Monday, May 14, 2012

School District Budgets Rejected

The voting public shut down budgets in three South Jersey school districts last month--all three of which did not exceed the state's 2 percent cap on tax-levy increases. It was my job to summarize the results of the election (which included the budgets on the ballot) in my story. It was a daunting task, filled with scary tax jargon. Yet, with the help of my editors and repeated clarification from my sources, I think it turned out OK.

This story reminded me that education reporting--an area I've become increasingly drawn to this year--is not just uplifting features and teacher's strikes. It involves A LOT of heavy lifting: sorting through legal texts and  deciphering budgets are only the beginning. However scary, the story taught me to get over my inferiority complex when it comes to fancy legal jargon. I've learned that it pays to look stupid initially in interviews. Asking a bureaucrat, or for that matter a doctor or professor, to put something in regular person terms is an essential part of familiarizing yourself with a topic. If you don't speak the language, don't even try to "fake it until you make it."

Tiny Fishermen

I always love a cutesy kid story.  And the cute factor is compounded with the addition of animals and jolly older folks.

In one of my last assignments for the Inquirer, I was asked to cover "Mr. Gary's Fishing Derby," a spring break tradition in the Mount Laurel school district. Mr. Gary is a beloved school bus driver for the Mount Laurel School's kindergartners and organizes a fishing contest each year at local park's pond. A fishing enthusiast, Mr. Gary decorates his school bus with aquatic paraphernalia and preaches the benefits of fishing to his young passengers throughout the school year.

I got to go to the "contest," talk to Mr. Gary, children, parents and officials from the school district. At risk of sounding old, it was nice to see a big group of very young children enjoying the great outdoors. I'm comforted to know people still do that.

Sometimes I get to go to the park!

Halfway through my internship, I was assigned to preview a public hearing on a $23 million  revitalization project for the Cooper River Park. The park is home to a significant rowing community, whose regattas are an "economic boon" for local business. Proponents of the project allege the spending project will attract more prestigious races to the park, i.e., rich people that will spend money at local restaurants and hotels.

My editor asked for a brief preview, which I could have easily accomplished without picking up the phone or moving from my desk. But that's boring. It was a nice day, so I took a drive over to the park and interviewed a few picnickers who frequent the park. Not surprisingly, most people I talked to thought the project was not a great way to spend taxpayer money in such a tight budget climate. I ended up getting some really colorful quotes from one guy, who equated the project to spending money on a new flower bed when you can't pay the mortgage. That was a nice gift :)

On its face, the story was pretty lame, but it reinforced to me that it ALWAYS pays to go to the scene and get mixed up in the story.

Uncle's War Letters Reach Across Generation

Perhaps my favorite story this semester was a feature on a Rutgers student who is co-authoring a book with his history professor. The book, tentatively titled "Everyman in Vietnam," chronicles the story of Jimmy Gilch--the student's uncle who was killed in the war--and the concurrent cultural and political history. For author Joe Gilch, the book is a summation of a lifelong obsession with his uncle, a man he knew only through pictures, family stories and  the 80 letters he wrote home to New Jersey while in Vietnam.

I began my reporting by traveling to the student's house in Glendora, just 20 minutes from the Cherry Hill newsroom. When I arrived at Gilch's home, a modest but dignified single story house, he and his mother greeted me at the door.  I sat right down in their cheerfully decorated kitchen, which had been tidied for company, and began the interview. It was very fluid and conversational; it didn't hurt that Gilch and I have similar interests and are at the same place in life.

I couldn't make it up to New Brunswick to speak with Michael Adas, the professor who is writing the historical context of the book, so I interviewed him over the phone. The interview went well, and provided another layer to the story: the transformation of Gilch,  the student, throughout the writing process.

All in all, I really enjoyed this story. I had to do some heavy lifting to weave in multiple components (the historical context, the writing process, the student's personal story), but it turned out to be a nice news feature.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A bit of nostalgia..

For a recent story, I got to revisit a childhood favorite: American Girl dolls. Each of historically-themed dolls comes with its own book series and "my-size" clothing, and each year the Camden Ronald McDonald house partners with the doll company to put on a fashion show fundraiser.

One of the original models from the fundraiser's inception 16 years ago is Sammi-Jo Danze, the reigning Miss New Jersey United States. I visited the Ronald McDonald House in downtown Camden to interview Danze, talk to the people at the House and meet a current model and her parents. It was fun to see how excited the younger "model"was to walk down runway dressed in her Julie doll outfit.

Black History in the Barbershop

At the close of Black History Month, I covered a storytelling/sing-a-long event at RC's Tonsorial Barbershop in downtown Camden. It was the kind of event story I live for. The kind where, but for my notepad and pen, I would be so utterly out of place.

Civil War re-enactors, members of the Buffalo Soldier motorcycle team and dozens from the community crowded in the small corner barbershop to sing freedom hymns and share stories about their history. The highlight was speaking with RC himself, a very wise man with an incredible beard. He told me about growing up in Camden during the Civil Rights movement and raising his children in the same neighborhood.

I'm enjoying getting to know Camden as something other than "that place over the bridge where I'm not to get lost."

A Camden Legend

Midway through my internship, I was assigned to help out with a article memorializing Melvin "Randy" Primas, former Camden mayor and a pillar of the community. I was given a list of names to call to get a better picture of who he was, what he stood for, what his legacy will be. It's always tough talking to people about death--let alone complete strangers--but everyone I talked to was willing to share their memories of Primas with me.

I got to work with a pretty senior reporter on this story, which was neat. Though S. Jersey is a bit slower, I'm liking how the smaller newsroom makes approaching other reporters less scary. In the vast newsroom at 400 N. Broad, I'd have to allot 30-45 seconds of deep, yogic breathing before I said hi to anyone.