Author Archive

A city girl in the desert

January 11, 2008

I am what most people would call a city girl. I was born in Baltimore, raised in D.C. and now live in Brooklyn. I can navigate concrete extremely well. Taking public transportation, check. Walking long city blocks, no problem. But falling rocks and desert trails? Not so much.

Now don’t get me wrong — I’ve traveled outside the United States and spent childhood summers far south of the Mason Dixon. I’ve been west of the Mississippi, but San Francisco is no Tucson. Not even close.

So my first story outside the newsroom required me to travel to a desert museum. Now, I grew up in D.C., so I’ve been to plenty of museums. But one in the desert? I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

Driving out to the desert, city blocks gave way to mountain ranges, and stoplights were replaced by “deer crossing” signs. The highway wound its way though the terrain — on my left, a mountain, on my right, certain death if I were to veer off that road.

When I arrived at the museum, a sign warned, “Don’t feed the coyotes.” Coyotes? I like my animals in cages in the zoo and properly labeled. (j/k) I quickly realized we’re not in Kansas anymore, although I am closer to it than I’ve ever been in my life.

It’s hard to explain exactly what a desert museum is, but essentially, it’s an outdoor exhibition of desert and plant life. Honestly, it’s charged admission to explore the desert. You pay, hand in your ticket and walk around outside. But it’s worth it.

As I meandered throughout the desert, desperately seeking sources, I found myself getting distracted time and time again by the scenery. I mean, I was in the desert, in Arizona, looking at Pumas, prairie dogs, Bighorn Sheep and the like. That’s good stuff.

I wasn’t exactly dressed for the occasion, as more than one visitor gave my shoes the concerned once-over, but I was able to navigate those trails with relative ease. Sure, I got lost a time or two and found myself without the recommended essentials (hat, water, repellent), but like any good city girl, I was able to figure it out. And I had a good time exploring the desert, even if I had great difficulty working in it.

Driving back, I kept thinking about how amazing the experience was. In the distance, I could see more mountains, unobstructed by tall buildings or billboards. I rolled my window down and breathed in the air, unpolluted by smog. It was beautiful.

I have traveled to different countries throughout the world and have been amazed by the cultures, the scenes and the landscape, enthralled by the newness of it all. But I forget, like many people, that I can discover and be amazed by new places right here in the U.S. I was reminded of that on Saturday, and Tucson, I am very grateful.

— Arcynta Ali Childs

Spelling it out for you: Clichés and the English language

January 11, 2008

One great piece of advice to all writers in general: use your imagination. This is particularly important if you are wet behind the ears and covering a new beat. Sounds simple enough, right? Writing is one of those creative professions. You know, the ones where you are free to express yourself, explore your feelings, and be really … deep.

But wait. I’m putting the cart before the horse.

In one of our introductory sessions on interviewing techniques, Russell Contreras, reporter and Web editor for The Boston Globe, gave us some advice that had an enormous impact on me. In fact, in terms of journalistic advice, I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. And believe me, we eat a lot of sliced bread at this institute.

It went something like this:

Russ: You know when you’re interviewing someone, particularly for a disaster story, and you ask him to describe the scene and they say, “It looked like a war zone”? Say, “Oh, really. Have you ever been to a war zone”? And if they haven’t, what they say next to explain what they meant, or to describe it in other words, is where you get your best quote. If they say yes, ask them to tell you about it. Again, you get a better description and a better quote.

A light bulb went off in our heads.

And I’ve been eliminating clichés from my vocabulary and stories every since.

His basic point was to stop being lazy. It’s a lot easier to describe something using common expressions or overly used phrases than it is to actually use your vocabulary and come up with something original.

So, on to the business at hand. How do you improve your writing and use your words more effectively?

Here’s a simple suggestion, from Russ: Read George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” For your convenience, and for those who have certainly not read it, here are a few rules Orwell shares toward the end:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

And I would add, speak in layman’s terms. Sometimes using simple language is better than describing it in a “roundabout way.”

But remember, this is journalism — it’s a craft, not an exact science. So sometimes (very rarely) you may have to break the rules. After all, some things are cliché for a reason.

Orwell’s essay is actually a really good one and will undoubtedly improve your writing. Maybe not immediately, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. Take my advice. I guarantee it’s as good as gold.

— Arcynta Ali Childs

The stories that keep you up at night

January 7, 2008

Part of covering a new beat is coming up with good story ideas on your own, which isn’t easy for a lot of journalists. At the beginning of the institute, we were supposed to come prepared with two ideas for longer-form stories that we wanted to cover while we were here. Some ideas were good, others … not so much.

On the first day, a student presented her idea to Don Hecker, director of the institute. Here is the brief exchange that followed:

Don: You know that feeling you get when you are really excited about something?
Student: Yeah.
Don: Yeah, I don’t have that feeling.
Student: (silence)

So you try again.

Other times, you are assigned stories to cover on the spot. These have a much shorter turn-around time and are usually reported and written the same day. These are the stories that keep us up and working late at night.

I covered one such story yesterday that took me deep into the Arizona mountains and tested my willpower to stick with this profession a bit. I was writing a story for which I needed to solicit opinions from visitors at an outdoor museum about an issue that took place at that same museum a few months ago. Sounds easy enough, right? But when my ability to do my job hinges, in part, on the cooperation of people who would rather not — well, that complicates things considerably. Some of my favorite responses:

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I’m not from here.”
“I’d rather not talk. I’m here with my friend and I just want to show him around.”
“I’m in a rush. The raptor show is about to start.”
“I don’t know anything. I’m trying to catch up with my family.”

And my all-time favorite: “I don’t think anything.”

I was left to drag myself along the dusty desert paths for hours in search of someone with something to say. I was hot, increasingly frustrated and wondering what had become of my life. But I couldn’t go back to the newsroom with nothing, so I kept asking people and getting rejected and asking more people until I got some usable material. It was difficult, but my persistence paid off.

I wasn’t too happy with the quality of the responses, and I schlepped back into the newsroom pretty despondent. But I worked with some of the editors, did some more research and pulled my story together.

It may not have been my idea, but I was able to “make it work,” as Tim Gunn would say.

— Arcynta Ali Childs

Overheard in the newsroom

January 7, 2008

So far, my beat has been the newsroom. But it’s more exciting than you may think. Sure, 30-some-odd adults working, living and breathing in a room from about 8 a.m. until about 3 a.m. for some (9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. for most) may not sound like optimum working conditions, but it’s definitely interesting.

And understanding the dynamics of the newsroom can certainly help you cover a beat. Getting to know each other by working together gives us extra incentive to help one another out (with sources and suggestions and ideas), and we are a particularly helpful bunch. Seriously, this is not a reality TV show. In our newsroom, everyone’s working together in the same room, which really helps with the flow of information and with understanding how the different departments work together.

The setup kind of reminds me of The New York Times Page One meeting — the decision makers and top editors seated around the table in the middle of the room and the writers, invited guests and peons seated around them. In our newsroom, however, it’s more like a division by department, not rank on the masthead. The Web, photo, design and copy-edit departments sit in the middle, and the reporters on the outside — like I said, the decision makers and the peons (j/k).

But it’s really amazing to see the way the top editors and the students are working and sharing together: ideas, advice, experience, office space, food, cars and colds. But, with all that closeness, it must also be said that it can get a little … ripe around six or seven.

With such long days and nights, when people are hungry and borderline tired, the silliness comes out of everyone. And that’s when some of the real bonding begins.

Overheard in the newsroom:

“I’m a workaholic. I have to keep working because if I stop, I’m going to get trapped in a relationship.”

“If one more person talks to me, I’m going to snap.”

“Is anyone leaving … with a car?”

“Make it work. Do you watch ‘Project Runway’? I’m going to start talking like Tim Gunn. Carry on.”

It’s extremely rewarding and challenging to be surrounded by so many talented people. True statement, but if someone else says that, I might snap. I definitely take my hat off to all of them. Well, I could if I were wearing one, which I’m not. So I can’t. The experience is great, nonetheless.

— Arcynta Ali Childs

Finding stories on a new beat

January 4, 2008

Jacqueline E. Sharkey, head of The University of Arizona Department of Journalism

Jacqueline E. Sharkey, head of The University of Arizona Department of Journalism 

How do you become a good beat reporter and find good stories? Well, contrary to what you might think, it doesn’t hinge on writing what you know the most about or what you’ve decided you like the best. In fact, we were told that curiosity and ignorance are two of the most important and helpful tools a journalist can possess. Score one for inexperience.

According to Diego Ribadeneira, an assistant metropolitan editor at The New York Times, a good beat reporter is well organized and has a clear purpose, a variety of sources, a growing list of story ideas and a constant desire to learn. A good beat reporter doesn’t thinks he or she knows everything and isn’t afraid to admit it. Well, considering I mispronounced Tucson more recently than I care to admit, I’m already poised to become a pretty good beat reporter, no?

Here’s some helpful advice on how to conquer a new beat:

  • Develop an interest in something, but don’t be afraid to change your interests.
  • Get out of the office, walk around and actually learn about the place you’ll be covering.
  • Build personal relationships. Ask people to educate you about what they do.
  • Diversify your sources. (CEOs are great, but their secretaries have critical information, too.)
  • Organize your work.
  • Maintain open lines of communication with your editor.
  • Compile a running list of ideas.

Where do you find good story ideas? Keep an open mind (and eye and ear). If you see something curious — a building under construction, a store closing — find out the story behind it. Scour bulletin boards. Check Web sites of local environmental groups. Read exhaustively, in particular specialized papers. Follow the money (especially tax dollars). Let your mind wander.Even with all that great information, how can you be sure you’ll become a great beat reporter who finds the best stories? Ribadeneira summed it up: Work hard.

— Arcynta Ali Childs