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.

Cheers to a semester of writing, learning and growing.

Voice. It’s been on my mind since I started Intermediate Writing this semester. It’s the free, sarcastic tone I take in this blog, the tone I still can’t quite infuse into my journalism. But I’m working on it. And the stories I’ll publish in a couple weeks are my best examples of it so far.

Voice was the topic of class this week, and my takeaway was that it’s not something you can happen into over night. “You know it when you see it, you know it when you hear it, and you stumble into it when you write it,” my teacher/editor, Jacqui, said.

Here’s what voice isn’t:

  • Grammar
  • Syntax
  • Style
  • Using big or little words

Voice, ultimately, is what happens once you master your craft, or at least begin to master it. Once you’ve internalized the skills necessary to be a competent writer and journalist, it’s easy to lose your voice when focusing so intensely on craft skills. I feel like this is the stage I’m at. I’m learning so much about writing and reporting that I can hardly figure out my own take on it in the midst of the opinions of so many excellent writers and journalists. We will, Jacqui assured us, gain our voices back in time.

That said, during our last round of edits for my field stories, Jacqui asked me what I thought my voice was. Admittedly, I had a very hard time answering that question. I can quite articulate it. The best that I could offer was that I think I’m funny, so I usually try to play that up and include sarcasm. I have a wry kind of wit, if I do say so myself, and I think I turn to that because I’ve heard those kinds of sentiments my whole life.

My father is a teacher, and a well-liked one at that, so I could count on any combination or iteration of these statements when visiting him at a speech tournament or school play: “Your dad is so funny!” “He’s a riot, is he this funny at home?” “Mr. C. is so cool, he’s always cracking jokes at practice,” and so on and so forth. His sense of humor is a mix of wit, slight self-deprecation, well-timed comments and sheer performance. The older I get, the more I hear his humor in my voice, both on paper and in person.

My mother is sharp and passionate. She was the one who’d always take on unreasonable teachers who accused my sister and me of asking too many questions, and similar instances of injustice. Those of you familiar with my caustic remarks and shrewd rebuttals in arguments would be able to see them mirrored in her own behavior.

So I guess you could say I inherited my voice from my parents. I’m still trying to get it to match up with the voice I have when doing journalism. During our meeting, Jacqui gave me some insight into what she thinks my voice is, or at least how I portray it in my writing.

She says I’m precise and very explanatory, even to the point of over-explaining. I don’t use very many metaphors or similes, and my voice sounds  educated with high-level language. I write cogently with many prepositional phrases.

I can’t say I was very surprised to hear her summary. My dad is a teacher, my mom was one, and both my parents are educated and have a deep appreciation for literature. I read all the time and have ever since I learned how before kindergarten. None of Jacqui’s comments are inherently bad or good, either. She said it’s just a matter of understanding when those traits add positively to my writing and when they are negative.

Last semester was easily my best reporting semester; I talked to so many people and made sense out of a hugely complicated issue. This semester is easily my best writing semester. I’ve paid more attention to how I write and why I write that way than I ever have before. I’ve learned so much, but more importantly, I’ve learned the skills to make sure I can keep improving long after this class.

If any of you Mizzou j-schoolers reading this are looking for a challenging but completely worthwhile elective for next spring, take Intermediate Writing. This Tuesday is my last class and I’m sad to see it go.

Look for my culminating stories in the Missourian during the second week of May.

Until then, cheers, and Happy Writing!

Putting it all into perspective

Many of you who read this know me personally.

So you know I’m a little high-strung.

And you know I can get a little ahead of myself.

Clearly, this semester and Intermediate Writing was no different. Every since I registered for this course I had a picture in my mind of the type of writer I wanted to turn into, the types of choices I wanted to make, and the types of pieces I wanted to publish. Everything I’ve done so far has been in an effort to get to that point.

Well, it’s almost that point. With just about two weeks left in the semester, I got to sit down with Roy Wenzl, a reporter from the Wichita Eagle who came to our class this past week to sub for Jacqui and impart some wisdom. During class, we talked a lot about his series for the Eagle about Father Emil Kapaun. Much of the story was recreated scenes from Roy’s interviews with former POWs from Korea. It was amazingly descriptive and a beautiful, engaging narrative. It’s the kind of piece we all hope to be able to write someday.

Roy was generous enough to use his free time on Wednesday and Thursday to meet with students from our class and talk with them about their stories or whatever was on their minds writing- and reporting-wise, really.

I was very humbled to hear that Roy liked my drafts; it’s one thing to get feedback from professors and Missourian editors, but it’s a nice change of pace to hear from someone who isn’t familiar with your work and only judges what you put in front of them, not past history or personality or anything else.

But aside from that, we talked about maturing as a reporter. In my head, I’ve always thought there was this switch that flips to turn you from a “nuts and bolts reporter,” as Roy termed it, to a “narrative reporter.” Either you have it, or you don’t, and getting there is a challenge regardless.

As a quick rehash, I feel pretty confident about my ability to lay down all the nuts and bolts. I explain things. I could definitely learn to do it better, but for now, that’s where most of my comfort is as a reporter. I don’t think I’m a great writer, and for whatever reason, I feel inhibited in my ability to become a good narrative reporter.

But Roy gave me some much-needed perspective. It doesn’t just happen like *that*. To become a different writer, a better writer, a more mature writer, you have to live. You have to read constantly. You have to take risks and try new things, even if it’s just a little bit at a time.

After a semester’s worth of hard work, I’m still not the writer I eventually want to be. And that’s OK; I’m 22, and I’m off to a good start. But I still have a long way to go, and that will happen as I write more and work more places and try different stories. “Duh, Shaina,” you might be thinking, but I can’t express how much of a wake-up call our conversation was.

Sometimes it’s nice to let go of the expectations of perfection we have for ourselves. It feels like a tight spring in my chest has uncoiled, and it’s freeing me up to take edits more easily and less personally. In two weeks I’ll publish these stories, confident that it’s my absolute best work and best writing to date. I feel more capable and competent with every project I report. From the initial learning to the last-minute polishing, I can see myself grow each time.

Above all, I’m happy with the progress I’ve made, even if I haven’t accomplished every single goal. If I did, there’d be nowhere else to go and no way to move forward. I think the most important thing I’ve learned is how to keep learning and  improving my craft.

And if that’s all I walk away with, it’ll be more than enough.

Editing session 1: In which I realize I might not be nearly as boring a writer as my journalism would have everyone believe

I’m about to make a whole bunch of excuses about why this post is late. You can pick whichever one(s) you think is/are most convincing.

  1. I’m in grad school. For those of you not in-the-know, this means I’m constantly reading and translating into APA style. An annotated bibliography deadline is looming.
  2. Contrary to popular belief, I have other classes that don’t have anything to do with journalism. Unfortunately, these classes require some of my time.
  3. I, too, eat and sleep and (attempt to) engage in physical activity.
  4. Some of my best friends in the world are about to graduate college and scatter all over the country. I’d like to savor the time I have with them. Therefore, a night at our favorite pizza place and a day in Kansas City took precedence over this blog. I can’t promise this won’t be happening more and more in the weeks to come.

On to my first editing session, as promised.

I won’t lie: I was pretty nervous to edit with Jacqui last week. I’ve worked under her in class settings, but less so in traditional reporting ones. So I’m still learning about her style.

Spoiler alert: I shouldn’t have been so worried.

That’s not to say she wasn’t (constructively) critical, or that she let me off easy or that she didn’t give me a lot to think about to improve on. She did a few things that cemented to me how good of an editor she is and how much I can learn from her as I try to improve my own skills as a writer, reporter and editor.

First, she told me I needed to tell her what I liked from these drafts. Sandwiched between self-deprecating statements, I managed to stammer out a few things I didn’t hate. This helped me relax. It also helped set the tone for the rest of our discussion: one of mutual understanding and encouragement, not overt criticism.

What stuck with me was a remark she made, slightly off-handed, but powerful all the same. She said she was an editor who knew how to read a first draft, and not all editors can. I’ve worked with a number of editors and edited a fair amount of copy, and I never thought about how a first draft should be edited. Jacqui didn’t go into great detail about this, but these are aspects of our talk I picked up on, and I don’t think they were an accident.

  • Thou shalt not get caught up in copyediting.
  • Thou shalt not be critical without also being constructive.
  • Thou shall focus on nut graphs, big ideas and structure.
  • Thou shall send thy reporter off with clear instructions and good spirits.

We didn’t obsess over details. Instead, Jacqui outlined the big issues I needed to work on: eliminating jargon, getting to the point and drawing clear connections in my nut sections, and aiming for a voice that’s as vibrant and passionate as it is when I write recreationally.

When I left her office, I knew I had a lot of work to do on my rewrites, but I also felt confident that I could make those changes. Part of that is my slow acceptance that I’m not a horrible writer, just an improving one. I’ve been stunted in finding a journalistic voice that is closer to my casual writing voice. I know I’m not nearly as boring a writer as some of my journalism might let on. To get there, I need to relax and divorce myself from my notes.

And part of my growing confidence is how Jacqui handled the edit. She let me go on a mini-rant about why I think I’m struggling. She didn’t rush our edit despite the fact that it was after 5 p.m. on a Friday. And she didn’t make a criticism without justifying it and helping me understand how I could improve. I’m not ready to submit my drafts to the deadline gods just yet, but after digesting everything we talked about and trying to apply it, I was happy with my progress when I sent her second drafts this past Friday.

My editors constantly remind me how big a role compassion plays in the editing process. I could easily tear down a reporter who makes a mess of a crime brief or comes back bewildered from a city meeting. And as reporter, my editors could easily get on my case about using too much education-speak and writing veritable novels. But what’s the point? Nobody wins by acting powerful and throwing their weight around.

So with my head held high, and my bag weighed down by about 100 pages of education-themed research, I march on toward my deadline.