A body in my backyard

It’s my first breaking news shift as an intern for the Winnipeg Free Press.

I wake up at 5:30 am, put on the coffee and have a long shower. Up next is writing a few stories for the web and then keeping my eyes and ears ready for news. My phone rings.

“Where do you live?” asks my editor.
“South side of Winnipeg, on Wilkes Avenue.”
“Are you kidding me? – there are reports of a body floating in a retention pond off Wilkes.”

The same retention pond I could see as I looked out the window.

I get in my car and drive east a few buildings down. Only one police cruiser and an ambulance are at the scene. I arrived to see the non-descript body being placed on the stretcher with a white blanket over top. More police arrive and they pay no attention to the girl who looks like an uninformed neighbourhood resident.

No one’s saying anything so I head into the building that borders on the scene where the body was found, live tweeting as the event unfolds. I poke my head around a few more corners then “how did you slip by here?”  The area was secured inside and out, so I waited in my car for someone – anyone – to leave the locked building. Finally someone does: a veteran reporter from Nova Scotia on holiday to visit her aunt. She had poked around herself and filled me in: police are canvassing the building, asking if anyone’s seen anything. And it was the care taker who called in the floating body.

For all the intensity of a body in my backyard, the last word I received was the possibility of suicide – a story to go unreported in the media.

***

I’ve always said nothing beats being there and, as I’ve discovered recently, nothing beats the rush of getting to news first.

When I started my internship at the Free Press last week, the building itself was a little daunting; cubicles galore occupied by writers whose work I’ve followed for a long time.

But things get better and first day jitters calm down quickly. I’ve done three internships before and the great thing about them is you’re going to have some “tough love” lessons on the job – if you’re lucky. Some just don’t work out, while others have surprise endings:

Technical difficulty

It was the very first day in the newsroom and it’s painfully slow – Easter Monday and city hall, the legislature and the law courts are all closed. No streeters there, Duncan McMonagle. So instead I start perusing my social media networks while keeping in touch with other sources and writing web stories.

I land on an event happening at UW: a talk-back discussion with members from Invisible Children, the organization behind KONY 2012. The editors liked the idea and after filing some short pieces I head home to prep for the night. I go to the lecture, interview many intriguing people and get to writing. My deadline is 9:00 pm, I’m done at 8:30. Only problem: I have no internet.

I make the quick drive to the college. Start the computer and transfer my file over with a stick. It’s corrupt and won’t open. I have five minutes to deadline. I try different ways of pulling my file off the computer to no avail. With ten minutes past the deadline, I submit my file without being able to open it on the computer I’m sending from. Editor couldn’t open it and things were way behind- another one for the tough luck books.

Verbal interaction

Personality is what I want editors to get from me. At the end of the internship, I’m another student floating in and out; knowing who I am, how I interact with people in the newsroom is key to figuring out if this is the place for me – and vice versa.

One day the writers were preparing pieces for a feature on the Provincial Nominee Program reorganization (so to speak). I overheard my editor and a writer talking about finding people – so I mentioned my family used the program. Before the day was out, I wrote a personal piece about my family’s use of the PNP, and why it’s an asset for immigrants in all standings: Community kept us here.

It turned out to be a great way to share a story I’m proud to tell and try a different voice. Editors saw a different side to me and many people I knew responded positively to the story. The piece ran again in print this past Monday in the Brandon Sun.

 “I wish I could say have a good day, but I cannot find the words”

You’re not a journalist until you receive a letter of discontent.

Thankfully my first letter was, in my humble opinion, not too grave. A dignitary who attended the Transcona 100 sent me words of venom (ALL IN CAPS) for not specifically mentioning his name in the article. He was one of more than 10 dignitaries at the event, and while he is no less important than other dignitaries, I only mentioned the few key people who spoke early on in the presentation.

I responded to him respectively and hope that when I encounter him in person, there will be a mutual agreement to move forward professionally. It’s an important lesson to learn, that of pride. Dealing with your own and others can be a delicate balance.

No story is ever too small

And now I leave you on a positive note.

On my second day I was sent to cover a story about grade four to six students at a Winnipeg school who created original art work to auction off for sick kids.

While the adults and kids I met were terrific, I was worried there wasn’t much of a story. So I opened myself to taking a softer writing approach to a story I personally found touching. The piece didn’t run the next day, as it wasn’t time sensitive and there was enough content.

The next day it ran I had a few emails waiting for me. A local gallery owner sent me a message saying a board member of his cooperative suggested donating an artistry book to the classes as a thank you for their community involvement. It was such a sweet gesture, it made me realize (once more) no story is ever too small.

And reminded me it’s for the community, and its betterment, that we write.

If you’d like to contact me with letters of discontent or happiness, please make my day by emailing them to daniella.ponticelli@freepress.mb.ca.

Making every fail a ‘learning lesson’

When things go wrong in journalism school, it’s actually a good thing.

I’ve been learning this lesson throughout my time in CreComm, but it finally settled in Thursday when some technical difficulties in a news cast led to great teamwork and overall, an amazing (fun) show.

It all comes down to how you deal – and no, I’m not a zen master so it’s hit and miss on how I’ll react. But the more time I spend practising my craft, I realize making mistakes is inevitable and the more you try not to, the worse it burns.

Take the autofail, where an assignment is branded with an F is one name is spelled incorrectly. Yes it’s about not making the same mistake twice, but it’s also working through what could be perceived as a disappointment. Trust me, after four of these it’s like a bee sting.

And while it’s not always the easiest way to learn, I believe it’s the best damn way. So I’ve decided to lay it out: my “five important lessons learned the hard way” in journalism school.

Spelling matters, even on Twitter

Sometimes an honest mistake can cause enough curiosity on Twitter to drive more traffic to your blog. I was still green to the micro-blogging site when I (mean to) tweet out “It’s Halloween, and the Feed has for you a scary love story: Blood Clock.”

For some reason, I was getting quite a bit of hits on this poetry post. The next day a classmate of mine  says “I was curious when I saw the title on Twitter, spelling mistakes are a bitch.” Turns out it was a scary mistake: I forgot to add the L in clock.

Remove “stalker” from your vocabulary

One challenging aspects of being a student reporter is having the time to play phone tag and e-mail snake with your contacts. Sometimes you have to put the gadgets aside and go in head first.

For one broadcast story, my shooter and I decided we would find our interview subject by quite literally stalking the halls of the University of Manitoba. We knocked on doors, we sounded official and magically we walked in to the lobby at the right time to find him. And of course, we politely asked him for an interview.

Canada 411 is a crucial resource.

Yes, that tripod is supposed to have a plate

Because I’m not a media production student, I sometimes push my intuition aside because well, it’s easier to simply place blind trust in the camera bag i.e. assuming all your equipment is there and in order.

I have so many tales of the broadcast shoot gone wrong: no tape/SD card in the camera, no white balance, no audio and one time, my shooter didn’t hit record.

But my most recent ‘encounter-with-technology’ happened on my trip to Hecla, Manitoba. Every tripod needs a plate – even if your camera is little and a veteran shooter tells you it doesn’t.  So I shot handheld for everything (my preference anyway), but when it came down to doing my stand-up (my little bit on the screen) I had to think of how to level a camera that is balancing  45 degrees between a hope and a prayer.

Turns out Manitoba is flat enough to level the camera without much hassle.

It’s all in the ask

Knowing what you’re looking for in a story is the first step – the next is asking the most clear and concise question humanly possible.

Take into account what exactly you need from this person. My favourite example of a question that was much too broad happened when I was the shooter, and the reporter was doing a story about roof repairs on an old church in Winnipeg.

To begin, we only have 2 hours to shoot, enough time for a 1 minute full story. We’re already in the third quarter and it’s time to interview the reverend. To warm him up, my reporter asks “so, can you give us a brief history on the church?” About 12 minutes later we arrive at the end of his answer and we didn’t use any of it.

All we want to know is how this repair is affecting people. Not the history of a 100 year old church. Bad ask on the reporter’s part and something I myself have done leading to 20 minutes of interview. Yuck.

How do you spell your name again?

Never  assume you know how to spell someone’s name. Not in the age where names are spelled with “unique twists” like Jaremy. I, of course, made this mistake – and failed hard – even after I interviewed the person for more than an hour and even though this person is on TV anchoring the news every night. It’s Leclerc, not LeClerc, who’d have known.

It’s embarrassing, but more importantly it’s lazy. I just thought the C needed some extra attention, boy was I wrong; albeit consistently wrong. So my favourite question is, and will always be, can you say and spell your name? Because in this day and age, you never know what you’ll get.

Can you find the name mistake on the cover below?

*

 

By Student Journalist

For the past two weeks, me and three fellow Crecomms have been covering election news for CJOB news radio. For one assignment, I had to do a live hit from an advanced polling station. When I showed up there, I started chatting to two workers, making sure not to disturb anyone voting.

Then introduced myself to the lady staring me down.

“Who you with?”
“I’m working with CJOB”

She immediately pulled out her phone to call who she called “her media guy.” One of the workers then said “she’s a student – right? You’re a student?” I paused; the lady on the phone was waiting for my answer. I explained I’m a student intern at CJOB.

“See, she’s with CJOB.” I was immediately asked to vacate the area.

I honestly believe, had I said “I’m a student” from the get-go, I would have been able to stay.

For the most part, people in the industry do their jobs well and treat me and my colleagues the way they do other media personnel.

For example, I had to write about an event downtown for The Projector – the Red River College newspaper. I called my contacts and the guy organizing it put me on the media list and treated me just like every other reporter in attendance. He did his job as a PR person and I was able to do mine.

When I was digging around for candidates to talk to for a school assignment and then for a community newspaper piece, I was always treated like other media. The big difference: as a community newspaper writer I was given more priority than the “student” me.

I’m in an interesting position as a journalism student. For each assignment, whether it is for school, freelance or internship, I have to feel out whether or not to use the word “student.” Sometimes, however, I don’t have the choice of leaving that out. There are a few key factors that make being a student journalist challenging:

1. Busy during daytime hours: in the creative communications program, there aren’t very many “free” days. There might be an hour or two here and there during regular business hours – but on the whole, trying to set up an interview can be tough. People expect it to happen during business hours. Most of the time, it has to be done over the phone – but you have to make sure it happens when you’re not in class.

2. Writing isn’t my only commitment: seriously, I’m doing about seven different projects at any given time in order to get material covered for school. As far as I know, full-time reporters focus on their job. Sure it can be busy, however, I highly doubt they take home nine hours of homework. But I digress.

3. How credible am I?: It can be hit or miss on this point. Of course, I’m building my credibility and working towards having a great portfolio. But for some, the student word means they don’t need to give me the time of day.

So am I getting the real experience?

I realized this is an unfair question. The only way I’m ever going to get that “I’m-an-employed-journalist-with-a-media-outlet” experience is by actually being an employed journalist with a media outlet. Or when we have a chance to do our work placement.

But being a student journalist has its perks. It’s exciting, it’s fun – and it’s what I love to do. Oh, and I get to do cool things like this:

1. Creating internships: I called up a newspaper I was interested in working for, and they gladly welcomed the help. It was unpaid, and all the editors I worked with took time to mentor my writing. I have a feeling that sort of attention wouldn’t happen if I wasn’t a student.    

2. Getting valuable lessons: Right now, the Crecomm journalism students are working as community newspaper reporters. Our editors are taking the time to go through our writing, and they understand that it’s all a learning process. At CJOB, everyone in the newsroom takes time to acquaint us with equipment, writing style, and any of our many questions. Boom – being a student rocks.

3. 
Gaining access and trust: I’ve experienced a few times, that being a student can gain you access into events. I had the chance to see the state of the city address last year, along with working as a journalist embed with the military. Soldiers felt comfortable talking to me because as a student, well I don’t seem like such a threat.

I’m only going to have the title of “student” once, may as well enjoy this experience – and its challenges – while it lasts.

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