Any Questions: One way we’re trying to be a resource for our community

I’m a question-asker. A voracious, mildly annoying, painstakingly thorough question-asker. Ask any of my teachers or editors — they’ll corroborate my story.

And this isn’t one of those stories where I could follow a statement like that up with, “But it wasn’t always that way.” It was. It was always that way, and it probably always will be.

I first became aware that question-asking could set off sparks during a parent-teacher conference. My first-grade teacher told my mom that my twin sister, Ariel, asked too many questions. My mother, almost apoplectic at this point, countered: “Why is that a problem? My teacher couldn’t come up with an answer (I imagine that she cowered in fear or something, but that’s mostly wishful thinking).

In remembering the event, my mom told me what she matter-of-factly told my teacher: I will not discourage Ariel. She’s inquisitive, she’s little and thats exactly what she’s supposed to be doing at this age.

So, from a young age, I learned that questions are OK. More than OK — they’re encouraged.

And it’s because of that memory, perhaps, that I found myself so delighted and excited to help spearhead the outreach team’s “Any Questions” project this semester. Inspired by WBEZ 91.5 Chicago’s “Curious City,” Any Questions began a few semesters ago with an invitation to our readers and members of our community to be curious. We offered to take on any question, big or small, and try to answer it.

It was a slow start over the first two semesters, but this semester, we expanded it in earnest, dedicating a specific team to it. Our list of stories is still growing, but I’m so proud of how far we’ve come and the service we’ve been able to provide our readers.

This project is important to me because it has the potential to directly help our readers with no preset agenda from us. So often news organizations unilaterally decide what people should know. Sometimes, in an effort to turn a complete story or when we come up against an obstacle, we inadvertently withhold information that could still be useful to people.

With Any Questions, we are committed to showing our hand, so to speak. We publish what we have when we have it, even if we have to admit we couldn’t quite figure something out. If we answer a question in a social media post, that’s sufficient. If it needs a more fleshed out story, we’ll keep writing. The questions aren’t always timely, and they might not seem like “hard-hitting journalism” (whatever that is). There are no hard and fast rules at this point, except to be a resource.

With those things in mind, these are the goals I set for the semester:

  1. Increase our output, be that in articles, tweets, or facebook posts

  2. Show readers that the Missourian is a resource for them.

  3. Have readers feel comfortable coming to us with their concerns, and that no concern is trivial — that we as a newsroom are incorporating their needs and agenda into ours.

  4. Have a defined plan for finding/updating our list of questions to answer

  5. Understand how our content fits into daily coverage in the newsroom

  6. Create an analytics report mid-semester and at the end of the semester to measure our success and reach with readers.

I think we’ve made definite progress on 1 and 4; We’re publicizing our efforts when we publish stories and even when we don’t with evergreen social posts. To update our running list, I’ve assigned daily and weekly tasks for our team to do social searches on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and our story comments, as well as checks on a Google form we use for submissions.

Offline, team members have gone out to various places in the community with a big easel explaining the project to try to solicit interaction in person. With the weather becoming more pleasant, we’ve had better luck. We sent one team member out on roller skates (her brilliant idea) and had even better luck.

We are making some headway on 5 and 6. I’ve put together some guidelines for the rest of our newsroom about how to get started with questions we’ve already compiled when general assignment reporters are looking for an assignment. I think the project’s strong element of reporting is key to helping integrate it into our newsroom. Essential to this project’s survival is extending it beyond the outreach team. We aren’t the only ones who can answer questions. The more we can collaborate, the stronger and more far-reaching the section can be. I’ve taken a cursory look at our analytics for stories we’ve published, and I’m planning to have a more detailed report put together toward the end of the semester.

Obviously, 2 and 3 are the hardest. And they’re hardest with any type of engagement, not just this project. My team has an assignment to seek out a civic meeting of some sort to visit and talk about what we do at the Missourian. The goal is to make people aware of the fact that we’re here. Some have brought along fliers I made for Any Questions, and I’m hoping we can get on the radar of community-minded folks. For 3, I think it’s mostly a matter of sticking to our guns — if we ask for input, we have to be prepared to act on it, or at least acknowledge it. Occasionally, it means we let ourselves be silly.

That’s probably what I love most about Any Questions. It doesn’t have to serious hard news, although it definitely can be. It can be about drunk birds. Or bridge maintenance. Or even ghost monkeys (yup, you read that right — ghost monkeys).

I want the posts to have a voice. I want them to be friendly and approachable. To me, that seems like the best way to let our readers know there are real people working here who care about their concerns and questions, no matter how insignificant they might seem to others.

So now, my question to you: Do you live in Columbia? Do you have a question about your community? Do you need help figuring it out?

Perfect! We can help.

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The stories you beg for: Covering Holocaust speakers

When my editor sent me an email about a Holocaust survivor coming to Oakland Middle School (only a few short miles from me), I actually gasped — out loud, at work and very suddenly.

These are the kinds of stories you beg for.

And beg I did. But I was too late to get the chance to write a more traditional story. That opportunity went to fellow Missourian staffer and reporter Kylee Gregg (she was the smart early bird). Instead, I decided to try to brainstorm how I might contribute in other ways, namely through community engagement. At this point, I was willing to offer to sweep the floors to find an excuse to attend.

Fun fact about me, I practically inhale books and information about the Holocaust. Ever since I read the Diary of Anne Frank in second grade, I wanted to learn everything about that time in history. My good friend Alicia has posited that perhaps we do that (she shares my fascination) so that we can begin to try to understand it. But of course, we always fail — it’s not truly possible to understand the magnitude of that kind of horror and injustice. But still, I read. And read. And read.

Anyway. In brainstorming, I first thought about the purpose of events such as these. Why do people go? What do they hope to get out of it, to learn? What makes this event special? Very simply, I realized, the point of going is to hear someone tell their own story in their own words. Try as we might, text reporters can’t always do that. I believe in the power of text, but for this, I felt there could be more. We can draw you into a narrative, and we can give you tons of information, but we’ll never be able to have to feel like you were there, where you can hear someone’s voice hitch or how their accent colors their words.

But audio can.

So I figured I’d go to the presentation and record the speakers, to be excerpted from later on. That’s where the power of this event lies, and I wanted to capture that for people who might not be able to go. Another interesting aspect of this event was that it correlated with a social studies teacher’s lesson on the Holocaust with her eighth grade class. All Oakland eighth graders would be attending the presentation. It’s not often that children come into contact with living players in history, so my editor and I had the idea to tackle it from that angle, too. We presented a few students with this question: If you could meet anyone from history, living or dead, who would it be?

I was excited to flex my multimedia and engagement reporting skills, so armed with a Zoom audio recorder, modest black wedge pumps and a few butterflies in my stomach, I drove to the middle school. The presentation was fantastic, if I may make an understatement. Ben Fainer, a survivor who was sent to six different camps from ages 9 to 15 and was liberated after a Death March from Dachau in 1945, was vibrant and kind. He thanked every student who asked him a question, and refused no one an autograph or a photo or a hug. It was all I could do to shake his hand and tell him I was honored to meet him.

This was my favorite quote from his stories, and when he first said it, I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or cry: 

Vera and Sonia Emmons, the daughter and granddaughter of survivor Gerta Luner, told the compelling story of Gerta’s six-camp rotation, remembering her strength and fearlessness in recounting her history and compiling her memoirs. She died in 1999, but her family still tells her story and lauds her spirit.

This was my favorite quote from their stories, and to me it showed just how nuanced and complex sharing can be for survivors: 

I got back to the newsroom excited but fairly disoriented, in a sense — it’s surreal to know about the filth and evil and hate that permeated a place like Auschwitz and face someone who survived it in the yellow light of a middle school gym. It’s hard to combine what I know about death camps and virulent anti-semitism with a person standing before me making jokes.

I began sorting through audio clips and transcribing quotes from students. After an afternoon’s worth of work, here’s what we came up with:

  • The story (PDF), in which you can see where we put related audio clips to enhance the narrative.
  • The SoundCloud page, where you can hear the whole playlist of clips from the event.
  • The Facebook album created with quotes from eighth grade students on who they wish they could meet in history.

I’m really happy with the combination of text, multimedia and social. This, to me, is the point of all the community engagement work we do at the Missourian — to seamlessly weave it into our “regular” news coverage. As I continue to report, I’m making this kind of thinking second nature. It’s sort of like that feeling when you learn a new word or work through a new math concept. I can almost feel the neurons trying to make connections to each other in my brain, and the more I do it, the easier it becomes.

It’s especially rewarding when all those things come together in a piece about something I think is so incredibly important. So, Thursday was kind of a big day for me. I got to listen to the story of a man who exhibited the qualities of a hero, but would never consider himself one. And I heard another story about how passing along experiences, even ones of great tragedy, can help shape a family dynamic and legacy. Then, I exercised my multimedia and engagement skills to share them with Missourian readers. Now, I get to pass on parts of these stories to you.

That’s the joy and the responsibility of bearing witness, and I’m incredibly honored to have played some small role in making sure these people and their experiences aren’t forgotten.