Thursday, March 3, 2011

Thoughts on a tough story to write

Generally speaking, I've never had difficulty writing a news story.

Usually, like many things, the hardest part is getting started. For journalists, that start is called the lead. To the layman, it's probably better known as the introduction – usually a couple of sentences, sometimes a couple of paragraphs.

And for me, hard news typically has written itself. I can't tell you why except perhaps to describe it as if gathering the information for a story is, for me, like focusing a camera on your subject. Once I've gathered the information, the image is clear and I write.

But feature stories – stories that are not necessarily news, but perhaps paint a portrait of an individual, a family or institution, or even an event – those are the ones I've struggled with most. They also tends to be the stories that are in many ways most rewarding.

Wednesday I did one of each for, the hyperlocal news website in Elgin, Ill., where I am employed on a part-time basis, and had equal measures of success and frustration.

The first story was a pretty straightforward follow-up on the release of people from the hospital after they'd been stabbed and left in critical condition over the weekend. I gathered the information, wrote it up and posted it to the website and added a mug shot of the suspect. All told, it occupied about a half-hour of my time.

But early on Wednesday I'd covered a school event, and getting it to come into focus was far more difficult than I had expected. In fact, I had the story lead worked out in my head before I returned home. So I whipped out the lead, fully expecting the rest of the story to write itself. But it did not.
I pored over my notes, wondering where was this story going. My vision for it seemed fairly clear but lacked structure.

So I wrote and struggled and wrote some more, probably longer than I should have, but I wanted to do this story justice. This was a story about kids and the future.

The high school students participating in the event are studying architecture and some engineering, so the competition was set up in a format that would replicate a real-life scenario for an architect:

"Requests for proposals" went out to the high school students in October. Students formed up into teams, or architectural firms, and drew up site plans and building elevations.

Wednesday, the teams presented their plans to the judges, much as an architectural firm would pitch its plan to a builder.

Most of these students were fairly well-prepared and, from my perspective as a layman, presented plans whose features were well-thought-out. Each team made mistakes, but what they did right is what caught my attention. It also appeared to catch the attention of some of the judges.

But perhaps something in my own experience cast a shadow over the story I was struggling to write.

I remember a time in college when I was eager to write, longing – sometimes apprehensively to become a real reporter writing real stories for a real newspaper. But when I graduated, the nation, like today, was in the midst of a recession. I read of newspapers closing in various parts of the Midwest and came to learn what that would mean for me in a revelation that is eerily similar to that I face today.

There were a lot of unemployed journalists out there looking for work. I sent out scores of resumes to no avail. So I worked for a friend in Minnesota for about six months after I graduated, then returned to my hometown to take a warehouse job where hours were long and pay was good.

It would be roughly 18 months between graduation day and my first day of work at a small daily newspaper in Wyoming.

Today's architecture students may face the same obstacle as a result of the nation's economic crisis and devastated housing market. And journalism is in flux again today, hammered by revenue losses tied to the Internet and two significant recessions in the past 10 years. Except this time, the industry is undergoing a paradigm shift, largely related to new technology.

And, just like when I graduated oh so many years ago, I am again looking for work.

Several years ago, while Sun-Times Media was mired in bankruptcy proceedings, my boss at the time and I were talking. Newspapers all over the country were laying off staffers, some were closing. He was supposed to speak to some journalism students about the future of the industry they'd chosen to pursue.

Dave looked at me. “What do I say to them?”

We both kind of laughed at the thought of telling them “run like hell” and describing what we were going through at the moment. But neither Dave nor I would want to discourage someone for whom journalism was a passion.

As we talked, it became apparent there was a part of us that indeed did want to warn them, to tell them the industry is in flux and is going through some horrible contortions that would continue until print news organizations learned how to support their business models online.

But in the end, I think Dave did what the panel of architects and engineers did Wednesday at South Elgin High School.

They sat back and watched a group of young people with an excitement about their profession. And as those teenagers pitched their plans and explained their ideas, smiles lit up the faces of each of the judges.

And instead of warning these students of the tough times they might face, they encouraged them.