I just watched the 1976 film “All the President’s Men,” because, obviously, that’s how I de-stress right before finals week.
I followed Woodward and Bernstein as they met with officials in florescent lit parking garages and drank tea with sources on the stoops of their houses. And something struck me. Instead of instantly dialing a phone number or sending an email, how many times this semester did I actually get my butt out of newsroom and go, you know, be a reporter? The answer – not near enough.
So, I changed that this week. The education team at the Columbia Missourian has been working on a huge eBook project about the soon-to-open Battle High School (it’ll be publishing soon, so keep an eye out). For our reporting to be as well-rounded as possible, we needed to gather the perspective of folks living near Battle. Sounds easy enough, right?
And thus my adventures in shoe-leather reporting began. It was a sunny Monday afternoon when I pulled into one of the neighborhoods right across from Battle. I was ready. I was channeling my inner Woodward and Bernstein. I was going to get some people to talk to me. It was going to be great.
I bounded up the stairs to the first house, pulled out my reporter’s notebook, flipped to a new page and pressed the doorbell. Here we go! … And there went my first notch of confidence. Because no one came to the door. I took a few seconds, paused for that last just-in-case moment, and hopped over to the next house. Ding-dong. I strained to hear life behind the door. There was some rustling and I swear I saw a man lift up the shades. Hope stirred anew. I prepared my “Hi, I’m a reporter from the Columbia Missourian” speech. Except, again, no one answered the door. The same thing happened after the next three doorbells I rang. My confidence was now trotting right alongside my shoes.
Finally, I approached a red brick house with the front door slightly opened. This was a perfect senario. They can’t hid behind an open door, and they certainty can’t ignore me. I slowly eased my way up the steps with caution, hiding my notebook behind my back (I had decided that made me look too threatening). I knocked timidly, swinging the door open a little further. A women was standing in the living room, holding a cigarette in one hand and folding laundry with the other.
“Excuse me ma’am,” I start off, about to get to my please-talk-to-me-I’m-a-reporter bit.
But then she interrupted me.
“Aren’t you done selling those?” she asked, her head cocking to the side in a kind of amused annoyance.
“Uhhmggggm,” is essentially what I respond with, before recovering a little bit and asking, “Am I selling….what?”
“I thought you girls were done selling cookies by now,” she says, taking a step closer to the door.
And it all clicks. She thinks I’m a Girl Scout, selling Girl Scout cookies. Apparently, I’m not a 20-year-old education reporter (And let me tell you, I thought I was dressed pretty professionally). No. I’m actually 12-years-old with a wagon full of cookies somewhere behind me. Remember how I said my confidence was at ground level? This woman just dug a 6-foot hole.
My response at this point was either to laugh or to cry, so of course I laughed. I collected myself, climbed on out of that hole and ended up having a really great conversation with this lady about the impact Battle has had on her neighborhood.
So, here’s my conclusion: Shoe-leather reporting is hard. It’s awkward. There’s a reason journalists nowadays are so much more comfortable hiding behind phone lines and emails. But if I let the fear of getting out there and approaching people get to me, I’m just chained to a newsroom. That’s not the reason I wanted to become a journalist. I love meeting people and hearing their stories, even the ones that mistake me for a 12-year-old cookie-pusher.
If I had stayed in my little newsroom bubble, I would have never heard about how this lady has been living in that house since Battle construction started. I would have never found the excitement in her eyes when she talked about seeing the Friday night football lights from her front yard. I would have never heard the joy in her voice when she talked about the neighborhood kids walking just a few yards to school instead of riding a dirty, hot bus.
So, here’s to getting ourselves out of the newsroom more often.
I have no doubt that my pride will take a few more blows, but I think that’s a good thing. And I’m sure I’ll collect some great stories along the way. Also, if any of you Girl Scouts out there have some extra Thin Mints, I know a lady looking for some.