Finding Waldo: A (failed) search for original stories

You’ve been staring at the pages for hours, but you haven’t found him. You feel emasculated, befuddled, humiliated. This is a book for children ages 8-12 and it’s beating you. Where the eff is Waldo?

You found Wenda ages ago. Wizard Whitebeard? Check. The weird guy dressed in bumblebee stripes? Also check. The minuscule pair of binoculars and the minute scroll tied with a red ribbon? Check and check.

But no Waldo.

The pressure builds behind your eyes. They’re bulging, cartoon-like, almost touching the illustrated page, looking, looking…

But he’s nowhere to be found.

This is the process of searching for an original story idea in Columbia, Missouri.

Yes, Columbia is great. It’s a safe, small-town place with a big-city vibe, a hotbed of local businesses, and an unusual mix of hipster townies, budding families and college students. Charming. It’s also the home of the best journalism school in the country. Less charming.

Mizzou’s presence in Columbia means that j-school students have a monopoly on all happenings there. It also means that nothing in the city hasn’t been covered at least 23 times. Unless you’re talking fire or flood, chances are your story idea is woefully unoriginal.

This semester I’m in intermediate writing (more difficult than its title suggests). Our current assignment: find someone to profile. Someone interesting, original and easy to embody in text.

I thought I’d found the ideal subject when I stumbled upon Frequency Coffee and met Ryker Duncan. He was dressed in cutoffs, a v-neck, vans and a fedora. He had a cackling laugh that bounced off the walls and echoed in the basement space. He weighed each bag of specially-chosen coffee beans on a series of tiny countertop scales. He had sliced up 150 wood palettes with a circular saw to create the unique pattern of woodblocks on Frequency’s walls. He made steam engine noises while operating the coffee machine. He was perfect.

Like any good reporter, I began my background research with a google search. My optimism concerning Ryker dwindled when I discovered he’d been covered previously. A lot. Here and here and here and here and also here.

Every media outlet in Columbia had jumped at the chance to write about something (and someone) novel. They’d dived at the jugular of Frequency and its all-too-interesting owner, devouring sources and subject matter until nothing but scraps remained. Scraps that I couldn’t cobble together into an original story to save my life.

My professor soundly rejected my profile proposal. His motive? Too much previous coverage.

I saw it coming from a mile away, because everything in Columbia is covered and covered and covered again. People and businesses are interrogated to the point of exhaustion. If you’re a Columbia citizen and have never been interviewed, you’re in the shrinking minority.

Journalism professors and editors alike bleat that a good reporter can uncover stories anywhere. They feed us tips and tricks: “The five steps to finding stories,” “Notice what you Notice,” etc. etc. I agree that good writers should be able to uncover stories that others don’t, but I also believe that every location has its limit.

My theory is that, at some point, Columbia’s news potential will be exhausted. Ideas will dry up. The Ryker Duncans  and Frequency Coffees of the world will be the only things left to cling to.

And soon even they will reach their coverage limits.

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Finding Waldo: A (failed) search for original stories

The lingerers

Is that a creepy title for a blog post? It reminds me of this song by The Cranberries.

The point, though, is that I’ve now met two. Lingerers, that is. Here, in Buenos Aires. Two people, a man and a woman, both roughly my age.

Both came to Buenos Aires and decided not to leave.

One, my friend Kari Paul, came here last spring, with the Missouri School of Journalism’s study abroad program. The program ended in early May, but she’s still here — she spontaneously canceled her flight home and found housing on a moment’s notice. I had dinner with her the other night at a cozy Argentinian restaurant called Cumaná. Over piping pumpkin empanadas and hot stews, I asked her why.

“I just love it here” was her answer. “It’s impossible to know the city and not like it.” Her enthusiasm was evident as she scribbled out a long list of must-dos/sees in Buenos Aires. Riddled with stars and arrows, the list, bequeathed to me outside the restaurant, is on my bedside table, waiting to be used.

The other I met at a bar. El Alamo bar, to be exact. He’s a bartender there and his name is Tim.

Tim is from my hometown: The Woodlands, Texas. Imagine my shock as we narrowed down locations first to the U.S., then to Texas, Houston, The Woodlands. He lives down my street, in fact.

He came to Buenos Aires two years ago after graduating from Oak Ridge High School, got a job at El Alamo, and never looked back. He wants to go back to the states for college… eventually. He stayed because he, like Kari, fell in love. With Buenos Aires, its culture, its people, and his job.

These two lingerers baffled me. A very homesick me wondered how they could possibly live here longer than intended, how they could stand to miss their family, friends, and chunky Jif peanut butter for more time than strictly necessary.

But they truly, earnestly love it here. Maybe if I take to heart Tim’s encouragement, if I follow Kari’s list with its stars and squiggles, I’ll find out why.

The lingerers

Take a look; I’m in with books

Yes that’s a Reading Rainbow reference, a.k.a. blatant shout-out to my fellow 90’s children.

It’s relevant, I promise. Today during the oh-so-lovely Vox staff meeting, us reporters were assigned homes for the rest of the semester! That is to say, we’ve now been assigned specific sections to write (and, more importantly, pitch) for on a consistent basis.

You’ll never guess where I ended up. That’s right: books.

In case you weren’t aware, I’m actually obsessed with all things bookish. I wrote a literary column for Move Magazine last spring, and spottily maintain a separate blog on all things book-related.

Needless to say I’m stoked to start work in the books department! The focus is all forms of the written word, from e-books to classic lit to fresh authors to trends in the publishing world.

My first assignment is to cover MU’s 2013 Un(COVER) competition, in which local artists design new covers for classics. This year’s candidates are:

  • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • Walden by Henry David Thoreau
  • The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas
  • Treasure Island by Robert Lewis Stevenson
  • Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Side note: I’ve read all but one of these books. Commence geeking out. 

It seems like a cool concept, with gorgeous art and terrific titles to boot. Here’s a look at last year’s Un(COVER) winners, for a rough idea of the results.

I can’t wait to get started! Let’s hear it for the bookworms, y’all.

Take a look; I’m in with books

MU remembers

“Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still.”
― William PennMore Fruits of Solitude: Being the Second Part of Reflections and Maxims Relating to the Conduct of Human Life

We live in death’s shadow every day, but rarely acknowledge it. Occasionally, though, we (us budding journalists) are handed an assignment that forces us into this realization.

The assignment: “MU remembers,” in which the Missourian writes about the lives of students who have died in the past calendar year. In this case “the Missourian” refers to yours truly. 

Never have I been more nervous for a story. Never have I so successfully procrastinated. Never have I picked up the phone and had it slip out of my hand due to the amount of sweat that had accumulated on my palm.

I did all of these things, but in the end shelved my nerves and made the first phone call.

It was to Kate Bauche, Event Coordinator at the rec. (“MU Student Recreation Complex” in print, but everyone says “the rec.”) She had supervised Kelly Needham, a wonderfully outgoing 21-year-old finance major and rising senior who was killed in a car crash last August.

She told me as much as she could about him, including about the time he goofed off with a power washer, and the rec staff captured it on camera. She was kind, open, and full of hilarious and touching stories. I listened, took careful notes, hung up the phone and sobbed.

Through phone calls, voicemails, email, and even (where it couldn’t be avoided) Facebook message, I contacted those people who would become my sources: Hannah Cusack, a close friend of Kelly’s; Christine Ricaña’s brother and father — the latter one of the most heartbreaking conversations on record between two people; Stephanie Schroder’s mother, Phyllis, whom I spoke with six or eight times; April Swagman, Rachel Winnograd, and Dr. Kenneth Sher, all friends and teachers of Stephanie’s; Mary Burgess, the principal of Cole Patrick’s elementary school; Isaac Justin, Cole’s friend-turned-brother, who bowled me over with his friendly and open demeanor.

Each of these people bared their hearts to me while I took notes.

As difficult as it was to listen, I cannot imagine the strength it took to discuss friends, daughters, sisters and students — people they had loved and lost. Many laughed, some cried, but all were forced to look death in the face and to remember what it had taken from them.

Through adjectives and through anecdotes I came to know Kelly, Christine, Stephanie and Cole. I can’t imagine why they died, what twisted logic allowed it to happen, but I can honestly say that the world in their absence is a bit darker.

The story, entitled “MU remembers lost students” in print and “MU remembers nine students who died in the past year” online, came out Friday, April 5. It corresponded with the “MU Remembers” event in Stotler Lounge that same day at 2 p.m.

That afternoon I received a text message from Mrs. Schroder. “Hi Claire, I really liked the article you wrote about Stephanie,” it said. “It was a wonderful tribute to her. Thanks! Phyllis”.

As long as I am a journalist (and probably even longer), I will save that text. We take difficult stories, we stare down death because, in the end, it’s worth it. Stephanie deserved a tribute; she deserved to be remembered. They all did.

My job was to listen, and to try to do them justice.

MU remembers

Picture, picture of the year, you’ve won

“Alright everyone, saddle up!”

The judges have returned from their coffee break. Chairs scrape, voices fall from chatter to murmurs to silence. The lights go off, the projector turns on, the cycle begins again.

In an upstairs room of the Reynolds Journalism Institute four photography giants sit in a row to judge the ‘Feature’ division of the 70th annual Picture of the Year International competition.

Emilio Morenatti, the Associated Press’ chief photographer in Spain and Portugal, Judy Walgren, Director of Photography at the San Fransisco Chronicle, Bill Luster, formerly of The Courier – Journal and Walt Stricklin, former Director of Photography at The Birmingham News sit in wheeled chairs in the front of the room. Behind them is a skinny table supporting 4 cups of coffee, each cup directly behind one of the chairs. The cups are venti-sized at least. No one here is joking around.

Since 1944 the competition has grown from 50 submissions to “tens of thousands,” according to the POYi website. Today the judges went through roughly 600 photos from the time I walked in (around noon) until they left this evening (trust me, I was long gone by then). Yes, they need that coffee.

More fascinating than the caffeine, though, was the actual judging process. Here’s what went down:

  • A picture flashed onto the screen.
  • There was a series of electronic clicking noises, presumably from hand-held devices operated by the judges. This would take anywhere from 3 to 30 seconds, depending on the image. Some decisions were easy, others seemed more difficult.
  • According to who clicked which button, a (creepy) computerized voice uttered either a loud “IN” or an “OUT.”
  • The next image appeared.

Things progressed pretty steadily during the 20 minutes I sat in the back of the room. The stream of images was controlled by two guys sitting at enormous desktops behind the coffee table behind the judges. Occasionally they’d say “hold on one moment” because they had to switch reels or something. Besides that and the constant “IN”s and “OUT”s of our electronic overlord, the room was silent.

What really threw me was the judging process (or, to my untrained eyes, lack thereof). The “OUT”s were announced after 20 seconds at most. “IN”s were rarer and usually happened after a longer pause. I jerked my head up at every “IN,” scrambling to write down what might make the photo “IN”-worthy before it disappeared. I’m sure I got everything wrong.

I feel I shouldn’t describe the “IN”s at present, seeing as the ‘Feature’ winner won’t be announced until the judging is complete. Instead, here is last year’s winner from the same category.

The judging was an interesting experience, to say the least. Though now more than ever I’m sure I’ll never have the credentials to be a photographer, I will always admire the artistry of those who do.

(Side note: In case you were wondering the title of this post is a reference to the song “Human of the Year” by Regina Spektor. If you already knew that we should be friends.)

Picture, picture of the year, you’ve won

Web design for dummies

…etc. etc. you know the rest. If you can find it in your hearts to overlook the cliché, allow me to explain: with this phrase Mr. Dickens accurately summarized the four hours my group and I spent editing our website Monday evening.

What website? Why, the one for our final project in Multimedia, of course. We chose to cover the Pet Central residence halls at Stephens College. Animal lovers unite!

The interviews, photos and footage were easy – we’d been trained for this for weeks. Web design was another matter.

I have to hand it to my friend Crystal, who slaved away at our chosen wix template before either Annie or I realized we could be helpful. She is a webmaster to end all webmasters.

Annie, of course, did an impeccable job with the video; she’s naturally gifted.

I was assigned the text story. The thing fluctuated from 400 to 600 to 1,000 words — and ended up around 800. Interviews were no sweat (once they actually happened) but transcribing them was, as usual, a pain. Hashing them all together into a cohesive story is something I never though I could accomplish.

(Side note: an expertly written story by The New York Times over the same subject matter did nothing to alleviate my misgivings.)

Monday saw us frantically editing all of these elements (plus photos and audio) in the Futures lab of RJI, a place I’ve lovingly nicknamed “the pit.” We immersed ourselves in editing at 3 p.m. and emerged, exhausted, at 7 p.m.

To me, the finished product is worth it.

For a look at our website, visit http://cthomas224.wix.com/petcentral.

Web design for dummies

Additives of an Internship

This week’s lecture topic: Photo editing. This week’s blogpost topic: Internships.

Seems unrelated, yes? Only those privy to the nitty-gritty details of my thrilling life (HAH) know that I attended an internship panel on Monday (through Mizzou Magazine Club) that put the proverbial bug in my ear.

Scoring the perfect internship can (does) seem extremely daunting. On Monday night, three former interns – three success stories – stood out to me: Justin Whaley spent the summer at GQ, Nina Bolka was placed at Vogue, and Karee Hackel served as the beauty intern at Seventeen Magazine.

GQ. Vogue. Seventeen. Shock and awe. An overwhelming feeling of “Oh my god oh my god I could never do that or be that amazing or possibly live up to these outstanding individuals.” 

Distant dream or not, their advice is worth sharing. Here are some tips and tricks from Missouri School of Journalism’s pro-interns:

  • Don’t box yourself in! Know what you’re passionate about, but never limit yourself to one area or even one medium. Maximize your options.
  • Make your cover letter compelling. Give it a hint of personality. The people reading it get thousands every day; make yours memorable.
  • Write! Develop your personal voice. Start a blog, start it early and post often. Get as many clips as possible both for the experience and to showcase your authorial/journalistic style.
  • Pick a few things you are passionate about and pursue them! No matter if they don’t relate to journalism (or, in my case, to literature), commitment and involvement always look good.
  • Send personal thank-you notes! A thank-you email within 24 hours is common practice. Handwritten thank-yous make you stand out.
  • If you do land an internship, to quote one of the panelists, “give a shit” about it. “They’ll remember you if you had a positive experience. They’ll remember you as an intern who gave a shit.”

Sounds simple enough. Maximize your options, good cover letter, write, get involved, thank-yous and giving shits. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the internship formula as relayed to me by Mizzou Magazine Club’s esteemed panelists.

May the odds be ever in your favor.

Additives of an Internship

Geeking out, magazine-style

Image
A.k.a. Dream Job Number One.

Yesterday, us J-schoolers got “the talk.”

We sat in a lecture hall for an hour and 15 minutes and listened to professors tell us about our future.

A higher-up from each emphasis area (strategic communications, convergence, magazine, news, photo-j, etc.) got a 15-minute slot to tell us how hellishly amazing our lives would be should we choose their area of expertise. It was mildly intimidating, to say the least.

My emphasis area, magazine, was the third presentation. Representing the Magazine District: Jennifer Rowe!

This extraordinary woman stood before a class of 350 and in 15 minutes spun a tale of all my wildest hopes and dreams. Freelancing, long-form writing and Vox Magazine, oh my! My life flashed before my eyes. I could see myself living in New York City, trekking through the concrete jungle on the way to interview a bestselling author or review a newly released poetry collection.

In case the heading of this post didn’t make things clear enough, I want to work for the New Yorker. This magazine is a dreamy combination of snarky and literary, of pop-culture and intellect. I’m in love.

I’ve been in love for years, since the New Yorker’s (always stellar) cover art grabbed my attention in my mother’s bedside table magazine stack. I must have been about 12, nowhere close to understanding the illustration’s social satire, but nonetheless I recall a sort of mystified fascination.

With age came understanding. I’d steal the New Yorker right out of the mailbox (much to my mother’s chagrin–she never came close to getting first read). Sponge-like I soaked up the content, the stories and poems. (My favorite from this summer? Junot Díaz’s “Miss Lora.”)

Listening to Jennifer Rowe brought these memories flooding back. If the past is any indication of the future, I’m headed in the right direction.

For me “the talk” only confirmed what I already knew: I am destined for magazine journalism.

*knock on wood*

Aside