Archive for the ‘Finding stories on a new beat’ Category

Chronicles of a first time crime reporter

January 12, 2008

My past reporting experience had me covering pretty, little feature stories about tonsillectomies and ear surgeries.

Then, I arrived at The New York Times Student Journalism Institute.

I asked for breaking news and I got an assignment. What I didn’t expect was a full immersion experience in cops and court reporting. After five minutes of feeling intimidated, I got over it.

On the first day of the murder, I had to talk to police and gather as much information as I could about Tucson’s first homicide victim of 2008. When I talked to my editor, Diego Ribadeneira, he asked me if I knew the motive, the suspects or the weapon used.

I responded with silence.

I talked to the victim’s family about their son who loved lasagna, hated washing dishes and had a “Colgate smile” that went from ear to ear. I made a point to get little details, just like Diego advised. “Get the details,” he said. “Even if you don’t use them.”

Then I ran around the courthouse trying to find documents that told me about the suspects’ criminal record.

The next day, I pulled a Nancy Drew and went to the suspects’ homes to find out who these guys were. I knocked on doors and went back to the courthouse to find out more information. I never knew that I could learn about someone’s childhood, relationship status or goals from court documents.

But you can.

After mining my way through swamps of information, I found a golden nugget. A friend of the victim’s told me that the suspect arrested had a suspicious Myspace page that described his gang life.

The Institute’s Director Don Hecker and I boiled all of my documents and notes one by one. He taught me how to piece together a compelling story that hadn’t been reported by other news outlets. In the past few days, I never felt like I was going to fail because I had the support from my peers and editors. I thought I was good at covering health issues, but I know I will be an even better crime reporter.

— Tracie Morales

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An unwritten story

January 12, 2008

Sometimes choosing what makes it into a story and what doesn’t is hard.

It’s like standing on the ol’ playground in elementary school trying to pick the next player on your team. You have an odd number of potential players. Sadly, it seems like someone always gets left out.

For a story I wrote at the Institute, on Chicanos and Native Americans returning to the ceremony of the sweat lodge, I had a lot of great notes and perspectives that didn’t make the cut. One source whose story didn’t make it into my article was that of the Los Angeles rapper 2Mex.

(Note: To learn what exactly a sweat lodge is, read my story here.)

In 2003 2Mex released an album titled Sweat Lodge Infinite. Since I was doing a story on sweat lodges, I figured, Why not call this guy up? He might know a thing or two.

The LP, which I highly recommend, isn’t entirely about sweat lodges, but it is a great example of Chicanos making their Native American roots a part of their everyday life.

Nearly all the people I spoke with were finding themselves by finding their native traditions, and 2Mex was no different. He said that since about the time he’d gotten out of high school, he had been speaking with, reading and learning from any resource he could find on native culture. In his travels across the United States and to other countries, 2Mex has spent time with the Hopi, the Lakota, the Pima and countless other native peoples.

Taking part in a few sweat lodges, 2Mex said the most important things the ceremony gave him were a moment for pause in his busy day and a chance to speak with elders.

He brought up the point that there aren’t many lines forming around old people waiting to hear what they have to say. But at the sweats he took part in, everyone there was present in part to take time and listen to the elder. He asked, When do most Americans — especially those in cities — take the time to sit down and learn from their elders and the lives they have lived and the lessons they have learned?

He had a good point. We, the United States and the world, need a better sense of history.

As a journalist, my job is to talk to people. I’m here to listen and to pass on information. Yet often, for students and journalists, there is little time for the pause the sweat provides. For some, meditation is the answer. Others get their pause through yoga.

Right now, the only time I find pause is generally after midnight, just before bed, listening to jazz records (I prefer real vinyl 12s). After speaking with 2Mex, I think I need to create more time to speak with my elders — before they’re gone and their knowledge is lost.

— Nathan Olivarez-Giles

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