This is a blog post about how I do my work!
A few months ago an editor from Loyola University's alumni magazine asked if I'd be available to contribute to their alumni magazine and gave me a selection of stories from which to choose. I selected one on how Loyola Stands Against Gun Violence works to address gun violence nationally and in Maywood, where the university's medical center is located. As a regular donor to Everytown, this story was of special interest to me.
When I first began my foray into freelancing, I used to say that I wasn't a "real" journalist. I have friends who attended journalism school, who worked for the AP, who toiled for daily newspapers. It was always cool to visit my friends in New Orleans and see my buddy Rich's byline in the Times-Picayune on the front page, above the fold when we stayed with them. I didn't get the training many "real" journalists got in terms of breaking news, covering city council meetings, listening in on the police scanner, things like that. I happily chose a world of puffy features, things like a profile of a high-end stationery company or how a wedding designer created the perfect centerpiece for his rich clients. The most breaking news I often covered was who got kicked off American Idol each week.
I got my first actual full-time writing job at the University of Chicago in 2012 (instead of freelancing on the side when I could grab the time from my previous assistant job). The work was by and large similar profile and feature work, until one day my boss assigned me a gig for the social sciences newsletter profiling Lars Peter Hansen, who had just won the Nobel Prize for macroeconomics. Ummm...a Nobel Prize winner? In economics? I could barely explain what regular economics was, let alone MACRO-economics. I nervously suggested that perhaps we should get a freelancer who actually knew what they were doing to do the job. "You can do it," she told me. "You don't have to learn everything about macroeconomics. Just report until you know what questions to ask"
I got to Googling and figured out my angle about what made Dr. Hansen and his work noteworthy from a social sciences perspective. He was, happily, a nice guy who didn't give me hell for asking questions (in fact I interviewed him again, later, for another story. He's the nicest, not to mention only, Nobel Prize winner I've ever had coffee with.)
Anyway, I got to work on this gun violence story and began to feel that old familiar impostor syndrome again. I had covered trauma-informed care before, but not something as broad as this, something that basically everyone in America has strong opinions about, coming from very different angles, something that is in the news every day. On an oppressively cloudy day when I did a Zoom call with Maywood's police chief, incoming mayor, and business community liaison, I thought, how in the hell am I going to make this a story? The topic seemed so overreaching, never-ending, crushing, misunderstood. How did these men show up to work every day with optimism? How, during a pandemic, was I going to Zoom my way from Evanston and tell a cogent story, one that captured all the nuances in a way that was uplifting enough to make the readers support Loyola Stands in a realistic, non-Pollyanna way that also avoided tropes about depressed neighborhoods and marginalized folks?
I did what my old boss told me to do--I reported until I figured the angles out. Speaking with a law professor gave me a perspective that I never had before on social justice issues and gun violence. The group told me about the connection between economic opportunity and reducing violence. I had a long, sad, but also deeply enjoyable conversation with the medical center's chaplain, who happens to be a member of the group. I realized he was my lead--his work captured the group's efforts and the human side to the work.
Here is the final story. I'm not saying it's an award-winning piece or anything but I look back at where I came from earlier in my career and how afraid I was to touch "real" news and how reluctant I was to call myself a reporter because I didn't have a long skinny notebook or know how to write quickly on command or get tips or show up at the scene of a crime. I'm not a reporter, but I know how to report. And I learned a lot more about gun violence than I did beforehand, how much more nuance there is to it and, as my legal source said, how people on one side of the issue are so unwilling to hear anything that doesn't align with their own views.
I wrote this "behind the music" on the gun violence piece days before I published an essay with The Cut on a much less serious issue, but the same approach applied. My editor asked me to write about how refreshing it is when beauty influencers are honest about getting plastic surgery and Botox. I agreed with the premise and wanted to work on the story, except there was just one thing--I don't really follow influencers! It's just not how I read the internet, or how I shop, or how I follow people. I like to obsess over people and envy them in a more old-fashioned way. So, again, I reported my way into the assignment, starting with a Chicago influencer who made news not long ago for posting about her botched Botox, chatting with a plastic surgeon friend, a friend who happens to be an influencer, and interviewing a woman who is writing a book about influencers and seeing where that got me until I figured out what I had to say and what else to explore, even if I am not super-fluent in influencer.
I'm really grateful for that mentor who taught me that you don't have to be an All The President's Men type reporter to know how to dig into a story.