1. The Smackdown: Big city paper vs. Small town paper

    Here’s a question I get a lot: “Would you rather work in a big city or a small town?” I’m sure the asker isn’t really interested in hearing me wax poetic on the finer points of my internal dilemma regarding this very question. (That’s what my blog is for.)

    So we’ve got two fighters in the ring today. The big city paper is brawny beast of a work environment. Powerful and intimidating, sure, but ride with the big city paper and you’re guaranteed name recognition and a shot at glory.

    The small town paper is smaller in stature, but don’t count it out. It can handle blows just like the big shot. Working for a small town paper could give you a chance to catch your breath and make a name for yourself in the meantime, if you play your cards right.

    I have a little bit of experience working for both kinds. In 2011, I interned on the news and web desk at the Dallas Morning News, and this summer I interned as a news reporter for the Grand Island Independent. Each job had its positives and negatives. Let’s take this point by point.

    1. Circulation:

    The Dallas Morning News has an average daily circulation of about 260,700. The Grand Island Independent? About 20,500. Assuming you want more people to read what you write, the big city paper is the clear winner here.

    2. Paper size:

    Small town papers are, well, smaller — in both the size of the newspaper and its staff. A smaller staff is great because you get to know the people with whom you work (hopefully you like them). It sure does feel easy to get lost in the crowd at a bigger paper, and there’s a lot more competition amongst reporters.

    When it comes to the size of the actual publication, fewer pages in the paper means more focus on local events and a greater chance of making the front page. At the GI Independent, about half of my articles were on page 1. At the DMN, I was lucky if I made the front page of the local section.

    Is that really so important, though? Being on the front page is awesome, but I’d much rather be proud of my work and confident in its significance, no matter the page number. We’ll call this one a draw.

    3. Pace:

    The working environment of a big paper is just as quick-pace as the city to which it delivers the news. Same goes for small town papers. With less interest in online and convergence media and less competition from other news outlets, you can afford to take a breather at a small town paper. Eat lunch before you write up that school board meeting. Help another reporter with his or her story while you put your own on hold for half an hour. Just get everything in by midnight — or by the time your editor leaves.

    That doesn’t mean the reporters at small town papers are lackadaisical about their work — the reporters I met at the GI Independent stayed at the office well beyond their 9 to 5 commitments tying up loose ends, following leads and finishing up their stories. There’s just a bit less pressure to put out content when you have little competition and a smaller range of coverage.

    At the Dallas Morning News, every deadline was ASAP. In a full-time position, I’m sure that could get pretty stressful. But I’m the kind of person who thrives on a quick deadline, so I think big city wins on this point.

    4. Content:

    Big cities are hosts to higher crime rates, more politicians to complain about, and a lot more community events and issues to cover. The definition of “news” is arguably more strict than that used by a smaller paper, which has to reach for more features and community events to fill the pages.

    But small towns are far from idyllic, and many communities sport their own ugly undersides when it comes to government and crime. Grand Island was no exception: The city was rife with issues regarding its lack of a fire chief, the forced resignation of an unpopular city administrator and growing ethnic diversity.

    Stories are to be found everywhere. If you can’t find stories in a small town, you’re not looking hard enough. So we’re calling this one a draw too.

    5. Commute:

    I live in a suburb north of Dallas, and my daily commute to work last summer should have taken about 20 minutes each way. Instead, it took more than 40, and it would have taken an hour if I didn’t beat rush hour by about 30 minutes each day.

    Dallas traffic sucks, and there’s no way to get around it unless you’re okay with arriving at the office at 4 a.m. The situation is a different shade of the same color for any big city.

    In Grand Island, my commute took me 10 minutes. In fact, you could get most anywhere in the town in about 15. It goes without saying that small towns are also easier to get around in general, although if you’re like me, you’ll find a way to get lost wherever you are.

    Regardless, waking up only 30 minutes before I had to be at work was really nice. Small town wins.

    6. Environment:

    This one is subjective: City or country? I say city. I like the open-mindedness, I like the public transportation, I like the culture and the food and the sheer variety of it all. I’d rather live in a city of 5 million than 50,000.

    Tally it up: Big city paper is the clear victor, despite some of my qualms about getting lost in the shuffle and losing job security. Working for a larger paper is a bit intimidating because of the quicker deadlines and competition, but I dream of having a major impact on the face of journalism, and for the time being I believe working at a big city publication is the way to do it.

    Of course I will apply for positions at smaller papers. I have a lot of respect for small town papers after this summer and I’ll work anywhere, no matter how small, as long as I can call myself a journalist.  But next time I’m faced with that question of dream job preference, I think I’ll have an answer.

     
  2. With 66 published articles in the Grand Island Independent, I have more than doubled my output from my internship last year. Hooray! There’s still a week to go. My number goal is 75, but I don’t really care if I reach it or not. Quality is more important.

     
  3. In the wreckage

    I reported on a fire for the first time when I was a junior in high school. It was for my school newspaper, a feature that our adviser suggested after he heard that a student’s house had burned to the ground a few months previously. (We weren’t exactly quick on the uptake at the Hebron High School Hawk Eye.)

    I interviewed the student first, sitting at two desks in the middle of the hallway with my tape recorder running. It was one of those great interviews that can occur when connected with a traumatic event, when the subject, aware of the importance of all that happened, can recount every detail.

    I don’t remember a lot about the interview, aside from a general sense of sorrow and confusion that remained even months after her home had been destroyed. I remember her attachment to the clothes that had burned in the fire, sort of the way a kid might feel about a lost stuffed animal.

    And from my interview with the girl’s mother, I remember the tears. You never really forget tears.

    I reported on a fire or two last summer, but nothing major. Nothing like the Miletta Vista fire.

    It struck about 2 a.m. on June 23. The owners of Miletta Vista planted their winery as a seed five years ago, and what started out as a pipe dream grew into a popular winery known for its “fab four” most beloved wines and nearly 30 national and international awards. As the fire began to destroy it all, they were asleep on the property.

    They say it’s the smoke, not the fire, that kills you. You fall asleep, but you don’t wake up. Mick and Loretta McDowell are sure that would have been the case for them if it hadn’t been for the calls from a group of local young men who saw the fire from the highway.

    Thank God, they think. Thank God they’re alive.

    But their winery was burnt to a mountain range of foot-tall rubble piles, ash covering it all like the first, powdery snow of a winter. Parts of the walls are still standing. Bottles upon bottles of prize-winning wine rendered undrinkable remain in their stacks. They found a few of their charred medals — who knows what color they used to be? — among the remains, the castaways that even the fire couldn’t touch. Metal wine racks, chunks of hard oak furniture, pieces of glass. So much glass.

    And so many memories in those buildings. Family reunions, dinners, weddings. All gone.

    The morning after the fire, a photographer and I drove to the scene, parked on the side of the highway and walked toward the wreckage. A pickup truck stopped us in our tracks.

    "Who are you?"

    I don’t remember what I said. Does it matter? I told the driver, who looked on the verge of tears, that we were with the Grand Island Independent, looking for the basic details of what happened.

    He told us to go away.

    "Don’t report on this today," he said. "There was a fire. That’s all you need to know."

    So we retreated. I got my information from the police, from bystanders, from what we could see of the property from the highway. I wrote a brief.

    The following Monday, my editor assigned me to a follow-up story on the fire. But there was still no news on the cause, and all the numbers we found for the owners of the winery were disconnected, of course.

    I told my editor I didn’t have anything for him. I told him the only option left would be to go to the winery and hope someone would be there and willing to talk. So go, he said.

    To be honest, I didn’t really want to go. I kept thinking of the young man in the pickup truck. I felt like a vulture.

    But I went anyway, because the staff videographer was hoping to get some footage, and I don’t make a habit of not doing things that my superiors suggest.

    Anyway, I figured there could be a good story here.

    As we walked toward the property, we saw a small cluster of people standing beside a pickup truck, and we heard laughter. A good sign.

    This time, the staff was willing to talk to us, and they thanked us for waiting on the story until a few days had passed. I saw the young man I’d talked to the other day standing behind the truck. I blushed.

    I’d been expecting a few of my questions answered, at best, but Mr. McDowell began to tell me the full story of what had happened, the story told with that special detail of a recounted tragedy that I mentioned earlier.

    I think the best thing about the McDowells, about all the staff I talked to, is that they’re very hopeful. They’re rebuilding their business, they feel fortunate to have been spared, and most importantly, they have confidence that their winery will survive this setback.

    It was a wonderful interview, and a sad one. This will make me sound like some kind of weird journalism robot, but it is always a strange relief for me to hear the details of a story, to wedge my way in and find the path to recreating it.

    It’s crucial to recreate stories of seemingly everyday tragedies with emotion and accuracy so people will understand their magnitude. People ignore disasters and tragedies because they seem far away. Remove yourself from the event enough, and you don’t have to be scared. You can forget about it. You can even laugh at it.

    But I don’t want anyone to forget about the bad things that happen in the world. Or the good ones, either. That is why I tell stories.

    The problem, though, is that this motive isn’t what comes to mind when the victim of a fire, a tornado, a flood, sees a person approaching with a notepad or a camera.

    Instead, they see us as vultures. We are here to suck the shock value from the event that has ruined or drastically affected their lives, then spit the juice out on a TV screen or newspaper so the public can get a short-lived high from their tragedies. We are sick and heartless.

    Who can blame them for wanting people like me to go away? I know how we appear to them.

    So I have to be careful and considerate. We all do. We have to give them time, we have to do the best job we can explaining our motives. We have to gain their trust with only a first impression.

    We have to give them reason to let us in. They will never let us in without a good reason, whether we’re the ones who give it to them or not.

    Sometimes, our methods, our explanations, and our waiting work. Sometimes we get the story. And sometimes, we don’t.

    It’s not easy. But it’s what we do.

     
  4. Look at this! I authored four of the five most popular stories on the Grand Island Independent website right now.
This week has been great. More later.

    Look at this! I authored four of the five most popular stories on the Grand Island Independent website right now.

    This week has been great. More later.

     
  5. Get(ting) lost

    Anyone who knows me can attest that I am almost always late. If I say I’m on my way, I probably haven’t left the house yet. If I say I’ll be there in 10, I’ll be there in 20. If I say I’ll be there in an hour — I hope you have a magazine.

    This bad habit of mine isn’t quite so bad when it comes to my journalistic duties. Usually, I manage to arrive on time to anything important and job-related.

    Unless I get lost.

    And anyone who knows me can attest that I am often lost. City buildings, neighborhoods, highways — you name it, I have probably gotten lost within it. I still recite “Never Eat Soggy Waffles” to determine east from west. The first time I ever risked taking the highway to a mall in Dallas, I ended up driving circles in the section of the city known for the prostitutes who frequent the “massage parlors” in the area. Last week, I returned to visit the city in Texas I lived in all through high school, and my dad had to give me directions to the library.

    That’s enough laughter at my expense. Okay, I’ll give you another few seconds.

    My point is, I’m one of those people who prays to one day live in a city with a reliable public transit system, just so I can avoid the honks of fellow drivers when I cross three lanes of traffic in a last-ditch attempt to make a U-turn. And this personality defect can become a problem in my profession (or any profession, really).

    Wednesday morning, I was assigned to report on the shotgun skeet portion of the 4-H National Shooting Sports Invitational. For those of you who don’t understand much in the world of shooting sports: Gun goes bang bang at target. I knew the address of the shooting grounds where the competition was to take place, so I copied down some Google Maps directions and figured I would plug the address into my GPS — I always use printed directions alongside my GPS, because, have I mentioned this? I get lost a lot — and be on my way.

    Not that easy. First of all, the directions were wrong. Gotta love Google Maps. And once I got to the venue, I realized something important: Shooting grounds are real big. The event I was looking for could have been anywhere.

    So I parked my car and began traversing the grounds on foot.

    Big mistake.

    The first place I went was wrong. So was the second place. I asked for directions to the right area and was told it was “way down there” (finger point). I decided to keep walking. It couldn’t be that far away, right?

    Wrong.

    I was just beginning to realize that I should have taken my car, which was parked maybe .75 miles down the road, when a man on a golf cart came to a halt beside me.

    "Do you need a ride?"

    By this point, it was starting to rain. The man drove me to my car and told me which way to go, and he mentioned the Independent photographer was looking for me.

    But when I got there, I couldn’t find my photographer. And now it was raining harder.

    I wandered around and solicited help from a stranger, one of my favorite pasttimes when I’m lost. He helped me find the location of the competitors from Nebraska, which is where I hoped my photographer would be.

    I found out where to go and started walking. By now, my reporter’s notebook was soggy and my white shirt looked to be the victim of a Super Soaker squirt.

    (After it was all over, I took a picture of my dripping self and saved it in my cell phone. I call it “Portrait of a Wet Journalist.” I’d post it here, but come on — my hair is wet.)

    On the bright side, I did find my photographer. On the (very) damp side, I was very damp and did all of my interviewing looking like I’d just taken a shower fully clothed. And because of my haste to get out of the rain, I didn’t do a great job with my reporting. I’m not proud of the story I wrote, which ran in the paper today.

    Rain happens. I get that. But there a few things I could have done to avoid this situation.

    1. Don’t get lost.
    2. Leave early to allow time to get lost.
    3. Come prepared.

    I choose 2 and 3. I know that I’m the kind of person who gets lost on a regular basis and is easily confused by directions, so I need to do my research on locations more throughly beforehand, arrive a little early, and, you know, actually use the umbrella and jacket I stow in my car for these kinds of emergencies.

    Otherwise, I’m going to have to show up to the office with wet hair again. And no one wants that.

     
  6. It’s official

    As of this morning, I’ve written the same number of articles — 32 — for the Grand Island Independent as I did for the Dallas Morning News, and this is only my fifth of 10 weeks at the paper. This milestone is important to me because it signifies productivity, which I seek in myself constantly. In addition, I’ve compiled a few pieces that I believe will be valuable clips in my portfolio, an accomplishment which, while not the sole point of my time at the Independent, is gratifying.

    Now is as good a time as any to look back.

    I like the Grand Island Independent. I like this internship. I like my work environment.

    In other words, these five weeks have treated me well. I have become acquainted with helpful, knowledgeable and compassionate reporters, the kinds of people who will drop what they’re working on to make calls seeking a source for my story, who will stay at the office until midnight to help me report on a breaking news piece, who will approach me daily with bits of advice and food for thought.

    I have discovered still more inklings of the glimmering path that lies ahead of me, that of my future and my career, which is occasionally shadowed and marred by doubt and uncertainty. I have resolved that, even as the journalism industry falters, I still want to find a niche for myself within it.

    I have become increasingly aware of my faults and areas in need of improvement, namely, interviewing and quick-paced reporting, and I hope I’ve made strides toward remedying the present issues.

    And most importantly, I’m happy. As happy as I have ever been, I think. I don’t know if it’s my work or my living situation or the strange transience of everything about this summer, but it’s all hitting me like beams of sunlight on a beautiful spring afternoon.

    I’ll continue blogging and take a deeper look into a few specific experiences I’ve dealt with in these weeks as well as those that are to come, but here’s a sort of vague post to commemorate how satisfied I feel with how things are going. Sometimes I focus too much on small difficulties and forget the larger picture. And that’s a shame, because the picture is a sight to see.

     
  7. A night shift I won’t forget

    I wasn’t supposed to work Friday night, but when another reporter asked me to cover her night shift, I accepted without a second thought. I mean, I spend my Friday evenings here wrapped up in a chilly basement room reading and wasting time on the Internet. I’d rather work.

    The night shift runs around 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Nothing ridiculous. Around 4 p.m., the newsroom got wind of an accident near Ansley — not exactly grounds for an evening walk, but still in our coverage area. We didn’t know much: The basis of our knowledge was a tweet that turned out to be inaccurate, actually.It appeared that a bus had rolled over on Highway 2. It looked bad.

    Within an hour or two, the other reporters would be leaving for the weekend. This story was mine.

    I made a call to the sheriff’s department in the corresponding county.

    "Hi, I’m calling from the Grand Island Independent to see if any details are available about the bus rollover on Highway 2?"

    "Not now!" Click.

    Ouch.

    The reporting process then assumed the form it often takes: a waiting game. A few other newspapers/TV stations were getting information because they were close enough to drive to the scene and ask questions of the officials there, but I didn’t have that option.

    Soon, the details started to trickle in. It was a van, not a bus, and there was also a pickup truck involved. The van was registered to Broken Bow Public Schools. There were kids inside. Oh God. People had been killed — one, two, three men. The drivers of both cars and the van’s front seat passenger.

    The names of those killed hadn’t been released, pending notification of the families. A few sources told us the vehicle had been returning from a boy’s basketball camp, so in the newsroom we guessed that the two men killed in the van were the coaches. A few news sources made the same assumption, and they released the names. My spine quivered.

    What if the families hadn’t yet been notified? What if someone had to learn of a loved one’s gristly death from the mouth of a news anchor? Or typed in 12 pt Times New Roman on a computer screen?

    Or worse: What if the networks reporting the names were wrong?

    As it turns out, they weren’t. Twenty-four-year-old Anthony Blum, 38-year-old Zane Harvey and 70-year-old Albert Sherbeck had passed away. Blum and Harvey were the Broken Bow head and assistant boys basketball coaches, respectively.

    Eight high school boys were injured. I’m just a couple years older than these kids. As of yesterday, three were still in the hospital, one with a brain injury.

    With the help of one of my editors, Terri Hahn, and a fellow reporter, Harold Reutter, I completed a report on the accident. I left the newsroom at 12 a.m. that night, but the end of my shift and my story did not mean the end of the tragedy.

    Yesterday I was sitting on my bed with my laptop and I thought, “Enough.” I closed the computer and closed my eyes and thought about what it must have been like for the one boy in the car who was able to use his cellphone and dial 911. I wondered what went through his head as he looked in the wreckage of the two cars that trapped his friends and coaches. I wondered what he said when the operator answered the phone, and if it was hard to talk.

    Now, I have more questions. Albert Sherbeck died alone. Did he have time to consider what had happened? Anthony Blum was young — so young. He wanted to coach for a college team one day. This was only his second job. Zane Harvey did “everything he could” according to one account of the accident. What does that mean?

    I have never seen a person die. In fact, no one I’ve really known or loved has ever died. So it’s difficult for me to understand a tragedy like this. And believe me when I say I like to understand everything.

    I feel weak. I feel stupid. I feel naive.

    But this isn’t about me. It will never be about me. It’s about Albert Sherbeck, and Anthony Blum, and Zane Harvey. It’s about every boy in that car; it’s about the woman who heard the news of the crash as it was breaking, heard of the fatalities, and thought "Please. Not Zane;" it’s about every student at Broken Bow High School.

    It is both sad and beautiful to watch the aftermath of a tragedy take its course. That’s what is happening right now, as the cards pour in to the hospital rooms, and the balloons fly through the air inscribed with permanent marker messages, and the community breathes a collective prayer of hope that somewhere, anywhere, something is out there for the men who died.

    It is sad, it is beautiful, and try as I might, I can’t understand it. Maybe no one does.

     
  8. Some scary numbers

    I was out reporting yesterday when I had a brief conversation that’s gotten me thinking.

    I was standing in formation in a line of white T-shirts, waiting for an aerial camera to pass overhead (kind of a long story), when a woman nearby made a joking aside that had little to do with my story. “Don’t put that in the newspaper,” she added afterward with a laugh. I joked that the comment would be off the record.

    "Of course you know with a journalist, nothing’s really ever off the record," another woman said.

    I hurried to explain that if a source says something is off the record, I won’t include it in my story. And even if the source doesn’t utter the words, I added I would never publish a quote that may have been voiced in a moment of confusion or doesn’t correspond with how the person truly feels. That’s just bad ethics, I said.

    My new acquaintances looked surprised.

    "It’s so good to hear you say that," one man said.

    The comments about journalistic integrity were not jokes. They were verbal representations about very real and very distressing public perceptions of my profession.

    As of 2010, only 25 percent of Americans said they felt “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers. Only 23 percent of Americans said they felt the same for television news. (That’s according to this Gallup poll.) Public confidence in newspapers has seen a pretty steady decline for years, and poll results indicate it’s not tied to an increasing perception of bias.

    And here’s a number to keep you (or maybe just me) awake at night: Eighteen percent of Americans feel no confidence in media at all.

    How did we get here?

    Perhaps that’s a question for someone older and wiser than I. But that last number, along with all the others, worries me.

    It worries me because it’s proof that the public perceives me, little old me with my beat-up reporter’s notebook and messed-up hair and gigantic circa-2000 digital recorder, as someone who is not to be trusted: someone who will twist your words; someone who will wring every event for all the drama and conflict it’s worth; someone who will make you look bad if the representation benefits my article.

    It worries me because I know the journalism industry can’t bounce back from deteriorating readership without public trust.

    It worries me because I don’t know how much I can do about it.

    Losing trust is easy. Spell one name wrong; misquote one source; make one assumption. Or worse. Make one mistake — that’s what your readers will remember.

    The problem, of course, is our tendency to view journalists as a group, just as we do lawyers or librarians or kindergarten teachers. When one falls, we all do. So getting back up seems close to impossible. But it’s a worthy goal. Actually, it’s not just worthy — it’s essential. We don’t just want to regain the public’s trust. We have to.

    There’s much to be said for a group effort, but the least I can do for now is focus on my own ethics and spread the word about them when I can. Each worthy piece I write could mean at least one person who grows to trust journalism a little more. That’s not so bad.

    I wish I could protect journalism from the poor ethics of the far and few between. But I can’t. My ethics are all I have. I will guard them for what they are worth with all the power I possess.

     
  9. Lesson learned

    I bought new shoes Saturday.

    The first thing I thought when I picked out the lavender flats was some variation of “ooh, pretty color!” The second thing? “I bet those hurt.”

    Bought them anyway. And today, I wore them to work.

    By 9 a.m., I knew I had made a mistake. The shoes, while work-appropriate and pleasantly hued, squeaked when I walked and rubbed in all the wrong places. At our morning meeting, my editor sent me out to report on Republican U.S. Senate candidate Deb Fischer’s tour of downtown Grand Island. A walking tour, of course. On the day I chose to wear inappropriate footwear. Of course.

    I think we all know how this story ends: with two fat blisters on each foot and a limp in my walk all day.

    We’ve all been in the situation of wearing the wrong attire for the right reasons, and I have a handful of other horror stories about “professional” polyester shirts, are-you-sure-there’s-no-VPL pants and countless pairs of cute little flats. The point is, when you’re working in a field like journalism, it’s never safe to assume. There is no sit-down day, no stay-inside-all-day day — and if there is, it’ll come when you least expect it.

    So don’t wear uncomfortable clothes. Seriously. Because when your pit stains are spreading in the shirt that would have been fine if only you’d stayed in the air conditioning, your neckline is drooping because you forgot to adjust the fix-every-two-seconds dress and your walk is suffering because you wore those shoes, you don’t just look uncomfortable. You look unprofessional and a little silly.

    Lesson learned. Next time I wear my new shoes, I’m breaking out the Band-Aids.