Tying it all up

I’m writing this from my flat in the South Bank of London where I am just finishing up my second day of a three-month-long study abroad and internship experience.

This will be the last post of my spring semester; the rest of the summer will be about London and all things British, with a bit of journalism thrown in for good measure. In the meantime, a conclusion to the tumultuous tale of the past few months is necessary.
These past few days have been a whirlwind, and I realized I never really got the chance to write a blog post in which I reflect on this semester, tie it up with a nice little bow and toss it on the “Lessons Learned” pile. As I was spending entirely too much time decorating my end of semester portfolio, all of these lessons were swirling around my head. Some of them ended up on the pages of my semester reflection. At the time, I didn’t know how to say everything I wanted to say. I ended up posting random notes on the inside of my portfolio’s bindings, which probably confused my professor. Sorry, Sara.
Maybe it took me so long to write this final blog post for this semester because I spent my only free day last week rushing around throwing bits and pieces into a suitcase. My other theory is that it took me more than a few days to process it all. I’m going with the latter.

Because there was so much action in just four months of reporting, my neat little bow is going to be in numbered list form.

What I Knew Before Reporting Semester:
1. I loved writing
2. I loved journalism
3. I was happy to write for Vox
4. I was scared
5. I would survive

What I knew during Reporting:
1. I had no social life
2. 1 am is an early bedtime. 6 was a good time to wake up.
3. I wanted sources to please, for the love of God, return my calls.
4. Sometimes, my personal struggles got in the way of my reporting abilities.
5. I hated number 4.
6. I really hated number 4.
7. I wanted sources to please, for the love of God, return my emails.
8. I didn’t want to ask for help when I needed it, personal or otherwise.
9. Cheez-its were a meal.
10. I wanted sources to please, for the love of God, return my tweets, texts, smoke signals, etc.
11. I wasn’t happy when a story wasn’t written to its potential.
12. Court records are not as easy to obtain as you think they’ll be.
13. Ditto number 11.
14. This wasn’t supposed to be as hard as I was making it.

BUT somehow:
15. I loved writing.
16. I loved journalism.
17. Despite how it appeared or felt at times, I was really happy.
18. I would survive.

What I know after reporting:
1. There is life on the other side.
2. Remarkably, my friends still love me.
3. Sleep is a lovely thing and necessary for daily functions.
4. Sources will get in touch. They will. Eventually.
5. Dealing with personal struggles is part of becoming a better journalist.
6. Ditto number 5 as it relates to writing.
7. Ditto number 5 as it relates to life.
8. When you don’t ask for help, there are people who make sure you get it.
9. Full meals are usually best when they’re not processed and attaining them. does not involve a vending machine.
10. Trying to make a story good is often better than trying to make it perfect.
11. Professors who truly care make all the difference.
12. Some sources are much more than sources; they become necessary friends.
13. I stand by the court records thing.
Still:
14. I love writing.
15. I love journalism.
16. I am pretty darn happy to be in journalism school.
Finally:
17. I SURVIVED.
18. I will continue to do so.

So much of this semester was spent troubleshooting things on my own, but I couldn’t have realized that last list without several people coming into my life at just about the most crucial time. One of those people was someone I could never refer to as “a source,” but someone whose passion kept me motivated to tell her story. LySaundra Campbell has overcome quite a few personal struggles in her own life. We began to work on a feature I was writing about her just as the worst of the semester had begun for me. When I asked her what she held onto to make it through, she read me a Bible verse. She told me its words had been her anchor. So, being in desperate need of an anchor, I held on too.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance” (James 1:2-3).

This seems like a good place to end. I’m tying up my reporting semester with a big, thick knot and throwing it onto the pile. Onward to more challenges. Onward to more lessons. First stop, London. Summer 2013.

A lesson from Maggie

A few weeks ago, we talked about voice in reporting class and its importance in journalistic narratives. That week happened to be the week that the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died. I couldn’t help, in that moment to correlate our discussion of voice with the death of perhaps one of the most recognizable and, for some, most despised voices of all time.

But agree with her politics or not, the woman had voice. While Maggie Thatcher wasn’t a journalist, she achieved a tone that was incomparable to her contemporaries.

Thatcher’s voice, though, was one that was achieved over time and prompted by the challenge of her critics.

After being criticized by her male contemporaries who said “the right honorable lady doth screech too much,” Thatcher took voice lessons and deepened the sound of her voice. She  matched the deeper tone of her peers while creating an “iron” persona all her own.

While I am talking about Margaret Thatcher’s literal voice in this sense, I think her experience as a politician is one that can be related to a journalists’ developing voice in writing.

In class, we discussed the idea that our voices are constantly developing, in response to criticism from editors, readers and ourselves. As my confidence grows as a writer, I’ve noticed I’m a lot more brave and a lot more willing to take on a more distinctive voice.

It took me three drafts for my first Vox story before I could coax out the voice I wanted to employ. Now, I’m turning in drafts that are louder, more distinctive, more effective on the first try. In other words, I’ve pulled a Margaret Thatcher. Image

Everything is copy

“I am in desperate need of a breath mint,” I type to my Kappa Delta sisters Kelsie and Kylee in a text.
“You need a PiChi,” Kelsie replies.
The image of the sorority recruitment officers in their tye-dyed t-shirts and backpacks bulging with white Lifesaver breath mints, Band-Aids, personal fans and oil blotters comes to mind as my feet nervously pace the shiny, marble floor of the The New York Times lobby. At this point, not even snarky recruitment humor can bring me out of my anxious state.
I can’t believe he’s meeting me. I can’t believe he cares about a journalism student from the University of Missouri. God, I need to pee. Can I do that at The New York Times?
I struggle to compile questions to ask Jacob that don’t sound immature or too “fan girlish.” I’m still coming up empty as I mindlessly click the button on the top of my iPhone. Screen on, screen off, screen on. I open the e-mail I’d sent two days before and scroll down to my original message, looking for inspiration but afraid to find colloquial language or an unnoticed grammatical error.
“Dear Mr. Bernstein….”
***
As the cab makes its way from LaGuardia airport into New York City, I sit in the back seat, my leg pressing into my friend Claire. She leans her head against the back of the seat as I hold my phone out and watch the words swim in front of my eyes. Jacob Bernstein >launches into a story about his mother, Nora Ephron, on page one and I’m in the middle of page five, clutching the door of the cab, clinging to every detail. My stomach threatens to remind me of my history of carsickness, but I refuse it. Jacob’s telling me a story about his mother Nora and suddenly all of the questions about the death of one of my favorite writers are being answered, line by line. He’s included everything from her hallucinations on her final days to her lucid desire for a pineapple shake and a walk in Central Park. The cab pulls up to our hotel in Midtown as I reach page seven and I watch with Jacob as his mom pulls away from the world.
***
“I have to e-mail him, Beth. You’re supposed to tell people when you like their stories, right? Will you read this? I can’t send this.” I pace around our hotel room later that night and turn to face my new friend as she types something on her laptop.
“You have to,” she says quickly proving to be an exceptional person with an equal desire to pursue beautiful, slightly unrealistic dreams.
I sit, cross-legged on the hotel room bed, typing and deleting clichés born from my nervousness, until I come up with this:

Dear Mr. Bernstein,
Your mother was my hero. She still is. On my desk, next to my AP stylebook and reporter’s notebooks, is a framed quote of hers: “Be the heroine of your own life.” When I began my undergraduate studies at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in the fall of 2011, it was your mother who stood beside me as my imaginary protector, leading me past fear and reminding me to save all my struggles for my writing. After all, “Everything is copy.”
I’ve dreamed of meeting her since I was seventeen, when I became entranced by her commanding sense of perception. I imagined one day that I would somehow contact her upon my arrival to New York as a new magazine writer. I imagined she would miraculously reply to my note. She would tell me all there was I would need to know to succeed just as I had heard she had done for countless other women journalists.
Today, I saw your recent story in The New York Times Magazine about your mother’s final days. As I rode into New York City for a school trip, it reminded me of the importance of detail and the necessity of journalism.
I know this is a long shot, but I am in New York City until Sunday. We are visiting The New York Times Magazine tomorrow and will be near that office for much of the day. I would appreciate any advice you have for a young, ambitious journalist. I’ve provided my contact information below.
For now, I’m heading off to Shake Shack. Maybe I’ll get mine with pineapple.

Best,
Hilary Weaver

***
Jacob Bernstein is walking toward me now and I forget about my needs for a mint and the bathroom. I’ve googled his picture minutes before so I wouldn’t miss him in the lobby, and I instantly recognize the dark-haired, cleanly dressed, 34-year-old man who comes into view. What I don’t expect is how much he looks like his mother as he approaches me. It strikes me that he seems like an old friend. As we walk to the row of elevators, I can’t help but think that his mother’s had something to do with our meeting in some way. Some kind of mystical orchestration by her deep wisdom and wit.
“My mother always encouraged people to work for a daily newspaper,” he tells me as we sit across from each other at a round, white table in the cafeteria.
“Should I switch my sequence from magazine to newswriting?” I ask, somewhat frantically.
“No, not necessarily,” he says smiling slightly at my panic. “Just always take every opportunity you have to tell a story.”

Everything is copy.

As I sit next to Nora Ephron’s son on a Friday afternoon at the New York Times, it becomes apparent I am going to be a journalist and I want to be a journalist in New York City. He tells me how hard it will be, but I think I already know that. He tells me how I can never have too many sources and that I should never, ever stop searching for detail. You never know what could make a story great. Once, he stops me when I use the phrase “passed away,” and says, “It’s OK to say ‘dead,’ you know.” For that moment, I think I’ve gained a shred of insight into his personal pain at the loss of his mother and I’m grateful for his generosity in sharing it.

When he takes a phone call in the middle of our conversation, I quickly scribble down everything he’s said in my reporter’s notepad.

Everything is copy.

After about thirty minutes have passed, he rides down with me on the elevator and we make small chat about Seattle, where I’ve lived and where his mother once made a very famous movie. We discuss what I should do for internships this summer and whether going to London to study abroad is a good career move. We talk like friends. He shakes my hand and walks away, telling me to stay in touch.
“I certainly will,” I assure him as I turn to the door and the busy New York street.
I’ll never get to have lunch with Nora. I’ll never get to ask her endless questions about how to succeed as a woman in the journalism industry. But I will get to say she helped change my life. I’ve met someone whose life she’s touched perhaps more than anyone else, one of the most important pieces of what she left behind. As I walk into a throng of people and battle against the wind of a sunny March day, it becomes clear that I’ve proved to myself that I can make it on my own. I have the ability to seek my own resources and make things happen. I’ve grown up a little in this afternoon in New York City.

I guess that’s what heroes are all about.
tn37151_36_NEphronJBernstein_042711

Rantings and respect: the search for ledes

I miss Seattle. After living there for a year as a freshman at Seattle Pacific University, that quirky, damp city is still tied securely around the fondest place in my heart. This fondness is why I still read The Seattle Times every day. Not only does it serve as a way for me to indulge in nostalgic memories, but  I often find very good examples of journalism in this publication, so it only entices me to read it more.

Today, I found a lede worth remembering in a travel article about walking across America.  This lede instantly gives me the human interest part of the story. It doesn’t make me go searching for why cross-country walking treks are important to write about. Within the first two sentences, I already know why 29-year-old Ken Ilgunas hikes cross-country. By knowing what he values out of his experience, I can instantly visualize him.  I know this is a feature-ish lead, but hey, I’m a Vox reporter this semester. 

Now, the search for the less shiny, great example. I now turn to my hometown’s newspaper, the Jefferson City News Tribune. This is in no way to bash the News Tribune. I worked as a weekly columnist for the publication when I was a senior in high school, and often get my hometown news from its online stories.

Today, however, I just so happened to find a lede that needs a little polishing. This story about a Jefferson City-based program called Halo that works with the homeless and at-risk youth of the capital city. I didn’t learn that from the lede, though. I actually didn’t even learn that from the story.I had to go to HALO’s website and find it. The story discusses one woman’s position within HALO, but doesn’t tell me if her position encompasses all of the services or if there are other facets of the program. 

Anyway, the lede itself begs enough unanswered questions. It reads: “Elle Benage’s position within HALO allows her to combine her passion for art and her passion for kids.” So… what’s her position? What’s HALO? Also, “combine passion for art and passion for kids” is  not extremely compelling stuff. I feel like this story could have been made so much better if this lede contained more compelling information. I want to understand who this woman is before I even delve into the body of the story. I understand that it isn’t a long story, but that’s all the more reason to have a stronger lede. You have less time to convince me that this is a good story. Start off on the right foot, please. 

Thank you, True/False

Thursdays are usually pretty stressful for a Vox reporter. It’s the day that our first and third drafts of our stories are due. It’s the day I meet with my beat leader, Sara, and the day I almost have a breakdown from stress. So, when I got to go to a free True/False show to review the Showcase at the Blue Fugue, it couldn’t have been a better day.

The show started with Ruth Acuff’s harmonic harp melodies and I drifted off into a happy journalistic coma. While I was later swaying to the sounds of James Miska and the Jack Grelle and the Johnson family, the tension in my shoulders began to release.

In that moment, I realized that I haven’t been having enough fun. I’ve been reporting for a magazine that I’ve wanted to write for since I transferred to Mizzou, and all I think about is everything on my to-do list. I admit, it’s empowering to scratch  tasks off my list, but it probably shouldn’t be the only motivation in my life.

As I sat at my table on Thursday night and leaned my tired head and tense neck against the wall, I realized I need to relax. I need to remember why it is I have l always loved to write; nothing makes me happier than when my words matter to someone else. Firstly though, they need to matter to me. One thing I’ve learned this semester is that it’s very difficult to care when I’m not appreciating the moment in which I’m living. 

True/False has been the perfect reminder for me about my purpose as a Vox reporter. My mission is to bring Columbia to its readers. In order to do that, I need to let go of my worries (just a little bit) and join in the celebration. The costumes, music and general lighthearted mood of the weekend unhinged me from my personal troubles and loosened my grip on college life. 

So, thank you True/False  folk music concert for reminding me why I do what I do. This stressed-out journalist needed your help.  

Help! I’ve fallen! Can I get a hand, Hugh?

 

At the Oscars on Sunday, Jennifer Lawrence took a tremendous tumble up the stairs to the stage to accept her Best Actress award. After a chivalrous Hugh Jackman rushed to her aid, Lawrence made the trek to the stage and proclaimed to her peers, “You’re just standing because you feel sorry that I fell and it was really embarrassing.” Well, Jennifer, I can relate.

Every time I have gotten praise this semester for something I’ve managed to do right, I can’t help but think that it has to do with everything I’ve done wrong leading up to that point. For all the times during the past six weeks that I’ve felt like I’m grasping my first shining, golden statue on the podium, I’ve also had experiences that resulted in mortification equal to that of falling on my face in front of all of Hollywood.

Yesterday was one such experience. After taking photos and conducting interviews for our Vox Ask Columbians segment at the Columbia mall, I met a new friend. A mall security guard. He kindly informed me that I did not have permission to take photos inside the mall, and I immediately felt like smacking my palm to my face. Although I had talked to my editor and received permission from her, I knew taking photos inside the mall probably wasn’t the most journalistically sound decision I’d ever made. Being a journalist gives me a lot of rights, but not when it comes to reporting on someone else’s property.  I’m smarter than that, and now I’m without my photos and past my deadline.

Maybe one day soon I’ll be up on that podium again, smiling sheepishly like Jennifer Lawrence in the presence of my superiors’ praise.

For now, I’m smack down on the steps with my face pressing hard onto the stage floor. While Jennifer was able to lift herself from the steps before her knight and shining armor arrived to the stage, I’m not so sure about Hilary Weaver. Hugh Jackman, fallen journalist over here! I could use a hand! Thanks ever so much.

The Necessity of Being a Wallflower

In the introduction to her 1970 book, Wallflower at the Orgy, Nora Epron compares her imagined experience of attending an orgy to that of being a journalist. She says when her husband expressed a desire to go to an orgy, she told him, “It would be just like the dances I went to in the seventh grade—only instead of people walking past me and rejecting me, they would be stepping over my naked body and rejecting me.”

However perverse an example that might be, Ms. Ephron, of course, leads it back to her journalistic roots. Because, she says, when you’re a journalist, you are the ultimate wallflower, “standing on the side taking notes on it all.”

When I look at it this way, I realize I’ve really never had any other destiny but to be a journalist. After all, I’ve been the quintessential of a wallflower since the days of playing kickball in first grade gym, wishing to be struck out so I could return to the  safety of the concrete block wall, leaning against its cool security, day dreaming. Soon, the concrete wall turned into the side of the ice at synchronized skating practice, or the soft crevice of the beanbag chair of my high school journalism advisor’s classroom during lunch hour. I was always watching, somehow finding a way to never be part of the action, but keeping my mind in the thick of it. I was always filing thoughts away to join the ranks of seven-year old fantasies or pulling out wide nets of crumpled paper to hold the weight of seventeen-year-old observations.

Now, as I experience journalism as a college student, I fully agree with Ms. Ephron. I am a wallflower. Only now, instead of practicing these habits out of natural tendencies, I am training to be a professional wallflower.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the varying opportunities to practice my skills as an outcast of sorts. I’ve stood against a different gym wall and watched fifty-year-old women power lifters seamlessly raise over 100 pounds from the worn tiles of the weight room floor. I’ve encountered people who find music through plucking a bicycle wheel or art through plastic googly eyes and neon children’s yarn. All the time that my pen is scratching away on a notebook or my eyes  are engaged in conversation, there is a little part of me who plays the part of constant observer. There she sits, my little wall flower. She’s perched against the wall or against the stage, watching. She can’t help but document what she thinks or feels about what’s happening around her. She’s my constant journalist, the reliable narrator amidst the mess of details and noise.

Now, as I search for people to tell stories of important journey for my multimedia project, I need her more than ever. I need to be respectful and engaging but equally silent and swiftly clever, gathering detail as it travels past me. I need to be a wallflower.