Focus, Allie

A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting briefly with one of my editors at the TH. Unfortunately, I’ve slept several times since then, so I don’t remember what we were talking about. What I do remember is that I was starting to slide off into a tangent on my end of the conversation.

My editor’s response: “Focus, Allie.”

In a lot of ways, those words have been on my mind a lot over the last couple of weeks.

As the summer intern, I cover a lot of random events. Interestingly enough, I realized that as basic as event coverage can be, I only covered one or two public events during two semesters at the Missourian. I covered plenty of meetings and presentations and such, but I almost never went to your standard “people hanging out and eating and playing strange games and planting flowers and whatever else they’re supposed to do” events.

Generally, I  set about those assignments the best way I thought I knew how. I showed up, I talked to a few people, I came back, I wrote about the people I talked to, added a punchy lead and a nut graph and called it a day.

This past week, I found out that for my Saturday coverage, I’d be driving to rural Wisconsin to cover a particularly unusual event: lawn mower racing. (Yes it’s a real thing, and yes, from having covered the event, it’s as fantastic as it sounds.)

The day before I was set to cover the races, I received an email from my editor, asking me to settle on a focus for the lawn mower story before I went to the event. Get a specific angle, he told me, and focus in on it while you’re covering the event. That way, when I sat down to write the story, it would feel more like, well, a story, than a random collection of people saying interesting things.

So I took his advice. I settled on a specific group of people I wanted to cover, and I thought a little more carefully about what I wanted to know. And when I set out to cover the lawn mower races, I knew who I was looking for, and I used the focus I had to ask better, more interesting questions to get more details from my interviews. The result was a story that I think turned out pretty well. Because of space constraints, I had about 11-inches to make my point, but the brevity allowed me to really focus in on one person I interviewed, which I was able to do because I’d had a longer, more focused interview with him.

Maybe it’s a bit silly for me to just be really learning this after two semesters at the Missourian. And maybe, in a sense, I already knew this, I’d just never been able to apply it in this way. But by learning to be more careful about focusing my stories before I report them, I made my reporting and writing better.

When I was in 4450, I distinctly remember learning a lesson from covering several school board meetings with agendas that weren’t necessarily earth-shattering: it doesn’t have to be sexy, what matters is that you were there. And when the district is deciding how much it wants to spend on bonds or how a tax levy will affect the budget, this is true.

But sometimes, just telling people you were there isn’t enough. When the school board decides to re-zone a district full of students, people understand that what you’re telling them is important. When you’re covering four Fourth of July events in less than a week, it’s harder to convince your readers they should care.

So sometimes, the point of reporting isn’t just “I was there.” Sometimes the point is “I was there, and now I’m going to tell you why you should care.” That doesn’t mean I convince people that lawn mower racing will radically affect their lives. But it does mean I try to give them some kind of insight. I tell them about something I don’t know. I help them understand another human being or a way of life a little bit better. I write with the goal of making my readers walk away from the story at least thinking to themselves, “Well, that was interesting.”

Week 7 summary: Covered the Dubuque County Board of Supervisors’ meeting (local government), followed an emergency management team assessing infrastructure damage in a county in Wisconsin (produced a story, a short sidebar and a photo that was published in print — 1A, above the fold), wrote about an osprey release event, reported on a company’s “Take your child to work day,” wrote a short feature about a local teen who started a texting and driving campaign, completed an update on a major road construction project, covered the lawn mower races

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