I Hate Cubicles

So I’ve been thinking about what Laurien said last week, you know, considering the idea of becoming a private investigator. Kudos to her. I can see her being this badass PI. I can see her doing whatever she wants to, though. Some people are just like that.

Anyway, I have absolutely no idea what I want to do. I like reporting for the most part, and like Tom said, I always knew it wasn’t going to be a profession with instant gratification. At the same time, I don’t want to limit myself when I leave. The J-School is the best for a reason, and for me, that was the experience of reporting. Constantly. In one form or another. For four years.

It’s a lot. And I do love it, but I don’t want to get to a point where I’m just doing it because it’s what I know how to do best. I don’t want it to be a crutch. I could do other things, and just the knowledge that I could go out and do something different but somehow still related to writing keeps me sane.

Honestly, I haven’t the faintest what I would do if it wasn’t working for a paper.

I do know I loathe cubicles. Really, I did everything I could not to have to sit at that desk in my last internship. Reporting for me is talking to people, and I hate using the phone. The results seem sub-par and I think there’s something to be said for going to your source. I know, I know, that’s not always possible. But in my ideal little world, it would be.

I don’t do desks. I do my best work between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. in my room with food, Mountain Dew and the TV blaring Cheers or Friends. I’m not saying that’s always going to be the case, but that’s how I do now.

So what would I do? Haha, I could see myself working for a publishing company. But then again I could see myself freelancing or working for a nonprofit investigative organization. Or maybe writing a book. That one’s definitely out there, because any book I can see myself writing would be utterly ridiculous. Seriously. I would say I have a list of ideas for writing a book, but every time I look at it, I cringe and delete most of them as quickly as possible. Start over. Rename the word document to something like “Literary Analysis of Ivanhoe”, because no one in their right mind would decide to open it. But that’s fine.

The point is that I think it’s great that we’re still keeping our options open career-wise. Everyone I can think of who seems happy in their careers has had some interesting detours. Take Gerry. Gerry works at the Trib in Jeff City. Gerry is also magician on the side. Gerry also wrote a book about an infamous wrestler after spending months hanging out with the guy. And Gerry still reports. He took a ride with this 80-year-old man in his homemade plane once. Gerry is happy.

Now, if I’m being serious, yeah, I’ll probably pick up a reporting job with a small paper after graduation, because six months after I leave, those student loans will be circling, waiting to attack like a pack of starving hyenas. So that’ll be fun.

Is it May yet?

So I have three weeks and counting and It. Is. Not. Okay.

The sheer length of the To-Do list sticky on my desktop is mortifying. I changed the name to something less sinister and a bit more fortifying… now it’s entitled “I’ve Got This Shit”. I also made an accompanying playlist to get me pumped for these last few weeks.

But I still try not to look at the sticky note…. Which I guess technically negates the point of having a To-Do list. But that’s fine. No worries. La dee da.

Anyway, this blog is supposed to be about my saga of attempting to practice good data journalism. I’ve been spending an absurd amount of time on this depository from the Missouri Highway Patrol. It’s sex offender data for the state of Missouri, and it’s a lot.

I needed to do some data reporting, and I was all like, “Yeah, I’ll do the data cleaning and queries myself ’cause I’m an independent journalist, and I’ve got this.” Really, it’s been like 15 hours trying to understand how to make the data talk. And I’m doing this during that time of night when it’s just me and the Cosby Family reruns.

I’ve spent like 15 hours with sex offender data from the Missouri Highway Patrol, trying to clean it up and figure out which programs and queries to use to answer my questions. It’s terrifying. There’s so much data, like tens of thousands of records. And it’s impossible to get all of that clean. So you just do what you can to get the best results possible, the closest you can get to accurately representing the data.

But, God, it’s unnerving. I’ve triple-checked every step to make sure I haven’t compromised any of the numbers or screwed anything up that would throw off my reporting. And really, it’s a lot of work for what, maybe 5 inches of text in my story? It’s necessary, but still. It’s deflating.

And in the end, it’s what I’ve made of the data. It’s not summary reports I’ve requested that are nice and neat and give me straight numbers. It’s me telling readers that I’ve spent time with this depository and to trust my work with the data. If there’s an error, it’s going to be on my end, not some mistake with a source.

Rough Days

Two more kids died in my hometown last week.

Ste. Gen. has about 4,000 people. That’s around 700 high school students. Since last summer, we’ve had five Ste. Gen. students die, along with a recent graduate.

All but one were car crashes, accidents on I-55 or Hwy 32.

To call the last year horrific is a shallow statement. Most of these students were years behind me; I didn’t know them well, but younger students, like my sister, did.

Last week, two girls died and one was severely injured. The girls were 17, 16 and 15. Of course, Facebook was the only place for people to be. As information about the accident got around, all of those who knew the girls rent their hearts out on social media, sharing grief and happy memories. The sheer amount of “Fly highs” were innumerable.

Our town made the KSDK news. What’s more, the news station sent a reporter to the high school. I was curious as to how the station covered the deaths.

I was upset mostly because of my sister. She had been friends with three of the students who have died. She worked with one at Domino’s six days a week. She cheered with another. And the young man in the farming accident had been one of her closest buddies since grade school. It’s hard watching someone you care about grieve, but it seems that lately, that’s all there is.

But I didn’t really lose it until I watched the five-minute segment on KSDK.

I was sitting in the J-School, waiting for class, and pulled up the segment on my computer. Apparently Principal Hoehne ran the reporters off school property that Monday, because the wound was raw. Grief counselors were on-hand. The cafeteria and hallways were silent. The reporter stood outside the front of the building and recounted what had happened to Dani and Zoe. He went into Ste. Genevieve’s constant state of loss over the past year.

And this man became very obviously emotional during the broadcast. It wasn’t pity, or heartfelt concern; this man was moved by the pain in my hometown.

Of course, there’s been speculation that with these two particular deaths, controlled substances may have been involved. That wasn’t mentioned in the broadcast. Rather, it focused on the students.

I felt this enormous respect for how this was reported. It built like a bubble slowly expanding, taking up room in my lungs and making it difficult to breathe.

I realized tears were streaming down my face at the end of the broadcast. I don’t know if the reporter was able to talk to students. I do know he spoke to the superintendent, who spoke on the previous deaths.

What was obvious from his reporting was that he witnessed a school that had lost so many in such a short amount of time, and he was moved by it.

Current freak-out

I’m having a hell of a time figuring out how to write my project piece.

I’ve been working on it for weeks. There’s a bill making its way through the House that would allow more sex offenders to petition to be removed from the registry. So, when I first started, I knew I needed a personal story.

I found one.

My source is very open about his situation, how being on the registry for over a decade has made aspects of his life difficult (divorced, losing custody of his son, can’t hold down a job, homeless at some points, etc.). I’ve spent hours and hours with this guy and his five-year-old kid. I’ve talked to his dad. But I’m just so nervous about the tone of the story. He’s a good guy, but I need to check some of the things he’s told me. And that’s not easy. The only person I’ve been able to talk about his character is his dad, and he’s not very open with me. I talked about his work, his retirement, etc., to open him up. I’ve tried to nicely pry, but honestly, I only get a few words back.

My worry is that I won’t be able to get this story spot-on. I truly believe this guy got a bad rap. But I can’t find the details of the case; it’s closed. His victim is private. His counselor won’t talk to me. His ex-wife is military, and refuses to talk to me because she doesn’t want the media attention. I believe the system hasn’t worked in his case. But I have to back that up, more than just what he’s telling me. And in this case, that’s not been easy.

I know, I know, we look to family, friends, acquaintances. But he doesn’t have coworkers. He doesn’t have family. He lost many friends over the years, and hasn’t given me any contact info. I’m going off what the dad has said and my own intuition and discernment.

And I feel especially nervous because the topic is so sensitive. Ugh. Guess I’ll see how it goes.

 

Resilience

I’ve only written two life stories, and both women were older and their families seemed to feel as if talking to me was more of a release, a comforting outlet. I haven’t covered stories where people lost loved ones unexpectedly. I haven’t covered tragic events that make us question the whys of it all.

I think the closest I’ve been to practicing resilience as a journalist was last summer, when I wrote about a charity softball tournament for a little boy with sarcoma cancer. It was awful that this disease should prey on a 17-month-old little boy, but his family was so positive that the story was more hopeful than tragic. I asked his mom and grandpa the tough questions, wrote the article and then called my mom.

I’ve covered issues that aren’t as earth-shattering as tragic news events or unexpected deaths. But they do chronicle life and people’s hardships. We’re going to talk about losing your house? Losing custody of your kids? Trying to keep your kid eating healthy when your food stamps are cut?

I’ve had several interviews where people burst out into tears or get choked up and can’t speak. After the first time, I put tissues in my “reporter” bag, just in case. Some stories you go in thinking it’s a fluff piece; you’re going to talk about gardening or teaching. You don’t expect to be sitting on someone’s porch handing them tissues and looking away so they don’t feel self-conscious about breaking down in front of a complete stranger.

These issues are uncomfortable, but part of that comes from my own naiveté. I haven’t had to deal with problems like these in my personal life, haven’t had to practice the resilience these people employ. Yet I’m delving into their lives and trying to understand how they deal. Those are my favorite kinds of stories, though— the ones about life’s struggles and those people who keep it together from day to day.

How do I deal when I’m upset after these talks? I call Mom and talk incessantly, using her as a soundboard. Then she’ll fill me in on what was going on at home: her students were loving summer play practice, dad was out in the garage adding some gadget to his new Harley and my sister was losing patience with the puppy’s complete disregard for the word “no”. It never fails. 🙂

Taking a breather

These first few weeks have been insanity. 

I honestly couldn’t make up my mind about whether I was hoping for enough snow to keep me home or so little that I could still get to Jeff City Wednesday. 

It ended up that I couldn’t leave my apartment, but Casey and I were pretty conflicted about not being able to reach the newsroom. By Wednesday morning, I was stoked that I would have a day to step back and figure out just what I was doing. For the first few weeks, reporting has been was covering a lot of hearings. I knew that was going to be the case because we need to figure out which issues are going to collect steam and move through committees. But there’s really nothing harder than sitting through a two-hour hearing with excess posturing for ten minutes of good info, or worse yet, a hearing that never gets to the subject you’re hoping to cover. I can’t wait to get to some of the bigger issues, go more in-depth with the stories. 

I spent Wednesday rescheduling in-person interviews, doing some phone interviews for smaller stories and trying to come up with a few pitches I thought I could turn into some decent stories. It was absolutely lovely… I feel like I’m back on firm ground now. Thanks to several inches of snow 🙂

April, election time, sleep eating. It’s a good life.

So it’s been a while. For all of those avid followers of mine, sorry about that. Life has this funny way of going on whether you’re able to keep up or not.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a few instances, a few experiences that made me stop and think, “Oh, this should be a blog post.” And then it passes.

I could talk about being called out at a press conference by a commissioner in front of several other reporters and being completely unprepared for it because I was mentally prepping for my midterm 30 minutes away. Pretty sure my mouth was open. Nice.

I could talk about the fact that I may now be writing some odd, sad little story for the sports section. Long story short: the sports editor thinks I’m too afraid to be the writer I want to be (in regards to skirting good observational writing that I think borders on opinion), and so naturally the way to remedy that is not only to step out of my comfort zone, but send me into the fray of first-hand experience covering some sport. Good Lord. More to come on that later, for sure.

I could talk about how the past few weeks, I’ve developed a habit of sleep eating. I think it’s stress-related. Whatever the cause, I don’t realize I do it, until I wake up with an empty box of Tag-Alongs and a juice box in bed with me when I wake up at 7 a.m. Yeah. It’s happened about five times now. I actually bought baby carrots the other day, hoping that when my food-seeking, uncontrollable zombie self runs out of cookies, maybe I’ll just turn to the healthy food. I’m not worried about it. We’ll just say it’s a phase.

I could talk about how the sales tax that has basically been my life for the past few months did pass on Tuesday. The vote was 56 percent to 43 percent, if you’re interested. I spent the entire day chasing the polls, talking to voters and supporters, mingling at the watch party (which included a lot of elbowing other reporters from different outlets- total annoyance) and figuring out where to turn next.

But I don’t know that I want to go into all of that right now. This is pleasant. This week has been one of the longest of the semester. But that’s OK, because right now, life is good. Spring break was fortifying. I’m still unaware of my midterm test grades, so this light-hearted feeling is going to last at least until about noon tomorrow. I actually read outside today. For like, an hour altogether. I mean, it seemed totally surreal. Granted, it was “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” which is not exactly light, springtime-in-the-park reading, but I’ll take it.

So. Happy April 🙂