Starting a new year and job with goals in mind

On Jan. 30, I start a new job of sorts. 

I’ll still be living and working in Wausau, but working in a three-member team focusing on enterprise and investigative reporting for all of the Gannett newspapers in Wisconsin. We have a lot of details to figure out, but the opportunity is exactly what I’d like to be doing. 

That said, I’ve tried to mix up my goals to help in the new job and develop other skills on my own. 

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IRE advice: Write about it

I’m still sorting through all the great tips, story ideas and reporting techniques shared by panelists at the 2011 Investigative Reporters and Editors conference. A post is coming, I swear.

But one stuck out enough that I’ve already begun to notice it in other reporters’ work.

Take the first part of the Washington Post’s series on the widening gap between the rich and the rest in America. I finally got around to reading the article tonight, after seeing many recommendations.

Reporting, great. Writing, great. Idea, great. Go read the whole thing.

But there’s one part that stuck out to me, largely because of IRE:

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It’s not the size of the dog in the fight…

One of the benefits of working for a large media company like Gannett — chances to attend workshops and conventions that can be pricy. I finished an application for one of these opportunities last week and wanted to share/save a portion of my entry letter here:

In the last nine months, it’s become clear to me that watchdog journalism goes beyond major packages that take months to produce. We act as watchdogs each Friday by examining government meeting agendas, each time we request records on a construction contract or job search, each time we ask “why?” on behalf of readers who don’t have that opportunity.

Very often, these actions don’t end in a story online or in the paper. But that doesn’t change the fact that they are those of a watchdog.

Attending the IRE conference will improve my ability to produce traditional watchdog work, like the project mentioned above [The application required a project proposal]. Techniques to analyze and organize data effectively, tips on searching for story leads and how to follow through will advance my own reporting ability and enhance the Wausau Daily Herald’s position in the community.

I believe watchdog work that serves as a check on elected and appointed officials and a voice for members of society who have no other defender is the best selling point members of the journalism profession have for our work. What better way to prove to readers that we are valuable, have impact and can produce benefits for an entire community?

Update: I found out today (May 29) that I got a scholarship to attend the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Orlando this summer! About 30 reporters from Gannett were chosen. It’s still sinking in, but I’m really excited about the opportunity – and all the great speakers and sessions planned for June.

The value of open records

My reporting on blastomycosis cases in the Wausau area began with a reader tip. A resident of Weston, one of the communities I cover, e-mailed the paper’s news account and told us her neighbors all were worried about cases of the fungal infection in people and dogs.

The Daily Herald previously had reported that the county’s Health Department was studying the elusive fungus, in cooperation with the Centers for Disease Control and state health officials. Officials hoped that a spike in cases in Marathon County would give them new opportunities to learn more about the disease.

But when I asked the Health Department to be as specific as possible about the location of the cases — without violating privacy law — officials said they didn’t want to affect property values and didn’t feel releasing the information was in the public interest.

The newsroom disagreed, and I filed an open records request for the information. Last week, the Health Department released a map of the area, demonstrating that cases occurred in three large clusters in the Wausau area. A story about the new detail and residents’ reactions to it ran yesterday.

We understand that blastomycosis is a tricky disease. Scientists know very little about how the spores that cause the disease develop. The organism has not been isolated in a lab, preventing study of how and when it develops. But there is no question that people living in these areas have every right to know when and where endemic diseases appear.

First major project at the Daily Herald

The battle over a proposed wood-burning energy plant in Rothschild pits neighbors against neighbors and leaves others in a plume of confusion over who’s right and who’s wrong. In a comprehensive report, the Wausau Daily Herald today sorts through the controversy and separates facts from fears.

Amy Ryan, another reporter at the Daily Herald, and I worked on this project for the last month. Amy handled the resident feedback, talking to the real people whose lives could be affected if the plant is approved and built. I focused on the science and economic information included and wrote the piece with guidance and help from editors, of course.

This issue isn’t going anywhere and I have a lot of ideas about how to follow up this report. But just on its own, I’m really proud of today’s story. I do wish we had spent more time thinking about online components, video to start with and other graphic presentations for the story itself. Practically, I’m still adjusting to what we can and can’t do. But I think this issue is important enough to create some evergreen content – flash graphics, etc. – that people will be interested in for several years.

Reporter advice

Others have written better evaluations of Mitch Albom’s work, columns and books, but I have to admit the guy knows how to give a speech.

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New job and something to start reading

I’ve been following @AnnaTarkov for awhile on twitter. She’s just one of those people that quickly gain a reputation for being involved in a particular city, town, village, whatever. In Anna’s case, that’s Chicago and its surrounding suburbs.

Maybe most importantly, she’s a frequent news consumer and she recently began a series of online interviews with news consumers in Chicago. Only four interviews in, I’m hooked. As a student editor at the Daily Illini, I constantly wanted to know more about what our readers thought of the content in our print and online product – and what they thought was missing. Like many things at a student publication, reader feedback seemed to slip through the cracks unless a specific person reached out to our staff through a phone call, letter or tweet. Looking back, I’d put more focus on being proactive as a news organization and seeking reader feedback rather than just waiting for it to roll in.

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