. Read earlier stories (here, here and here) to make sure I’m all caught up to date. Go back to sleep, wake up every half hour to check everything all over again.
Lesson No. 1: Read anything and everything before you head out to cover something to make sure you’re well-informed.
Phone calls begin. Call every police department in the area to see if there have been sightings overnight.
Get ready to go to last sighting on Friday to meet up with photographer. Get dressed and pack lunch. Write down all phone numbers, names and addresses I might need.
Lesson No. 2: If you may be tracking a baboon through the woods, wear long pants and sneakers – aka, be prepared. Keep extra clothes and shoes in your car.
Lesson No. 3: Pack food and water that can stay in your car for awhile. Photo intern suggests peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, they do well in the heat. But be mindful of what you ingest – you don’t know when you’ll be able to make a pit stop.
Meet up with photographer at last sighting. Spread maps across hood of her car, tried to figure out where the monkey might have gone since last night. Get a phone call of nearby location of most recent sighting from photo desk back at the office. High-tail it over there.
Lesson No. 4: Keep maps in your car. GPS doesn’t always help.
Walk around latest location. We hear dogs barking, we run over there. A few minutes later, we see a horse farm. Run over there. Turns out, horse farmer’s neighbor reported the sighting from an hour ago. Interview those people, file this story from the field.
Lesson No. 5: Think like a monkey. Seriously. If you’ve been on the run for more than two days, where are you going to go? To food! And what’s normal to you. This monkey was used to being around people and other animals, it wasn’t scared of them.
We get a call that another photographer (he had worked the baboon shift the day before) is on his way to meet us.
Photographer calls us – he’s miraculously seen the caravan searching for the monkey, completely by accident. We race from where we are to try and catch up.
Lesson No. 6: Expect the unexpected. And know how to drive fast. Breaking news doesn’t wait for anyone.
We missed the capture, but the other photographer was there for the tail end of it. I interview the men who were working on the horse farm when the baboon ambled up to them. I ask them to recreate the scene for me several times, I want to make sure I can picture it in my head so my writing reflects it.
Lesson No. 7: Every story needs what’s called “color,” or minute details so the reader can feel like they’re right there with you.
Start heading home to file the story. Get a call from my mentor Bob, working the rewrite shift that night (people on rewrite shift take everything and pull it all together. They are the elite reporters who can write the best. They take your notes from the field, old stories and often make a few of their own phone calls to tie everything up into one great story. And they’re really generous and give you half the byline.) Bob asks when I’ll be home and when I can file my notes by. “When do you need it?” “ASAP.” Thank goodness the Parkway was moving.
5 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Bob finishes the story and heads out to do another assignment (this man is my idol). I work with an editor in the office while I’m at home to make sure everything’s set. And then I fell asleep.
Lesson No. 8: Make sure you see a final draft of your story. Sometimes, especially when you’re filing from the field, things get lost in translation. A quote may not stand the way it was actually said. Don’t be afraid to speak up.
Do I sound crazy yet? If I don’t, then something’s probably wrong with you. But I had the time of my life. This is why I love journalism. Because one day you’re covering a town council and the next day you’re covering an escaped baboon. But if the Bronx Zoo cobra escapes again, I think I might skip that one.
I was pitching stories to an editor today when he stopped me.
“What do you see when you drive here?”
I preach all about opening your eyes and observing – reporting, not just writing, yada yada yada.
Yeah, when I’m covering a story, I notice what’s going on around me. The little girl in the curly pigtails, the old man with the wrinkly hands, the patriotic music playing.
Because I’m in reporter mode then.
But when I’m driving? Not so much. I generally try to focus on what’s in front of me. The Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike are not roads you want to be distracted from.
So cue a pretty blank face staring back at my editor.
“Uhh welll, I notice new sign at my local high school …”
Inward groan and mental face-palm. Genius, Stefanie, just brilliant. Have they offered you a Pulitzer yet? Quick, try to recover.
“ … anddddd a circle of men standing in the park every morning. And the Parkway signs flashing ‘Silver Alert.’”
Turns out, the circle of men are recovering drug addicts and a ‘Silver Alert’ is for when elderly people are missing. ‘Amber Alert’ is for when children are missing.
Which is good information to know, admittedly.
But what’d I really learn? (Besides practice what you preach.)
Pay attention to everything.
You never know when something could be a story.
So what did I pay attention to on the drive home?
- There’s a lot of dead deer on the road. Possible story ideas: Are there more so far this year than last year? How does it affect insurance rates if you hit one? What are animal rights groups saying? Who has to pick the bodies up?
- The Turnpike has a lot of rest stops. Possible story ideas: How often are they renovated? How many people pass through on a given day? Week? Month? Year? Who are they named after? Are they seeing more traffic this year than past years?
- Gas prices are up. Again. Possible story ideas: The price of gas drives up everything, food especially. So what’s happened this summer to New Jersey ice cream parlors? Are their prices going up too? Are they seeing fewer customers because of the economy? Fewer tips?
I’m going to pitch these ideas to my editor tomorrow. Wish me luck and leave me your story idea as a comment!