It seems to me that most of my instructors since high school have been grappling with what it means to be a student journalist, so I thought I’d try to explain it. This will also be a learn-through-writing exercise for me.

In high school, my newspaper adviser often had high expectations for my staff members and me. She always assigned us stories as if we didn’t have any other classwork to do. What she didn’t realize was she couldn’t call us out of every class period to do stories, because the attendance office was already ticked off at our skipping class routines. It was often a struggle to make her realize that we cannot camp out in the cafeteria all day waiting for janitors to collect recycling, and then destroy it; we had to go to class.

I thought to myself, if I didn’t have school, I could do so much more. That obviously was unrealistic and still hasn’t happened. What has continued to happen is having instructors who think that my GPA has wiggle room, which is does not have. Being that I am at Mizzou on scholarship, none of my grades have any wiggle room. I find that journalism instructors are often the most adamant about skipping class to give tours, putting 10 page papers off to the last minute to write a story, and calling in late to work to do some other task. This semester, my reduction in pay, sleep, and grade points has taken a pretty big hit. So I wonder, do any instructors realize they are not the only ones in each student’s life?

It’s probably a good thing I’m not going into teaching because I’d probably expect a lot out of my students, but I would hope I could be more understanding than many of my professors. I know I could learn more from them than I could by writing a 10 page paper on terrorism, but my GPA doesn’t care about that. So, for GPAs and health sleep patterns, I hope there can be some wiggle room in professor expectations from here on out. A girl can dream, right?

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That ‘What If?’ question has been on my mind all week long. When I first got assigned a story to find out how the government shutdown would affect Missouri, I didn’t understand the extent to which this issue could blow up.

As I did more and more research, I began to see that the threat of a government shutdown was being blown out of proportion in many areas, and the real problem was not being addressed. Many politicians were running around Washington spouting out rumors that the troops would not be paid for their service to stir up animosity toward Democrats in Congress. This myth is not true; in fact, troops will be paid for their service, just not right away. Essentially, the government would hand them an IOU until the budget is confirmed.

Besides all the mythbusting I had to do this week, I felt like my story wasn’t just riding on an MDN deadline, but a national one as well. Every chance I got to update the story as sources rolled in, I also checked the Twitter updates for the Washington Post and New York Times to make sure that my story was still valid. For all I knew, while I was on the phone with the department of transportation this whole thing could have been figured out and my story would have been irrelevant. It was quite a rush to be on such a tight deadline, but as I got the story I found myself hoping they would figure out the budget in time for everyone’s sake. Even now as I write this blog, I checked to see if any progress has been made. Alas, none to speak of.

I really got to see how political politics can be in writing this story. I know that sounds stupid, but it’s hard to believe sometimes what government officials will put before their constituents. My journalistic curiosity is buzzing to find out what pork barrel spending some people refused to part with while funding for my Pell Grant and the local Planned Parenthood went out the window.

I found this on Chris Jones’ blog. He’s a writer for Esquire. http://sonofboldventure.blogspot.com/
Read on. It’s awesome.

MONDAY, MARCH 21, 2011

FEAR

I’ve no doubt you’re inundated with emails and requests and ideas for blog posts, but as a writer, if you can ever get around to addressing self-doubt, and writer’s block, if you’ve ever suffered from it, I’d love to read your thoughts.

I thought I could write well. I’ve been told I can write well. But I can’t write. Literally. I think every sentence I put together is garbage. I’ll be honest: I’m bitter about others getting opportunities I feel I should have gotten. The self-doubt is, as stated, nothing short of crippling.—Name withheld out of Love.

Oh, Love. This is sad. Because I see so much of myself in your words, and I know how it feels.

I’ve never had writer’s block. But I’ve had such doubt. I’ve spent more of my life feeling sick to my stomach than ninety percent of people who know when their next meal is coming, I would guess. I can’t remember the last time I wrote something and thought I’d nailed it. Not since I was a kid, I don’t think.

Just last week, I heard through my agent that my boss, David Granger, wanted to speak to me on the phone. That doesn’t happen very often. I believe the last time we spoke on the phone, in fact, was nine years ago, when he called my hotel room to hire me. This time, I was sure he was going to let me go. I began plotting the next stage of my career. I thought I’d become a full-time carpenter, maybe. Maybe I’d work at Home Depot. I didn’t sleep very much for the plotting until finally he called. He just wanted to say hey, because it had been a while since we’d last talked. He wanted to make sure I was happy. I told him I hadn’t been sleeping. He said he was sorry.

I agonize over blog posts. I’ve sweat over single words in 5,000-word stories. Tonight, I spent ten minutes with an editor trying to wrestle an eight-word clause into place. I’m still not sure it’s right.

Before my best stories—even when I’m nearly sure they will be good, or at least should be good, because the material is there—my overwhelming feeling is, You’d better not fuck this up, stupid. My feeling is that if I somehow blow it, if I somehow fail these astronauts or dead soldiers, then I need to quit the business, never to write again. Because only a failure could fail people like that. Only someone like me could betray them.

And yet I keep writing. I’ve written something every day this year.

Because I still have hope, Love, hope against hope, that one day I’ll write something perfect. The way a golfer dreams he might shoot 59, I dream of that story that I’ll be able to read years later and still not want to change a single word. I dream that I’ll write “Death of a Racehorse.” I dream that I’ll write “Black.”

And that’s all I can tell you. All I can tell you is that you probably are a good writer, and you probably write plenty of good sentences. Readers aren’t wrong. Which means that one day, even you might feel that you’ve made your world right.

And all I can tell you is, if that day comes now, in your youth—if today is the day that you think that you’re great, that today you will write something perfect, whenever you put your fingers to the keys—then you will never, ever be great.

You won’t be crippled by doubt, then. You will be crippled by ego. And that, for me, is the far greater curse. You’d think you were above reproach, above editing, above your audience, above your profession. When all this time, you were below them.

That’s what I tell myself, Love, in the middle of the night, when I can’t sleep and want to give up.

I envy confidence. I envy ego. I envy certainty.

But if suddenly I had those things, I’m sure I’d miss that sick feeling in my stomach. It’s been here with me for so long, deep inside my guts, it would feel like something was missing. It would feel like fear had left me, and satisfaction had rushed in to fill its place, and who wants to be satisfied, Love? Who wants to feel accomplished? Who wants to feel as though you’ve achieved everything you set out to achieve, except in those last, lingering moments, when you remember your younger, more beautiful self—when you remember today, Love—and how much you had left in you to give?

This week the legislators were on their Spring Break, and all of us reporters got to have a couple days consisting of ice cream field trips for lunch and casual wear relief (you can only wear hose and heels so many days without going crazy!) The biggest lesson I learned though was that just because legislators aren’t running around inside the marble cave, it doesn’t mean they’ve all clocked out to Cabo or Cancun for the week–many of them are simply focusing on their day-jobs.

I focused my efforts this week on compiling information and interviews about congressional and state level redistricting. My partner, Matthew Patane, and I thought it would be impossible to talk to anyone, but once we started making phone calls we began to realize that most of the legislators are back at their law firms or district offices. With the exception of a few people who were out of the country, we were able to compile a really good stack of information and had a few thoroughly enjoyable interviews.

Some of the greatest things about legislators being on Spring Break include:

  • Always being able to get an elevator in under a minute
  • Having a place to sit at lunch in the cafeteria
  • Wearing jeans/more fun/less conservative/still reporter-appropriate clothes
  • Leaving the Capitol before sunset
  • Working on less time-sensitive or pressure-related reporting (I learned that enterprise stories can be as exciting as day-turns)
  • Feeling relaxed enough to get to know your fellow newsroom dwellers better (We had some fun)
  • Seeing adorable little kids on their field trip day running around the building with iPhones (OK, more jealousy than anything) and digital cameras
  • Even though we’re still getting work done, we had our own break for some fun

 

Overall, it was a fun week to lead into Spring Break.

As a journalist, you have to be able to walk up to a stranger and ask them difficult questions. I’ve always known that, and I’ve always been able to do that. Recently, however, I learned that not all strangers are created equal. There are ones that cause you to feel more intimidated and literally cause you to shake in your shoes.

Last week, I attempted to attend a committee dinner at the Jefferson City Country Club. Phill wanted me to find out why these committees were having dinners away from the Capitol, and especially find out why they were having them at an exclusive country club. So I chose to go to the Budget Committee dinner because the chairman is Ryan Silvey, the same person who has been calling out the governor for lacking in transparency.

I walked into the club and headed for the dining room. Luckily, my friendly photographer friend, Christi Warren, came along to boost my confidence. The committee was not in the main dining room, so we walked around a bit and found a few lobbyists congregating, beers in hand, in a separate dining room. The expansive room had table with hors d’oeuvres next to a table with around 30 name tags on it. They were names I was familiar with as legislators from the Budget Committee and some lobbyists. I walked up to the three lobbyists and introduced myself. I was pretty confident at that point, and tried to lighten the mood.

I asked if members of the press and public were permitted to attend the dinner because it was on the committee hearing schedule online. One lobbyist, the oldest of the three, became immediately skeptical of me. He told me, rather brashly, that this was a time for legislators to “relax” and for the lobbyists to thank them for “all that they do.” I politely told him I understood and asked a few more questions before leaving the room.

As I drove away, my editor told me to go back and wait for the chairman of the committee to come and see if he would let me stay. I called in for a pep talk with an assistant editor, Alysha, and drove back to the country club. I was practically in tears because I was so nervous. Normally, walking into a room full of people doesn’t frighten a quiet girl like me, but a room full of Missouri state representatives freaked me out. They’re all perfectly nice to you inside the Capitol walls, but I’ve never encountered them outside the politeness of the marble cave.

I went back into the dining room, which was now full of people. A few people looked up at me with confused faces, but I walked straight to the chairman. It took a few minutes for him to acknowledge me because he was in the middle of a conversation, but I waited quietly and gathered my thoughts. With hands shaking, I asked him if members of the press and public would be allowed in. After talking for a few minutes it was clear to me that I was not welcome, so I thanked him and left.

Once I got to the entryway of the club, I set my notebook down and collected myself. My hands and legs were shaking, and my mind was a blur. The last time I was ever that nervous was when I hiked a few mountains in Israel in January. I’m terrified of heights, and I’ve never been so scared on flat ground before. After talking to Phill, I felt a lot better about what I had just accomplished, and I breathed a few sighs of relief and released a few of the remaining tears I had been holding back from before I went in.

After all of that I realized that I could get answers from people who didn’t want to give them to me, and I could talk to any kind of stranger and at least appear to be confident. I know that this experience could only make me a better reporter, and I hope I did a good job at learning another lesson.

With Monday being as slow as it was on the Ethics beat, I learned a little something about enterprise stories: They are fun and difficult. Let me elaborate.

I have finally got into the swing of things down in Jeff City, and my life was a little unraveled when I didn’t have a committee hearing on Monday to go to. I really like the fast-paced turn-around of writing stories on deadline after committees, but I might like enterprising even more. I started work on the nonhuman primate act that Sen. Keaveny is trying to pass through the legislature. I found the bill pretty comical until I delved into the subject.

I found out that there have been a few attacks on humans by said primates in the United States over the last few years. Sen. Keaveny’s legislative assistant, Stacy, was kind enough to send me a video about a particular one in Kansas City. This chimpanzee threw trash cans at Kansas City Police officers and attacked a little girl. Another chimp-gone-mad went off on a woman in Connecticut two years ago and mauled her face beyond recognition. The link between these two? Both apes were purchased from Jefferson County, Mo. I started looking into this and found that there are multiple sites where you can buy apes, tigers, lions and other exotic carnivores, and many states like Missouri don’t regulate the ownership of these dangerous animals.

On Tuesday I spoke with the Vice President of the St. Louis Zoo who told me that his zoo called on the senator to do something about the primate problem they are having. He spoke eloquently about the need for the Dept. of Agriculture to know exactly how many primates are owned as pets in the state, and this act would ensure that with permits on the animals. He also expressed concern for the animals welfare, since the act would require regular veterinary care. I’m not sure what kind of vets know a whole lot on these animals, but I’ll find out.

The hearing is scheduled for March 2, but that’s not a definite date. Once I know more about the monkeys, I’ll keep going. But for now, in the state of Missouri, monkey owners see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil.

Read the final story here There’s some interesting debates going on in the comments.

This week I happened to have the pleasure of hearing a press conference in the House Lounge. What struck me as most interesting was not what the legislators had to say, but the mural the adorned the walls of the room. After I did a little research about the mural I found out it was painted by Thomas Hart Benton in 1936, and it represents the social history of Missouri.

The mural itself is extremely well done and very realistic. The people are so lifelike, it looks more like a vibrant photograph. It includes the adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, images of the Civil War, the story of Frankie and Johnnie, the industrialization of the state and the legend of Jesse James. Some of these events are painted out explicitly, but many others are hidden in symbols in the mural. I read that the black cloud that envelops one panel symbolizes the regretful history of the Civil War, and the part Missouri played in it. Another black cloud on a separate panel represents that industrial revolution that occurred in the state.

Many of the panels depict very well-known legends of the state, such as the stories of Mark Twain and the legend of Jesse James. Mark Twain’s stories are painted to look larger than life on the walls as they have become for the pride of Missouri. Huck Finn towers over Tom Sawyer and the rest of the lounge’s audience as a main figure of the mural. Jesse James’ life is also described in detail by the mural. As a Missouri native, the mural shows the generosity that the famous outlaw was rumored to be capable of. He is painted working hard alongside American Indians and slaves. Essentially, he is seen to be an integral part of Missouri society, despite the banditry he committed.

 

I’m sure I am not the only one who has been captivated by the mural in the House Lounge, and I feel the Missouri Capitol is lucky to house such an incredible piece of art.