Thursday, February 07, 2008

One mistake at a time

I was supposed to do a story today about a low-cost, traveling spay and neuter clinic, but it was canceled because of the snow we've had. Disappointing.

Frustrating, too, because they never called to tell me. Good thing I called them just as I was about to leave to go there. It's an hour drive, but given the state of the Interstate, it would have been a lot longer.

Speaking of the Interstate, instead of spaying and neutering, I was supposed to talk to people who had gotten stuck overnight on the highway. It was quite a nightmare out there. Apparently a UPS truck with a second trailer turned sideways and blocked all lanes of northbound traffic. Apparently that's more than anyone knows how to deal with because traffic was dead for about a day. I'm not clear on the facts, actually, so don't quote me.

Anyway, the editors were excited because a professor they often use as a source said he'd been stuck. They gave me his number and I called him.

Now, I know people learn better from mistakes than successes. I wish I weren't learning so much right now.

Mistake #1: I assumed that this guy knew why I was calling him. We were getting calls all afternoon from people who'd been stuck overnight. He had told us he was stuck, he's a frequent source, so I thought that's why he'd called.

Mistake #2: I didn't tell him straight off that I was going to be asking him about being stuck. I just started talking to him about it. He seemed happy enough to be talking, but when I asked yet another question, he sounded a little miffed. "What is this about?" he asked. "I frequently talk to your paper about (my expertise). I'll talk about (my expertise). But what is this?"

I told him I called to talk about his experiences being stuck and what it was like, what he saw, etc.

He was not pleased. He said he talks about his expertise, I should have said if I was going to ask about anything else, he thought I was making chit-chat before we started the interview about his expertise, and he did not want to discuss his problems in getting home. He reiterated that I never said I wanted to talk about anything other than his expertise, and he didn't like it. He said he was going to end it right there.


I apologized a couple of times during his rant, then we hung up.

I told the editors about it, and they were quite surprised. A while later, one of them said he found out what happened. A reporter had received an email from him, wherein he said he'd been stuck. But the email was about his expertise; he merely noted in the email he was a stranded traveler.

I feel like a total knob for not having said why I was calling. I hope he's not so pissed that he won't talk to us anymore. It seems like an extreme reaction, but some professors can be rather haughty (mistake #3 was forgetting that – I've had such great professors recently), and I'd hate to ruin a source for the paper.

Other newspaper news

On Tuesday I did a story about organ donation. A guy met the family of the man whose pancreas he received. I didn't do the fabulous, gut-wrenching story I wanted to, and I had a typo, which is so frustrating. But the health reporter told me he liked it, so I was glad. I was also a bit flustered because one of the TV stations was there, too. Geez. I'd never been to anything before where other media was there.

I'm still struggling with getting information and sitting down and turning it into a story in a couple of hours. I can't seem to incorporate facts relevant to a large audience into a personal story. I can do them separately, as I did in this article. I don't ask enough questions. I tend to stop short of asking the hard or very personal questions because it doesn't seem like any of my business, even though it's because it is my business that I'm there in the first place.

After I got to the newsroom, the photographer talked a little about it, and the editor asked questions, and my mouth just hung open. I talked to my professor about it the next day, and he asked loads of questions that were fantastic, and I didn't know many of the answers. He said I would by the time I finished his class. I am not so sure. And it makes me feel sort of incompetent as a reporter that I can't do it now. I know I'm learning, but people I interview don't know that, and neither do the readers.

People tell me I'm talented – professors, former teachers, family, friends. Great. I agree I'm a good writer. But I'm not a very skilled reporter. Not yet. But I'm trying. And learning – one mistake at a time.

(For a final mistake, just to make Heidi hurl, I'm eating a little – large – snack that Kelsey made and wants to share: cinnamon graham crackers spread thickly with marshmallow cream and sprinkled with mini chocolate chips. You have to eat when a child makes food. They are so crestfallen when you say no thank you. For the record, it's Heidi's fault that we have marshmallow cream in this house. She and her fluffernutters. My life has never been the same. Looking forward to next Tuesday....)

One last thing: The Times they are a changin'.

The Capital Times, Madison's afternoon paper, will be changing to a free weekly at the end of April.


The Rotten Correspondent said...

Something tells me that journalism is an awful lot like nursing. You learn something new every single day you do it.

Don't be too hard on yourself. It'll come.

Sweet Irene said...

It sounds like a tough world out there in journalism and nobody to hold your hand while you're out there learning the ropes. It's only after the fact that you find out what else you should have done. Very frustrating! Maybe there should be a guidebook with crucial questions to always ask. Or, how not to offend your highly sensitive sources.

You hang in there, girl. If you have writer's talent, the the rest of the tricks will follow. You'll become so slick, everybody will think you are a real professional.

Have faith in yourself and don't be intimidated by grumpy grown ups. By that I mean the everybody who is older than you and grumpier than you.

That snack that Kelsey made you sounds delicious and oh, so bad for you, but what a treat! I need a Kelsey in my life to fix me pick me ups like that. The child is a treasure.

Lola said...

Oh I feel for you, I've had to deal with snotty professors and made just the same mistakes.

Afterwards, though, when I recall how it went wrong and do the job right, it feels much better. More secure somehow, as if I've strengthened the foundations upon which my work is based.

I hope this makes sense. Just hang on in there, anyway.

Crystal Jigsaw said...

Plough on. No pain, no gain.

Crystal xx

laurie said...

you've got to get past that "it's none of my business" feeling. you've got to. it's hard, i know, but it IS your business and you NEED to ask.

don't worry about the expert professor being offended. don't give it another thought. clearly he loves being quoted on his f***ing expertise, so he will want to be quoted again.

he'll be back.

but yes, you need to identify yourself clearly up front as a reporter, and tell them what the story is about. don't assume anything.

if it's someone who isn't used to being interviewed (unlike the professor guy), i make it clear in the beginning that i'm planning on quoting them. otherwise, for some reason, they're always surprised.

MJ Krech said...

I’m also adjusting to a new job where I'm always making mistakes. I live in terror that something I'm in the middle of is actually getting done wrong and I'll discover what I've done wrong the next day and kick myself. But at the time, I have no clue what, if anything, I'm doing wrong. Just have an unsettling feeling that there's something... Nasty feeling which I'm hoping will go away at some point in time. We both just need to hang in there!!! We can do it!!!