Let’s take a break from our discussion of writing programs to profile the last of our journalism graduates, a court reporter for a small daily in western Pennsylvania. This posting will focus on her day-to-day writing, while a second will reflect on her undergraduate education and suggestions she has for curriculum revision. One highlight of what follows is its demonstration of how a newspaper journalist’s professional life hasn’t changed in the last several decades, and how it has changed, mostly due to the digital revolution and her employer’s consequent economizing strategies.
The subject is a reporter for a small daily newspaper that publishes Monday through Saturday and has a circulation of a little over 8,000, according to the media web site Mondo Times. Her paper is owned by a media group that also publishes other small dailies, specialized magazines, community-based weekly newspapers, and a big-city daily as well. Her main beat is the county courthouse, but she also does general reporting; that is her sole job, as she has no editing duties, not even copy editing. The paper is located in a small borough of around 4,400 people, the seat of a predominantly rural western Pennsylvania county with a population of just over 69,000. Our subject’s writing samples were all published within the six weeks prior to the interview and consisted of the following stories: a local family who attended the presidential inauguration; a skills competition featuring students from a nearby technical school; a grant-funded position in the county’s probation department, designed to help offenders escape substance addictions; the incarceration of a man accused of attempted armed robbery; and the refusal of a new trial for a man convicted four years earlier of causing the death of his daughter by withholding food.
While the subject thought everything she wrote was “public,” as defined by the survey question, she balked at the idea of being “persuasive,” adhering as she did to the professional code of journalistic “objectivity.” She did agree that her work was seeking to persuade readers of her impartial stance and of the verisimilitude of what her stories contained. “I’m trying to get as much information as possible to make a good story. Make it interesting to someone. Talk to as many people as I think is necessary to put something good together. And kind of appeal to maybe those people’s neighbors, other people like them in the county who share the same interests. There’s a lot of trails and stuff in the county, so people are, seem to be, focused on recreation, hunting, boating, with the river and everything.” That last sentence came only after several prods from the interviewer regarding the subject’s conception of her audience. She was clearly more used to interviewing than to being interviewed, and her deliberate approach, with fairly lengthy intervals of silence, probably makes her an effective interviewer. “I’m normally a shy person,” the subject said at one point, “and it’s [her work] kind of different from my personality. But it was something I liked to do. Go out and talking with people, writing down what they’re saying, and coming back and writing it in a way that other people would want to read it.”
The subject’s style concerns generally adhered to guidelines that could be found in the Associated Press style book. Since she is a courthouse reporter she has to make sure she differentiates between the guilty and the merely charged (the “alleged” or the “accused”), uses the proper title or honorific alongside the name of a quoted source, and places the story within a context the reader will recognize, particularly necessary in the case of the father convicted years before of starving his child. “I can’t assume that someone already knows what happened and why he is serving this life conviction.” She is conscious of mixing long sentences in with short ones, of “trying to keep the verb and the time element close,” and of avoiding excessive repetition of a term or word, such as “Steelers” in a story about local interest in the Super Bowl. One opening sentence she wrote—“_____ _______ wanted her family to watch history being made”—was written with an awareness that the newly inaugurated president’s photograph would appear on the same page, thus insuring that a reader should immediately know the history to which she was referring and, possibly, continue on with the rest of the story.
When preparing a story the subject uses a variety of tools—hand-written notes, e-mail, information found at web sites, the telephone, a computer, and a digital voice recorder. The voice recorder is not used “very often anymore. … I used it mostly at meetings, because I kind of felt a little bit uneasy about being able to write everything and know who was saying what, so I just had it there. … Like if someone said something and I didn’t get all the quote, then I could always go back. I don’t use it that much now I think because I don’t have a meeting to go to every month. … And I feel a little bit more confident now in my note-taking ability.” Very rarely was she asked to take the photographs for a story she was producing. The software the subject used primarily was something called News Engine, which the media group had apparently purchased because reporters could write their story directly under where it appeared in the “news budget,” that is, the list compiled by editors of stories that were scheduled to appear in that day’s paper. “After the story is done, … you click on send and it’ll take them to the desk, and it goes into first read. And then the editor can go in and edit it and move it ahead and eventually ready for specs and ready for page. And then the people down in Pittsburgh who do our pages, they can pull those stories out and put them onto the pages and lay it out and everything.”
Apparently to cut costs, the media group that owned the newspaper had centralized the production end of all their publications. The office of the paper where the subject worked was dedicated to editorial work only; the reporter wasn’t even sure if her editors wrote the headlines for her stories. One other aspect of her writing bears mentioning, the pressure to produce copy that any print journalist will sometimes resent. “We’re working on a special section and everyone has to do about ten stories featuring _________ County families. So we’re kind of trying to work on that at the same time while doing our regular stuff. So it’s a little bit hard to balance that. I was doing the special section stuff today, didn’t really produce for tomorrow’s paper.”