Cracker Jack Journalism

Some call it a wild goose chase. My editor calls it ‘the nature of this business.’ My friend, ‘the B8 story.’

I call it a Cracker Jack Story — you know, the kind where if you dig long and hard enough, you’ll find a prize inside, even if it’s small and cheap, and not exactly what you wanted in the first place. It’s still a prize. And it’s yours.

It started early Monday morning. I came into the newsroom, thinking I would spend the day working on a certain cancer story I had been cultivating for a while.  Instead I was handed a Sheriff’s Office press release about a surgeon (who we will refer to as Dr. Smith for the duration of this tale) who was flying a plane and crashed. I was told to write an obit in which I should try to profile his life and career.

An obit.  No problem.  How hard could it be?

I began by calling the Sheriff’s Office that sent out the press release. No response.  Called the airport where the guy had taken off from. No response. I called the fire department that responded, the coroner’s office and his former employer. Nothing.

I looked this guy up in marriage records, state voter registration records, medical liscence records and court records. His name turned up in court files, but the documents weren’t available. No address or phone number to be found.

It seemed strange — a surgeon that was so hard to pin down.

“Go to the office and knock on some doors,” my editor told me. “Someone’s gotta know something about this guy.”

So, I went. Drove the 20-ish minutes out to a cute neighborhood / college town with lots of young people on bicycles and pulled into the parking lot of an outdoor medical plaza. The office bearing the surgeon’s name was closed. The phone number listed on the window didn’t work. When I asked the optometrist next door about my doctor-in-question though, he said he’s never really seen him, despite having worked there for years.

“He works weird hours,” he said. “The office is only open a few days a week.”

Curiouser and curiouser. I decided to go to a nearby address I had found in his name on Lexis Nexis.

The house was pink, an old Spanish-style villa in the middle of a suburban neighborhood. The sun was blaring that day and the dry Sacramento heat was sweltering. A sign that said “The Smiths” was tucked into a corner under a table full of flower pots. I couldn’t tell if it had been torn down or if it had fallen.

I knocked on the door. No answer.  Knocked again.  No answer.

In a last-ditch attempt at getting some information, I decided to write a note and leave it under the door. Just as I was about to sign my name, a big white van — the kind they transport camp groups in — pulled onto the driveway. A slender woman gets out of the driver’s seat and is shortly followed by six children. I approach her cautiously.

“Excuse me, ma’am? Would you happen to know a Dr. Smith?”

Her face drains of color. She looks stricken. Bingo, right house.

“He was my ex-husband,” she said, beginning to stutter about how she’s not sure she’s ready to talk about it. She pauses, looks from me to her kids and invites me into the house for a glass of ice water. I accept and follow her into the house.

As she hands me a red plastic cup, I ask if there are any pictures of the doctor around the house. The mother shakes her head as the oldest daughter, 18, steps forward.

“I have one,” she says, holding out a small photo of her and her father from at least a decade ago. “I haven’t spoken to him in four years.”

We move to the backyard and talk. There are two chickens in the far corner by the fence — Ashley and Blondie. Ashley is brown with white flecks and Blondie is pure gold. They lay eggs almost every day, she tells me. Her little brothers love to come and collect them, especially the 12 year old, who was the last to see her father before the crash.

She tells me about her dad. About his unpredictable mood swings, his infidelity, his pattern of lies, questionably-legal practices. About how he “was really messed up,” not a nice guy. About how he sent her a white BMW as a graduation present. About how that’s the last she’s heard of him. That’s the last she wants to hear of him.

“My mom’s really upset about the crash and all,” she said. “I don’t really understand why. We haven’t heard from him in years.”

She tells me that she’s going to college in the fall to study microbiology.  She wants to be a doctor, she said.

“But not like my father.”

Driving back to the newsroom from that interview, I didn’t know what to think.  My mind was spinning.  That’s what you get when you start digging, I told myself. When I got back, I was told to add to the brief from the morning. No big deal, they’re not going to run the stuff I got — too dangerous, potential for libel and all.  So I added a sentence or two to what became a four-inch, double-bylined brief.

Initially, I was upset. Upset I had spent my whole day on a story that wasn’t. Upset I had driven to Davis, hunted down a family and couldn’t use any of it. But then, as I settled down and turned in my three sentences of copy, I realized I learned a whole lot.

I learned how to find someone it seemed didn’t exist. I learned to follow even the most inane tracks to find something potentially valuable in the end. And somewhere along the way, in all this hunting, I found something even more valuable: my inner blood hound; my inner reporter; my inner Lois Lane.

I found confidence that yeah, I can do this. And that, dear friends, is a gem no one can ever take away from you.




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Excavating a canal with dynamite

I haven’t updated in almost exactly three months.  I could blame it on being busy but in truth, I just couldn’t find something worth writing about for longer than 140 characters.

But this past week, I got to spend some time with the future, in the form of NAHJ student journalists.

Jack Shafer, of Slate, describes the future of journalists and the industry as follows (emphasis mine):

If the downside of the battered-down barriers to entry is less pay and lower status, the potential upside is that a flood of new entrants into the field could portend a journalistic renaissance. No, I’m not saying that every junior blogger and pint-size videographer will immediately stand as tall as Barton Gellman and Errol Morris and that the Washington Post and NBC News should be flushed. But journalism has generally benefited by increases in the number of competitors, the entry of new and once-marginalized players, and the creation of new approaches to cracking stories. Just because the journalism business is going to hell and it may no longer make economic sense to maintain mega-news bureaus at the center of war zones doesn’t mean that journalism isn’t thriving.

During this week-long venture in Puerto Rico, I witnessed some of this renaissance-like revolution first hand.  I learned to record tracks and cut audio.  I watched as print-track journalism students struggled to piece together a video package.  I silently rolled my eyes as television-journalists agonized over nut grafs and laughed as photographers asked, incredulously, “what do you mean I have to write a story?”

But we did it.

The tools are getting easier to use; the younger generation, more adept.  The question then becomes not what can you do, but what can’t you do? Today, stories can be told across mediums: video, audio, images, words on a page, you name it.  What more could an aspiring journo ask for?

The cheap tools and affordable devices the average Joe has at his disposal to produce precision journalism and distribute it around the world are enough to make the reporters of yesterday sob in envy. It’s the difference between digging ditches with a spade and excavating a canal with dynamite.

Story-tellers have been around since the dawn of time. Chronicling the rise and fall of civilizations, wars, famine, heroes, hunger, life, death, human weakness, greatness and everything in between.  We will never stop craving these stories.  How we ingest them, however, is morphing.

The difference between digging ditches with a spade and excavating a canal with dynamite.  And I don’t know about everyone else, but I’m ready to start blowing the lid off.


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Who needs Superman?

Not me.

In today’s world, telling someone you’re going into journalism merits expressions of horror akin to the type I would assume you’d get if you told someone your life ambition was to be the captain of the Titanic.  But here I am: a 20-year-old pursuing an industry that politicians, CEOs and old-school newspaper men  continue to describe as “failing” or “transforming;” an industry, that no one really knows what to do about, and many would say needs a Superman to come and save the day — fly around the world a couple times and turn back the clocks to the newspaper golden years.

I disagree.  We don’t need a Superman.  We need a Lois Lane.

Lois Lane, for those of you who are not familiar with this heroine of the Superman series, was the Daily Planet’s star reporter.  A smart, savvy, stubborn and sly newspaper journalist, Lane always takes the toughest assignments and would gladly infiltrate the most evil of villain’s lair if it meant getting the scoop.

She once drove her car, full speed, into the bay so Superman would come in and save her.  After he pulled her out of the water, she asked him for an interview.

Lois Lane: Journalist

Point is: fictional though she may be, Lois Lane had the right idea.  And she epitomized what I hope to be as a journalist: a ruthless, smart, hardworking, intrepid reporter who wouldn’t let hard times in the industry (or in the world) get her down.  She would keep on risking it all for a profession that she loved and believed in — Superman or not.

So it is with this blog that I hope to take a look at journalism and at the world through the eyes of one who questioned the belief that there would always be a Superman there to save the day.  Because, like it or not, it looks like we’re on our own.



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