Here’s the thing

My semester as a Missourian reporter is wrapping up, and — I might be alone in this — I think it went by so quickly. I expected to kind of drag along this semester, crushed by stories and assignments and interviews and never-ending General Assignment shifts. That’s what I’d heard it would be like, and that’s what the Missourian tells you it will be like. I’m pretty sure at orientation in August someone was like, “You will drown this semester, but you’ll probably get through it.” My editor fully expected most people on my beat to cry in her office at one point. It’s propped up like THE SEMESTER THAT WILL KILL YOU, but it really won’t. I’m not saying I haven’t learned a ton since August. I have. I’m not saying the Missourian hasn’t occasionally beaten me down. It has. But it’s more good than bad. So here’s some stuff I learned, and some stuff I didn’t.

I learned:

  • how to balance Reporter Me with Person Me, and that’s it’s okay that I can’t be completely one without the other.
  • that being unbiased is not the same as being indifferent.
  • to be nicer to sources. Not that I was mean before, but — and I’m blaming The Maneater for this one — I used to be more rigid when talking to sources. I wasn’t mean, I don’t think, but I think I closed myself off to sources when it would’ve been easier and better to build a relationship with them.
  • I shouldn’t get caught up in one story. Sometimes that story doesn’t happen. And then there’s a month’s worth of work that doesn’t turn into a byline. You gotta multitask.
  • it’s cool to not be Number One. Once I stopped worrying about being great, I got greater.
  • it’s okay to lay on my futon and watch Parks and Rec eating way too much mashed potatoes after a GA shift. No one has to know (until now, um)
  • don’t be afraid to make connections with people I think are way, way too cool for me. It took me almost the whole semester, but Jacqui Banazynski knows my name now and that is enough for me. ALSO everyone she is so nice just email her already

And there’s a few things I still need to work on:

  • I’m really bad at taking down quotes without a recorder. That’s why I record everything, but it has made AC’ing on the spot really hard. I’m getting better at it when I have the person on the phone (USE HEADPHONES why I didn’t start doing this years ago I will never know), but in-person I still need some work.
  • Speaking up in press conferences. I don’t know if it’s because I’m afraid to talk in a crowd or because I’m afraid other reporters will judge my questions, but I’ve never asked a question at a press conference.
  • Still not too great at narrative structure. Like I think my story about Josie Herrera, MU’s first genderqueer Homecoming King, could have been less newsy and more of a “story.” But the story about Brady Deaton’s retirement was very narrative, so I might have just not been ready for that style when I wrote about Josie.
  • I NEVER WROTE A LIFE STORY. Is this a blessing or a curse? I don’t know.
  • I still get the unsettling feeling that I’m faking it. I know we’re supposed to “fake it till we make it,” but what if I wake up one morning and realize I just never made it and have faked my way through everything?

Good news is that I still have a bunch of time to work on everything I’m not completely comfortable with. This has probably been my best semester of college so far, and I love that I can say that.

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I’m a reporter who thinks Brady and Anne are adorable and that’s OK

This is possibly the best thing I’ve written so far.

I was able to talk with Brady and Anne Deaton for about an hour a few mornings ago. And during that time, I tried to get a sense of who they are behind the professional persona Brady Deaton has as MU chancellor. Brady Deaton isn’t fake, but I was looking for a more casual version of him. That mostly boiled down to this: Brady loves MU, but he loves his wife more.

Look at them. (Photo Credit: The Missourian/Kevin Cook)
Look at them. (Photo Credit: The Missourian/Kevin Cook)

One of the bigger lessons that I’m taking away from my semester with the Missourian is that it’s OK to love your sources. It’s OK to have feels about your work. Sometimes I don’t even think objectivity is a thing (whoops), especially for more featurey pieces. We talk about the balance between being a human and being a journalist, and, sorry, but I never want to exclusively be the latter. I am always going to be me. I will always like you more if you have a cute dog. I will always like you more if you know there’s a waterfall in the middle of Riverfront Park (like Brady Deaton does). If I see you cry while listening to your daughter talk about how much she loves you, I will love you too.

I’m never going to look at a source and try to ignore the human parts of him or her, and I don’t want people to do that to me, either.

I didn’t know the Deatons until a few weeks ago. I knew who they were, and I’d heard members of Faculty Council talk about Brady, but I didn’t know him. Most people don’t know Brady Deaton. That morning, I feel like I got a sense of who he is behind the job (I hope you guys got that from the story, too).

In order to get that, I tried to make the interview not seem like an interview as much as I could. Usually, I take notes during interviews and record them on my phone. When I hear a quote I want to use, I mark what time my recorder is at so I can go back and get the full quote later. I try not to rely on the recorder and write down the quote as well.

Also, OMG THIS FRONT PAGE DESIGN.
Also, OMG THIS FRONT PAGE DESIGN.

For the Deatons, I didn’t take any notes. I thought it would be distracting, for me and for them. I wanted Brady and Anne to forget about the two recorders (TWO I almost wish I had three because the idea of losing that audio and not having notes was terrifying) I had on the coffee table, and I didn’t want to miss any nuances of the conversation while I was jotting something down. I think it worked.

I also tried to get them to loosen up, which pretty much involved my risking sounding like an idiot. I literally told MU Chancellor Brady Deaton and his wife that they are “a power couple.” Which could have gone a weird way if they hadn’t heard that term before, or disagreed, or just didn’t like the terminology. Or they could have scoffed at my “professionalism.” But it worked. Before I said that, I was getting pretty standard, press conferencey answers from both of them. When I said it, they both started laughing, and Brady said something like “We don’t identify ourselves that way,” but in a good-hearted way. Anne is warm person to begin with, but she laughed and kind of waved me off in a “oh, you’re too much” way. I think once I said something that let on a bit of my personality, they were more willing to show me theirs.

(For the record, they are the definition of a power couple no matter what anyone says.)

Brady Deaton is so in love with Anne. Just talking to them both at the same time was such a treat. He’s been incredibly successful professionally, but it’s very obvious that is not what he cares about the most. I think it would be really easy for someone as successful as Brady to push his wife to the side, but Brady constantly brings Anne into the spotlight. He spent five minutes listing off all of the initiatives she’s supported and her career successes (which are plenty, trust me), and you can tell he is very proud of her. They have a mutual appreciation for each other. During editing, Liz said something like, “That’s what love looks like. Don’t forget that.” It’s very easy to fall in love with couples who are obviously devoted to each other. It’s contagious.

The interview went well, but I didn’t even think of it as an interview by the time it was over. The conversation went well. I had fun, and I felt like they had fun. When I wrapped up the interview, Brady and I talked about the one time he visited Spokane in the 90s (he loved it). Anne gave me one of her huge hugs. I washed the mug of coffee Anne gave me in their sink. Neither of them seemed to want us to leave, and the walk to the front door turned into a tour of the house, where Anne gushed over how much she loves the Residence’s wallpaper and Brady talked about how a great-grandson (or something) of a past chancellor goes to MU now and is the spitting image of a portrait they have in the dining room. Brady geeked out about Mark Twain’s podium being in the foyer.

I left their house wanting to be Anne Deaton, basically. And I think that’s OK.

New chapter for Brady and Anne Deaton builds on lifetime of academia, family

How we misgendered someone on the front page

For about two weeks, I’ve been working on a profile of Josie Herrera, an MU Homecoming candidate who identifies as gender queer. And it’s been a huge learning experience for me, both as a journalist and as a person. But I wouldn’t say it had a happy ending, exactly.

First things first: gender queer, for Josie, means not identifying as a man or woman, but instead somewhere in the middle, with parts of both. Josie was born female, but feels more comfortable in masculine settings. So when Josie decided to run for Homecoming Royalty, it was as a king, not a queen. That was cool with Mizzou (which is amazingly progressive for a school in the Midwest, I think), so Josie’s a king candidate.

As far as anyone knows, a person who identifies as something other than cisgender has never been a member of Homecoming Royalty before. And that’s why I wrote the story.

Writing about Josie was a challenge in itself. Because how do I, as someone whose sex and gender fit neatly into American social expectations, even begin to understand what it’s like to wake up one morning feeling strange in my own body? To live 20 years as a woman, and then realize that maybe that isn’t what I’m really comfortable doing? That’s a feeling that I will probably never experience. And I’m lucky to not have to face that. Josie does, and is coming-out in that way on a national stage as a Homecoming king.

On top of that, Josie prefers the pronoun “they,” and that’s a problem. So I was stuck between honoring how Josie wants to identify, and reader clarity. “They” is plural and grammatically incorrect to use in reference to one person. But it’s what Josie wants. But will readers get it? Will it be too confusing; will people just leave the page when faced with relating a plural pronoun to a singular person? I didn’t know. My editor didn’t know.

We ended up taking the discussion to the morning budget meeting, where writers and editors discuss stories and other things. The general consensus was to use “they,” even if it meant some grammatical confusion. Some people said it was incorrect, but ultimately we had to respect what Josie wanted. We did the best we could to use Josie’s preferred pronoun while avoiding reader confusion. Liz talks about that process in this Dear Readers piece.

I’ve never been as careful with a story as I was with Josie’s. And I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous for it to be published — my heart was pounding from the moment I woke up on Thursday (when it went up online) until I went to sleep late that night. At that day’s budget meeting, we looked at and talked about my story.

My editor asked me to explain why I was so worried, and I said I was terrified that I would be offensive in a way that I wouldn’t even know was possible. Call me a member of the “liberal media” or whatever, but I’m an ally to the LGBTQ community. And I never want to be another obstacle to people who already deal with unfairness and prejudice and other bullshit on a daily basis. I’m not here to add to anyone’s struggle.

There were hardly any problems with the online story. There were a few clarifications we needed to make, but nothing exploded, and I figured the worst of it was over.

That night, the print side of the newsroom was putting together Friday’s issue. Josie was the front page story. I stayed in the newsroom until around 9 p.m. to read over headlines and things like that. I was even on the phone with the page designer at 11:30 p.m., answering questions about transgender vs. gender queer, and if the more general term, transgender, was entirely correct to say in a headline without further explanation. I was running everything by Josie in the middle of the night. When I went to bed, I knew what all of the headlines said, I knew what the subheads said, I knew what the graphic said, I knew what the photo captions said, and I knew what I had said in the actual body of the story.

I kid you not — I had a nightmare that night that when I went to grab the paper on Friday, the headline had turned into something very gendered, like “Herrera says she is excited about her run for king.” Then I woke up, and I had a text message from my editor asking me to call her.

And, somehow, the eighth word of the first paragraph was “she.” And that paragraph Screen shot 2013-10-20 at 5.17.54 PMwas in larger type than any other body type on the page. And “she” just jumped right off the page. And it was directly under my byline, even though I never wrote that word. Story by Molly Duffy. She. She. She. And I don’t think I’ve ever been more frustrated than I was on Friday. I cried and screamed and hit things, and when I walked into the budget meeting on Friday, I swear it got dead quiet and when I finally looked up from my coffee, half the room was staring at me. I’m usually one to look on the bright side. That was not happening on Friday morning.

It was just that one sentence. Everything else was fine and untouched, like it was supposed to be. Later in the story it even uses “they” and explains why. But in the fucking first sentence, it’s wrong. Thankfully, no one touched the online version of the story, at least.

I know that the change was done at the last second and in a grammatical sense. Someone thought a sentence was awkward and tried to fix it. The change did not at all have a political or hateful intention. And I’m writing this blog because I don’t know how else to tell people that NO ONE meant to refer to Josie as “she” against their wishes. The answer that came from every discussion we had about the pronoun was to use “they.” At the very least, to never use “he” or “she.” But somehow we printed “she.” Everyone in the newsroom wishes that did not happen. No one wanted to say “she.” And damn it, I don’t know, I guess you can talk to 30 people in a room and collectively agree what to do, make that decision as clear as possible to everyone who could touch the story, and still end up with a stupid mistake.

I’m sorry is the point of this whole thing. I’m sorry, and this is how that mistake happened. To be completely honest, I’m still not completely sure how/when the wrong pronoun was added to the first sentence. But it wasn’t on purpose.

MU Homecoming king candidate pushes gender boundaries

WAIT, NEVERMIND

Sometimes I end up kicking ass when I least expect it. NOW IS THAT TIME.

I am having a seriously wonderful week journalism-wise (otherwise too, but who am I to claim I have stuff that isn’t journalism-related?) These wonderful things are as follows:

1. TOBYI did some event coverage on Thursday that did not suck. I woke up, made some coffee, went to the event, wrote it up, took a break to take a test in my History of Journalism class, edited with Liz (which I haven’t really gotten to do until this week! And was great!) and then drove into the depths of Iowa with my adorable Ames-bred boyfriend to hang out with his parents and his cats (which also went really well! One of his cats actually liked me, which cats never do).

2. The new UM Press Director was, of course, announced the one and only weekday I was out of town. Which was actually a huge bummer for me, since I’ve been prepping for the announcement for a month, but still ended up as a wonderful thing. A fellow ed-beater went to the announcement and was able to use my notes in his story, so we didn’t miss anything, plus Liz was gracious enough to give me a co-byline even though I wasn’t able to help out on the day of the announcement.

3. That byline was actually a huge thing for me — I was originally listed as “contributing to” the story when it first went up online. I’d been working on the story for a long time, and had a ton of notes and background written up (which is used in the final story) — it was a lot of behind-the-scenes work, and I could see why Liz decided to list me as a contributor — but I was just bummed when I didn’t have a byline on the story. (And I really hope that doesn’t come off as conceited or greedy or anything like that. The Press story had been assigned to me in August and I was ready to go with it, but of course the decision was finally made at the worst possible time for me. That timing was unfortunate and definitely my fault, if anyone’s.)

So I did something that made me super uncomfortable: I asked my editor why I didn’t get as much credit as I thought I deserved. And my boyfriend (and probably even his mom) can attest to how nervous I was to write that email to Liz. I was terrified that I was out of place or rude or over-reaching and a slew of other things, but I wrote the email as humbly and politely as I could.

And then Liz emailed me back and said she was glad I brought it up and “of course” I deserve the byline credit. She was just busy and made the decision quickly. And then on Tuesday she commended me for sticking up for myself. It was AWESOME. I know that the way it worked out was very dependent on who Liz is and who I am and how we work together, and I don’t endorse doing what I did in a universal sense, but, ahhh. I’ve definitely had previous editors and fellow writers roll over me in the past, and I’d never stuck up for myself in that way before. It was seriously encouraging to have it work out the way it did.

4. THEN, I had a GA shift on Tuesday, and I got to work on government shutdown stuff! Which ultimately meant doing a bit of reporting with several other people, and then I was the one to aggregate it all together and do organizey stuff and write the intro. Twelve hours in the office well spent, I’d say.

5. And now, finally, I’m off to cover the general faculty meeting. And tomorrow, I have two more things to cover. So, that will be six stories published in seven days! I’M FINALLY HITTING MY STRIDE, EVERYONE.

P.S. Extra props to T.J. on the press story. What a life saver.
P.P.S. Lol nope only five stories; knew I’d jinx it

MU School of Law receives $1.57 million gift
David Rosenbaum named director of University of Missouri Press
Mid-Missouri programs, services feel impact of government shutdown

Delaying greatness

Still working on that whole I HAVE TO BE GREAT thing.

Liz pulled up my staff page during editing today. Truth be told, I’ve kind of been avoiding it because it’s still pretty short and it embarrasses me. I’ve been working on an update about the Nuclear Science and Engineering Institute for weeks, and I know it will pay off eventually but I really wish eventually was, I don’t know, today. I know I’m working, but I also know I could be working harder. I’m an “untapped resource,” and all that.

I think it’s mostly a focus thing. I need to figure out how to get in the zone faster. Yesterday, I procrastinated for hours before hauling myself to Lakota to get some work done. But once I got started, I got a lot done. It’s just the starting that stumps me. I know that’s not a unique problem, but I wish it wasn’t my problem.

Gratitude

(I saved my last blog as a draft last night and posted it today, so I think another blog this morning is acceptable.)

Here's me "blossoming." Get it?
Here’s me “blossoming.” Get it?

Liz pulled me aside after our beat meeting this morning and we got on the topic of me and how I come across to her. She said (and I’m paraphrasing) that I seem like I have a strong sense of self and don’t seem to be afraid of the news. I seem like I have a strong group of friends supporting me. A family backing me up. That I won’t do my best work this semester, but that she sees me blossoming and doing wonderfully in more advanced classes. That I come across as strong.

It was a wonderful compliment, and a reminder of all of the beautiful people I have in my life. Because all of that is true — I do have the best support network all around me. I love who I’ve become and grown into since coming to Mizzou. I probably don’t say thank you enough to the people who continually lift me up. I really couldn’t have better people.

How lucky am I that I have the luxury of complaining about how many times my name (albeit misspelled) has been in the paper? Very lucky.

Some perspective

It’s been an interesting couple of days.

Yesterday, I had my first “real” General Assignment shift. My weekend shift was over Labor Day weekend, but the newsroom was slow and abandoned and not representative of what I had heard GA was like — running to grab phones before someone screams at you, interviewing family members of someone who’s died, forgetting to eat until almost 4 p.m. and then inhaling some Chipotle. On my Saturday shift, the phone didn’t ring once. (I did, however, squeeze a clip out of it, if you’re interested.)

My shift on Tuesday was much different. I overslept (always a good start), and didn’t make it to the newsroom until around 10:45 a.m. when my class got out. I was immediately greeted by a developing story about a bomb threat in Ashland, Mo. All of the schools were closed to allow law enforcement to investigate the threat. We also knew there had been a shooting at about 2 a.m., but it was very foggy as to how it was connected.

Then we received a news release that said the 17-year-old student who made the threat had shot himself. And, to me, the story completely changed. My mind had been jumping to a loose shooter, to an imminent threat to Ashland students, to a manhunt. It was really the tragic story of a boy who put a gun to his chest when confronted by police over a text message.

I didn’t get a chance to really comprehend that until I was on my way to the Boone County Sheriff’s Department.

I wasn’t doing anything right, and that was all I could focus on. I got the address wrong and walked to the wrong place. When I realized my mistake, I had to run in 97 degree weather to my car — which is parked in a lot that is being repaved. I negotiated with the construction workers to let me out. I get in my car, and my tank is terrifyingly close to Empty. I drive in the wrong direction. And I get off of 63 an exit too soon. And I miss the turn and drive three miles out of the way. And as I’m making a sloppy U-turn in a residential area, I break down and start yelling at my radio about how I’m not the ~special snowflake~ I’m supposed to be. “I just want to be the girl who writes an impossible number of stories that everyone loves,” I whine. “But instead I’m the girl who already has a correction on her FIRST STORY yet still gets trusted with important things but can’t even get to a press conference on time and I JUST WANT TO BE GREAT AND I’M NOT,” or some self-centered variation of that.

I let all of my insecurities about stagnating and failing and wasting my time at the Missourian surface. I second-guess myself, especially when I don’t have much concrete evidence that says I am, actually, doing well. I had two bylines, and it wasn’t enough. I was ashamed of my progress over three weeks. I was ashamed of myself in general.

Then I turned into the Sheriff’s Department parking lot and remembered what I was reporting on. I remembered that there are much, much bigger things than the number of clips I do or don’t have. I gained a lot of perspective.

The Missourian is not the end-all be-all of my life. The world does not revolve around the newsroom — if I do not reach my fullest potential this semester, that’s okay. I think that idea has even been holding me back and making me more afraid to screw up anyway, like if I mess up now I’ll mess up forever. But that’s not true, at all. So I’m going to stop looking at this semester like it’s the key to the rest of my life or something. It’s a class. Granted, a class that I care a lot about and genuinely want to succeed in. But it isn’t something that holds so much power I need to almost fear it. It’s a manageable feat.

So I sucked it up. I went to the conference, and I stopped to get gas on the way back to Columbia. Another reporter and I wrote the story. And it took all day, but it wasn’t the whole world. It’s just a story that I had the privilege of writing. My story was just another thing that happened on Tuesday — relatively small in the grand scheme of things. Maybe this is getting too philosophical. Everything’s all right.

Ashland high school student linked to threatening text takes own life

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