By Jo E. Prout
You know how it is. You get busy at work, juggling projects with different deadlines, and trying to keep everything afloat while getting priority tasks finished. That’s how it is at The Enterprise, too. On our small scale, we still succumb to the news cycle larger media outlets live by — showcasing features and special-interest stories when “happening” news doesn’t crowd them out.
That news cycle is the reason we can’t always offer in-depth coverage for each local event or accomplishment, although we love to write about our readers. We do! Feature writing is one of the perks of the job, and we reporters relish each opportunity to listen to and learn from local residents and to present their stories in thoughtful ways.
A simple phone call or visit lets us get to know our subjects, hear their stories firsthand, and even tease out small, tangential anecdotes that lend flavor and substance to a feature.
Sometimes, it doesn’t work out that way, and not because of the news cycle. Sometimes, people don’t want to be interviewed. Some people are private beings and, in features, we respect that request to be left out of the public eye.
Some people are busy, and never get back to us. And, sometimes, red tape ties up all hope of completing an interview.
That’s what happened with a local White House intern. We received a press release that provided a cell phone number for a young professional working for a semester at the White House. I found 20 minutes to squeeze into my day and I called him. Voice mail. He was busy or screening the call. I left a message and hoped he’d call back before my 20 minutes were up. He didn’t. On to the next news story, I thought.
The next day, there was an e-mail from the White House in my in-box. Now, you may be ecstatic about your job, or you may trudge into work each day, but you have to admit that finding an e-mail from the White House is pretty neat-o and breaks up the monotony. I was definitely curious, but here’s where the story could go all slanted and political, so let’s break it down first.
I am a married, middle-class educated female vegetarian who still uses her maiden name while writing for a newspaper in the northeastern United States. I will let you assume my political leanings, but whichever direction you choose, keep going. Farther. I’m off the charts.
Being a news reporter suits me because I don’t tolerate prevarication or bureaucracy. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines the former as an evasion of truth, and the latter as inflexible routine, with the following note: “see also, RED TAPE.”
My e-mail was from the director of specialty media in the White House’s office of communications. The intern had followed protocol and forwarded my message, which he did receive. I was instructed to forward any questions to the director.
He would work on getting the intern’s responses, and forward them to me. Seriously? I laughed, saved the e-mail, and went to a meeting.
I ignored the e-mail for several days, as the deadline for the week had passed and the new week required additional juggling. But, I couldn’t get that bureaucratic note out of my head. Submit my questions, I was told, and they, collectively, would edit and return a careful reply.
No. That’s not what I do. I have interview skills honed over 20 years. No skills needed? Just send my questions and take whatever I’m given? No. I talk to people. I listen. I formulate new questions based on their ideas.
I find interesting facets of their personalities, and capture them for others to read in quoted comments. I’m not at a press conference, ready to call out a pre-written question with the hope of a 10-second response. No.
Still, a local resident in the White House would make a nice feature, and should be documented in our gem of a small-town paper, so I found a few more minutes in my day and composed a reply to the communications office. That’s not what I do, I wrote, but if your intern wants to share his motivations and career goals, and any comments about his family or interests, I’ll give it a shot.
The gobbledy-gook I received back a week later, past another week’s deadline, was too bland and short to make into a feature. I don’t know if those were the words of the intern, or if they were carefully edited to be worthy of a response from the White House, but my short Irish temper was on the rise.
The gall of these people to waste my time! The waste of my taxes, to pay for the salaries of the people who instituted the inflexible routine that necessitated this back-and-forth farce!
I looked up the director’s salary: $78,000 in 2011. While my search showed me how many of the White House staff work for less than $60,000 in an expensive city, it also showed me just how many people are on the White House’s payroll. Could it be too many? Was I climbing back onto the political chart?
I sent back a further response, asking for specific answers to specific questions, like “where,” “when,” and “how?” You know, basic stuff that doesn’t require any spin. Apparently, the intern worked with “top people” at the “tops of their fields.” Well, now we know. Or rather, we don’t.
What should have happened? A quick call should have been answered with a quick call, and a few nice words would have been exchanged. The next day, a lovely story and a picture of a young professional would have appeared in our paper in print and online, ready for relatives to clip, and for friends to forward. Next story. Here comes a hurricane, and the school board is divided, again.
What happened? The internship is already over and I’ve chased this feature for two months. The director, who I found to be professional, civil, and on the ball, is working on a response. Soon, I hope, you’ll get to read all about our local intern, who worked hard to get to the White House, and who is already moving off in new, exciting directions.
I can’t wait to write it. Feature-writing is one of the perks of my job, remember? It’s going to be great.