Where USF faculty, students and graduates are invited to talk about journalism and its problems and opportunities. This blog is not affiliated with the University of San Francisco, nor is the university responsible for any of the opinions expressed herein -- though it is certainly responsible for the people who entertain those opinions, having educated them. They make us proud.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Wine Country Journalism Never Leaves Time for a Pregnant Pause

1) Read to the end and you'll see what a clever head this is.
2) This is an email in which Sara Berkley responds to the fact I linked several posts below to one of her stories. Her p oint is you don't really know the story until you know the circumstances under which the story was written.

For goodness sakes, Dr. Robertson, I can just see it
now: Dr. Robertson, donned in his collegiate tweed livery,
raps a pointer stick at an overhead projector while a
sea of faces sulking in bagel crumbs and 8 a.m.
cynicism look on.

"Now see this, students, neophyte reporter Berkley's
test score story - a gem of what you don't want to do!
First, the drab lede. Second, the typos that Berkley
(nor the community newspaper's stable of overqualified
and disinterested proofers) did not catch. Third ... "

Well, Dr. Robertson, you can tell them that test
scores were released at 11 a.m. and I had a deadline
of 1 p.m. I had 2 hours to print out a stack of tests
scores fatter than Ulysses, highlight and compare data
from last year while waiting for the director of
curriculum to never get back to me, add up proficiency
rates across the grades (I NEVER signed on to do math!
My calculator is a paperweight only! I was an English
major for Chrissakes!) then cobble the story together
from my own research and a boilerplate press release
from Jack O'Connell - only to get the blandest of
quotes from said curriculum director one flagrant hour
after my deadline, requiring me to irritate my editor
on the insertion of said quotes after he had already
flowed the pages.

Come on, do you have to choose this one?
Maybe there's a lesson here.
If there's anything I can tell them about journalism,
besides the age old excuse of "deadline" - is an
inadvertent lesson on humility. I don't know - I'm
still fighting it. (hence, inadvertent.) Is it because
I was an English major? Maybe this email will
persuasively rest said case on the dire need for a
journalism major.

Being an English lit major I barreled out of USF with
an $100,000 vocabulary and keen insights into feminism
of the Victorian Age - which I will always thank Tracy
Seeley for (no seriously. Still to this day I have the
uncanny ability to actually want to curl up and read a
good George Eliot.)

Okay, so I never intended to go write for a newspaper.
Somehow - plus Lia Steakley leaving her position - I
ended up here.

Certainly there is a place for clever, irreverent
weeklies with writers who can afford to cherry pick
their stories, editorialize, indulge in abstruse
witticisms and coat it all with a nice liberal slant.
A very easy writing and stylistic persona to pick up
if you're a young cosmopolitan college grad in San
Francisco. And yes, if someone offered me one of these
positions, hell yes I'd take it!! Lucky them. Man I
sound resentful!

I be one of the rest! I'm a journalist at a community
newspaper. We are a paper of record - and that means
everything, kitchen sink included. We cover Sonoma
Valley - a very, very small place with a very, very
nosy population.

When I first started out, I wrote about things I
initially didn't think anyone could possibly care
about. It was a haughty idealism I had. Why do you
care about your sewage bill hike, you moron, when
there's war on public education all around us or an
independent director living in your neighborhood
making a documentary about polka dancers? Nevermind.
Screw Jorg and his wannabe Sundance project. It it is
my job to write about the sewage bill hikes. It is my
job to write about powdery mildew in the vineyards.
And the updating of school board administrative
regulations, and when class starts, and whose fence is
encroaching on whose begonias at the planning

Yes, a small paper does also mean I occasionally get
to flex my versatility. I can write magazine features
and human interest profiles on eccentric people and
occasionally an investigative or economic trend story.
Through it all I have gotten a good knock to the chin
- by readers, my editors, the community. And it's a
good thing.

You see, we are overworked and understaffed here. It's
part of the territory.

My test score story is by no means something I am
proud of stylistically. But I'm learning. I am sure
there are reporters out there far more advanced than I
who may be able to research and whip together an
intriguing, eloquent piece in two hours - alluding
through but a few simple phrases the larger context of
No Child Left Behind and with nary a 't' uncrossed -
and never succumb to the pummelling of the clock or to
their lack of a proper journalism major. (Do I get
commission for that sentence?)

But I got something written and turned in. I
highlighted the best points I could find. And in the
end, it provided news for readers. Not half bad.
In a community, the small, topical things matter. And
often underneath those diminutive issues lurk big, big
issues. And digging them up, too, is fun.

To tell you the truth, I think that even the big
dailies are beginning to try and cater more to
neighborhood news. It's the place where you live! Of course you care
about your sewage bill, your roses and your kids' test

We don't use a wire service here. Everything is
generated by us. Slow week? Call the elementary
schools. Any messy science projects that we can
photograph? How about that new crossing guard?
But the thing is, people love it.

And the biggest compliment I've ever gotten isn't in
the way I turn a phrase or my striking imagery of a
vandalized duck pond - but the fact that at the next
school board meeting, parents are often spitting fire
at the podium and referencing one of my stories.
"Well I read that the district really didn't HAVE to
close the pool and my kid's on the water polo team and
I'm pissed!"

Whether they've scratched their head and uttered a
melancholy "Hmm" or crumpled it up and stomped on it,
I am discovering and appreciating that in this job -
getting a story out there, getting it right, making it
fair (yes that means quoting the conservative
Republican NRA member with as much respect as anyone
else - and no irony) and reporting on what people
care about is more important than whether or not I
sound like Joan Didion in the process. Don't get me
wrong, I would love to sound like Joan Didion. Maybe
not necessarily in a test score roundup, but there it

Well, dear Dr. Robertson, it looks as if you've caused
me to rethink my initial entreaty to hide, burn and
abandon the test score story. Let the link live.
Truly, your counsel has been worthy of the cushiest
leather couch of the best psychotherapist.
My you're good!

By the way, I'm 7 months pregnant and I wrote this all
in a haze of fudgesicle and burrito cravings. I gotta

1 comment:

Lia Steakley said...

Sarah, I LOVE IT!

Now you know why I plowed through a bottle of wine a week (okay several a week) while living in Sonoma.

hope all is well,