Moving forward after pre-reporting jitters

Put bluntly, I probably could’ve done without this last week.

After being lulled into a nice semester schedule, complete with time to socialize and work out, I got the great joy of seeing my check engine light go on early Monday morning. Lots of frustrations, $100 and one poor, dying Saturn SL1 later, I’m exhausted.

However, on the reporting side of my life, I feel pretty damn good.

Unrelated from class, I found out a team of fellow reporters and I won a top-10 spot in the Associated Press Sports Editors awards for breaking news in an under-30,000 circulation. We placed for our coverage of basketball player Michael Dixon’s transfer from MU after a series of allegations of sexual assault. (Top-5 rankings TBD in April).

This week in Intermediate Writing class, we took our story pitches and talked about how to move them past pre-reporting into an actual plan for action. Like I said in one of our reading posts last week, my biggest reporting fear is doing a load of work and having it go to waste, or having my story pulled out from under me.

It’s slightly irrational, because no reporting ever really goes to waste, but it speaks to my fear of having to react to a dying story idea. Fortunately, I learned this week how easy it is to make sure no idea every truly dies.

It’s easy to get locked into one set story plan, whether that be a narrative, a Q&A or a specific type of explanatory piece. It feels so much more comfortable to go out into the field with a clear-cut plan. But what about 8 plans? Nine? Fifteen?

Usually when stories get big and nebulous, I feel out of control. That might be true of big projects with myriad interviews and notes, but a big set of story paths is strangely comforting. Jacqui said that the more potential story plans we have, the more options we have for reporting, and the more directions we can turn in if one path doesn’t pan out.

That way, you only have to shift gears slightly to accomodate the new plan. Narrative profile doesn’t pan out? No problem. Turn it into a comparison of two characters instead. Investigative piece fall flat? Repurpose that reporting into a gripping explanatory piece. Usually the new plan will involve some additional reporting or researching, but in no way does it mean starting from scratch. Hearing that this was an option made me feel immensely relieved. It wasn’t all or nothing. I had options, great options, even.

Story formats we talked about (not an exhaustive list):

  1. Narrative
  2. Profile
  3. Explanatory
  4. Investigative
  5. Trend
  6. Voices/perspective
  7. Compare/contrast
  8. Issue
  9. Timeline/history

Any of these could be applied to my topic, taking it down a slightly different path, but including what would be much of the same reporting.

Later on, in what seemed like some karmic payback for all the bad car luck I’d been having, Jacqui used my story ideas as the jumping off point for a brainstorm to demonstrate how to find story paths and give examples of the formats we discussed. The tightness in my chest eased as we started to consider all the ways I could begin to move forward. I breathed easier with every spoke added to the stakeholder wheel.

After class, we all made plans to meet with Jacqui to discuss our story ideas further. Because I had the benefit of class brainpower behind me, my conversation with Jacqui focused a lot on the kind of writing I want to do. For me, I’d be playing to my strengths if I took on an explanatory issue piece. That type of writing and reporting comes easily to me, and part of me desperately wanted to make the easy decision for once.

But, I owned up to what my goal was when I signed up for Intermediate Writing: to learn to write descriptively and gain experience with immersion journalism. Jacqui and I talked about what strategies I could use to get scenes and characters into my stories and foray into immersion journalism while still incorporating explanatory bits in the larger story of the issue at hand. First, I must identify key topics that need to be included to understand the issue. Second, I need to start reporting to see where I’ll find characters or scenes so I can decide just what type of story path I should move down. Those scenes and characters will then “open the door” to the other information I find while reporting. If I could draw it, it’d look like this:


It might change halfway through, and likely I won’t end up where I planned to. But I just keep telling myself that the discomfort and hard work is going toward a greater purpose to improve my writing and storytelling.

I think my hesitation to write this way comes from the remnants of being a painfully shy child. I don’t want to disturb anyone, and I’m still uncomfortable walking into an environment where I am unfamiliar. I don’t want to be the center of attention, and I tend to be a people-pleaser at times. But to effectively write and report immersion-style, I need to be confident and have a plan and execute it. I have to be bold enough to work with my sources and direct many moving parts to end up with the story I want to tell.

I’ve got my big google outline brewing, and I’m feeling good about where I need to go from here. This New York Times pieces about a little girl dealing with a condition where she feels no pain was a great example, in my opinion, of telling a complicated science-y story through scenes. We follow the author’s interactions with the family for much of the piece, but there are also paragraphs explaining the condition and its medical history interspersed throughout. As Jacqui put it, the scenes are the spine holding the story together.

Before this class, this NYT piece would’ve intimidated me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still appropriately respectful of well done journalism, but now that I understand the underlying strategy behind this kind of piece, It’s more uplifting than intimidating. In my own small way, I’m going to do something like this.