This morning was the last Monday of classes. That also meant the last weekly community beat meeting.
To mark the celebratory meeting indicating the nearing of the close of semester, Jeanne brought chocolate chip cookies she had bought over the weekend from one of the local church’s annual Christmas bazaar. Coincidentally, it was also the day that we would be filling out end-of-course instructor evaluations. Coincidence, or not?
In all seriousness, the meeting signified a bittersweet moment in the semester. Mostly, my fellow reporters and I were ecstatic that the dreaded reporting-semester-from-hell was almost at its end.
No more scrambling to dig up pitches every week.
No more driving around aimlessly and talking to dozens of individuals with the hopes of them knowing someone knowing someone who maybe sort of had a potential story topic behind them.
No more waiting in anxiety to hear back from the very final source for an accuracy check for a story on the budget to go up online in three hours.
No more coaxing stories out of hesitant sources.
No more wading through, re-framing and re-phrasing questions to get the full story straight, or the quote that completes the piece.
No more unreturned phone messages or emails or feeling that everyone in the world is seemingly avoiding you and your attempts to turn out a story.
As far as the set-up, there were things I enjoyed and things that I felt limited in my ability to find stories and practice reporting. The community beat itself was a prototype this semester, the first time that students were assigned parts of the city on rotation and moving around town throughout the semester. Here are some things that I thought went really well, and others that might be tweaked for the incoming reporting students (bless their naive, anxious little hearts).
- The orientation assignment was a great way to step out of my comfort zone and physically approach people for story ideas. Up unti then, I had relied on community events calendars and publications from community centers about things going on around town. And while this was helpful sometimes, it was still the people behind the projects that I needed to focus on, and this assignment helped me go out there to find the people from the start.
- While I dreaded it the first couple of weeks as I struggled to find stories, I ended up growing to like the rotation system. It let me dig into stories in all parts of the community, especially those I was originally more unfamiliar with. Even as a Columbia native, I learned about different parts of town I had never ventured through before.
- Finding two pitches a week also became a good practice to help keep story ideas moving along and ensure that you were always working on something (yes, it seemed my other classes were less of a priority when I CONSTANTLY had something for the community to work on).
- While I liked the rotation method, I still found the boundary restrictions troublesome at some times. It wasn’t until past the halfway point of semester that I approached Jeanne with a story idea that was outside of my zone to make sure that I would be able to pursue it (it ended up turning out to be a great piece). More lenience on this type of issue, and addressing it early on so good story ideas don’t go by the wayside because of problems of time and space, would be a good way to avoid this problem.
- Again, with the division of the town, it seemed that my three weeks in the central city (downtown area) went by a million times smoother than the rest of the semester, simply because there are so many possibilities downtown and all of them are so accessible. I wonder if it would be at all possible to divide up the central zone into four parts and distribute them to the other four main areas of town.
- The initial expectation to produce one story per week definitely added to a lot of anxiety and stress early on in the semester. With the longer interviewing and editing process, I ended up being able to produce an average of one story every one and a half weeks. Acknowledging this earlier on in the semester may have saved me from a few nervous breakdowns/stress-eating binges with other reporters. Instead, highlighting the goal to just be constantly working on at least one thing would have been a better way to phrase that goal.
- The last, and most prominent, improvement that I can think of is making the community beat more of a cohesive team. Since the nature of our stories are self-assigned, developed, written and published, there seemed to be a bit of a disconnect among the reporters on the beat. Group collaboration sessions, setting aside time to address problems with reporting and offer advice about how to go about it and some possible team stories would have been a great addition to the semester to strengthen the team dynamic.
In the end, I think this semester went as smoothly as it could. Given the expectations of the course and how much I put into it (even when my motivation faltered throughout the semester due to different variants), I’m confident in how much I gave to this course. Beyond all the challenges (and believe me, there were many) I came out with a much better understanding of how a newsroom works, how reporting for a publication with deadlines and editors works and how I as a reporter work.