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.


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.

What’s so great about speech team anyway?

Just like I’ll always feel hungry for new notebooks and sweaters in September, I’ll always feel a heady rush of adrenaline in early-to-mid February.

For February, dear friends, begins the run to the IHSA State Speech tournament.

It’s hard to describe just what speech meant to me in high school, and still means to me, really. It’s a huge source of pride for me; it helped me develop confidence and cultivate relationships; but most of all, it’s a huge connection to my family. Both my parents competed, and my dad has been a head coach for more than 20 years now.

If I hadn’t fallen so passionately in love with journalism, I could easily have seen myself becoming a teacher and coaching speech like my parents. It’s such a close second, in fact, that I’m a little sad sometimes that I can’t do both.

Before I started high school, I consistently gave my dad grief about doing speech — I threatened to do Debate instead. I was at that age where it wasn’t cool to like what your parents liked. And while I always liked going to my dad’s tournaments as a child, I had no sense of the speech legacy I had inherited or just how powerful participating in the activity could be.

By senior year, I’d shrugged off my teenage angst and found an event that fit: Radio Speaking, the same event my dad had done in high school. And I had my goal: qualify for State — the biggest accomplishment for Illinois speech kids.

When my coach was put on an early maternity leave, my dad took over. I’d leave school Friday evenings after prepping our freshmen, eat a quiet dinner with my dad at the Greek-owned restaurant in our neighborhood, and tuck in for a night of reading scripts, timing myself and perfecting all the rough edges in my voice. It was hard, at times, to take the notes and criticism from him, but I saw the purpose of them now, and we had the same goal this time.

And we grew closer. I was able to share my struggles and successes with him, made all the more special because he’d struggled and succeeded in similar ways.

Then, Regionals.

We were back at Elk Grove High School, where I’d gotten my Radio start two years earlier. When I found out I made finals, I immediately stepped out of the line for lunch. I was so nervous I couldn’t eat, and it took everything I had to keep my voice steady while I performed. Sitting in the auditorium, where my dad had directed countless plays and I had sat in on countless rehearsals during my childhood, I waited for the Radio results to be announced. As head coach, my dad would be reading them.

All that sighing meant he was trying not to cry, but you can clearly see me starting to cry as I walk up the stairs. It was a pretty moving moment for both of us.

At Sectionals the next week, I kept my act together better when I won and qualified for State (nerves! professionalism! don’t trip down the stairs!), but my dad didn’t fare as well (or so I heard). He said it was at that point he thought I might be able to win at State.


State was five hours away in Belleville, Ill. The entire weekend was entirely overstimulating, but a few moments stand out: the neon blocks of the brick breaker game I played on my iPod as I anxiously waited to prep for my final round; sitting in the dark gym during awards fretting over whether I needed to bring my script with me to the stage; and my heart beating so loud it filled my head with the rhythmic thudding as I stood on the stage waiting to hear how I’d done.

All State Champions perform, and once I finished my 5-or-so-odd minutes of radio script, all I can remember is walking off stage and staring straight ahead at the gym door that led to the hallway. I barely heard the applause or my heels clacking on the ground. I brushed off a few congratulatory embraces, eyes still on the halo of yellow-tinged light that surrounded the door. My hands slid against the smooth metal bar as I pushed it down, opened the door and crashed into my dad’s arms.


That was five years ago. And while it seems like almost a lifetime between that day and today, some things haven’t changed:

  • I’m still very proud of my State title. It’s the only high school accomplishment left on my resume, and I can’t bring myself to take it off.
  • I’m still thankful every day that I did speech. I’m not a TV anchor, but strong public speaking skills and confidence in front of a crowd have served me well in college.
  • I still love seeing students perform. I can remember their nerves and their excitement, the way one mistake or look from a judge could make or break your day. But I can also see the other side — how quickly it all ends and how much you miss it once it does.

Looking back on my last (foreseeable) weekend at a State tournament this past weekend, I’m left feeling a little bereft. Through my success and that of my family, speech has given me a way to shine and a way to identify myself.

In the speech community, I feel like someone. Speech isn’t going anywhere — my dad will coach kids for years more and attend scores more tournaments. But I’m leaving. And now I’m beginning to realize that I’m not ready for it all to end.

But no matter how old I am, speech will always be something that binds my family together. I’ll always call my dad after tournaments and commiserate over or celebrate how his students did. I’ll always love hearing about how my mom’s prose programs were revolutionary for their time (hint: be funny when everyone else is dramatic. It works). I’ll always take an opportunity to reminisce with my sister about the bounty of Perry’s chicken and mini-M&Ms that greeted us at my dad’s tournament every year.

And like some people ask every year to hear the story of the day they were born, every February, right when it seems that Chicago will have eternal winter, I will ask my dad to tell the story of the weekend I competed at State. Especially the part when he found out my ranks. And especially especially the part when he called my mom and they both cried on the phone.

I can officially call myself a multimedia journalist

Prompt: How do you think your project turned out? What aspects of it are you proud of? And (rereading your post from four weeks ago) how well you did you achieve your goals?

I can’t tell you how good it feels to be done.

I get this way with every big project I do. It seems nebulous and impossibly far away at first, but then hitting send or uploading that final piece takes about 1,000 pounds off my shoulders.

What exactly have I been working on for the last 6 weeks or so? Check it out here.

I don’t think it’s perfect, and it certainly won’t win me a pulitzer, but I’m pretty happy with it. I’m proud of the clean web design and how the elements integrate together to tell a story. I’m proud that I completed something I didn’t think I could complete. And I’m proud that I’m finally starting to think like a visual journalist. Based on the 10 commandments of video editing, let’s see how I did on goals I set for myself:

1. I shall have a fuller understanding of what jump cuts are and how to avoid them.

Not going to lie, I still made some mistakes on this, but at least now I know why and went back to fix it.

2. I shall have my subjects speak up when using stick microphones.

I did do this, but I didn’t adjust the levels on the video camera high enough. It was better than earlier attempts, but still could be improved.

3. I shall not take for granted that my camera can focus itself.

During my sit-down interviews, I did manually focus. I am better at starting to see those slight differences in focus, so it’s starting to be more intuitive to manually do it.

4. I shall use tighter framing in my interviews.

I think my framing was all-around better in this project. I paid more attention to backgrounds and to the space around the interviewee.

5. I shall work to get even more detail shots, even when I don’t think I need them.

Now that I know how important detail shots can be to patching together a video, I tried harder during my time  in the office and out on calls to get them. They weren’t all the most fascinating details, but they helped me avoid jump cuts and add to my variety of shots.

6. I shall not take shots that are not precisely leveled.

This could’ve been better. Part of the difficulty was shooting in a car that was moving, but part of it was also that I had to compensate a little because I couldn’t move as fast. If there was a change in the action and a shot I needed to capture, it wasn’t always easy to adjust my tripod fast enough to get it, so there are some unleveled shots.

7. I shall work to even out the volume levels between my voicing, natural sound and interview clips.

I worked hard in final cut to do this. It was harder because the levels in one of my interviews was too low, but overall it evened out better across the board.

8. I shall keep trying to have my voice be conversational and natural when I voice parts of the story.

I tried to use a more natural voice for this video. I think it was an improvement over my last one.

9. I shall not jump the gun by introducing my subjects by name and let the lower third do that for me.

I made this mistake initially, but corrected for it later. It’s still not natural-feeling because I’m so used to text reporting, but I’m getting there.

10. I shall work to be faster as I use the camera so I can film more complete five-shot sequences.

I didn’t have as many 5-shot sequences in this video, but I was more aware of match-on-action shots, which I think improved since last time.

Oddly, this is the last project I have due for the last class I’ll take at the j-school. Sure, I’m technically enrolled for nine hours next semester, but I’m not responsible to a specific professor and there are no scheduled meeting times. I’ll definitely keep everyone apprised of my thesis work and any other topics or stories that strike my fancy, but as far as class blogging goes, this is it.

Teamwork, FTW.

Prompt: What are the benefits and challenges you are experiencing as you report a story project as part of a team (i.e., how are things going with your group and your project)? And what might you do differently next time?

Sorry for the hiatus folks, life kind of got in my way in the past couple weeks.

On to the subject of team reporting.
In what I’m sure is not an unpopular view, I tend to like to do reporting on my own. I also like to do most things on my own, which I’m sure drives the former. However, I’ve had some wonderful team reporting and project experiences, which I will briefly recap before moving on to my current team project.

• In my sophomore year, I took a class called Cross Cultural Journalism. Know for it’s massive end-of-the-year-group project, the class had a reputation of being a lot to juggle — and even hellish if you had the “wrong” team. I was lucky. My group, made up of seemingly disparate members, worked well together right of the bat. I think this was because we all had the same goal for this project: get it done as quickly and painlessly as possible.

We all agreed on our plan going forward, divvied up the work, and met our pre-determined deadlines. None of us were best friends afterward, but we all respected each other and each other’s time, so it was successful.

During my first semester at the Missourian, I had an education-school-board-beat partner-in-crime, Bridget Kapp. We knew each other beforehand, but quickly grew closer over the semester. We covered meetings together sometimes, and other times split up a week’s worth of work to make sure we could cover all our bases for school board meetings, committee meetings, redistricting meetings and election activities. I’m fairly certain we either spoke, emailed or texted at least once a day, and that communication with each other and with our editor made the partnership run smoothly. It helped to have a person to vent to, commiserate with, and brainstorm with.

Working with Bridget was also the first time I ever had to figure out how to co-write an article. Our best effort was a longer piece on census results and boundary lines. I remember sitting with her on the Thursday before Thanksgiving break about two years ago working through quotes, explanatory grafs and crafting the right lede. It’s not easy sharing a story like that, but we made it work, and I think the strong coverage from our beat-within-a-beat that semester really showed how well the partnership went.

• For a short time two summers ago, I cowrote stories with a colleague of mine, Janet Cho, at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I was the catch-all GA reporter, and one of her beats was centered around consumers, so when the summer 2012 drought came along and meant bad news for farmers and grocers alike, we took up a joint effort. Janet is a pro and a wonderful writer, and I learned a lot during those few stories about how to weave information together into a unified piece. She also had a knack for topping the stories with a snappy lede. Even though our work was shared, she kindly let me take the web byline for my portfolio, and her graciousness was another important lesson. I enjoyed the reporting a lot, and it was very helpful to have someone to bounce ideas about sourcing off of as well as someone to edit with before we had to go to our section editor. It taught me how to collaborate on a tight deadline, which isn’t something I got to do quite as often at the Missourian once I finished covering the school board.

Currently, I’d say my team is chugging along pretty well. We all have solid journalism backgrounds and are confident in our skills to report out and produce our story. We are all also committed to the project and to doing it to the best of our abilities. I think, however, we might all be cut from similar cloth — willing to take the lead in the group, but when faced with other leaders, we shy away from making more pointed decisions.

If we had started out by laying all of our thoughts on the table beforehand and not been so worried about stepping on toes, we might have had an easier time planning out the trajectory for the project. It’s important that team members can speak freely, and I think all too often we fall into passive-aggressive communications that do more harm than good. I can only speak for myself, but I know that’s something I struggle with — not wanting to stir the pot, so I stay quiet and regret it little by little later on.

Overall, however, I think we’ve realized when we need to speak up, and now our work has pepped up noticeably. We have a plan moving forward, and I’m looking forward to seeing the final product take shape.