I don't know how the market works, but after hearing that oil prices have begun dropping again simply because they could not sustain their high commodity price I've decided that I really don't know how the market works.
I did a follow up on a heartwarming story coming out of Salem's Animal Rescue League today. Turns out their first ever "kitten shower" - an ingenious sort of idea designed to help alleviate the overcrowded conditions for the unusually high number of cats at their shelter - worked remarkably well.
A little over 50 animals were adopted, including several dogs, but mostly kittens. The ratio of kittens to older cats adopted was roughly equal, which Valorie Hayes, the community relations director at SARL, called "wonderful."
It was a fun story to work on. I got to talk to a few people I hadn't met before, learn about a new issue (more abandoned cats and dogs, in large part due to the downturn in the economy) and pet some kittens.
I don't like to get into politics, especially not on the world wide web where punditry has run amok in the same sort of sense that an alien species introduced into a fertile environment runs amok.
Still, as it so often crosses with journalism, it's hard to stay above the fray.
Or to use another bad analogy, when the weeds finally overrun the garden what choice do you have?
Anyway, what has finally ensnared my limited attention span is the explosion of Obamania in the media. Right now three major network news anchors are following Obama on his grand tour of the Old World reporting live wherever Obama touches down like the charismatic tornado he is, while press on both sides of the atlantic sit spellbound as they wait for his latest "John F. Kennedy-esque" speech.
Not that I plan on ranting and raving about that damned liberal media. If you're interested in that, I can direct you to the National Review Online. Still, the situation lends itself to a proper media critique.
Let's conduct a simple and completely unscientific experiment, shall we? On my Google homepage I have RSS feeds to several different new sources, including the Union Leader, Boston Globe, CNN, Google News, and the BBC. At one glance Obama's name lends itself to...4 headlines.
When I was interning with the Newton TAB one of the other reporters took me out for a quick lunch at the eatery/bistro just over the Needham line. While we were eating $8.00 gourmet sandwiches she asked me how I liked being a real reporter.
"I like it a lot," I said. "It gives me a chance to go out and experience stuff."
"Good," she said. "You know, one of my professors once told me that journalism is a license to explore your interests."
I return to that sentence whenever I'm digging up story ideas, whether it was back in the basement newsroom of the Collegian or sitting in the downstairs living room/converted office I use in Windham, New Hampshire. When I'm not busy chasing down ambulances, calling police officers to get the official report on some bit of crime here or there, or rewriting press releases into briefs, exploring my interests is exactly what I'm doing.
And the fun part is the learning.
When I was in college I enjoyed reporting on various issues and subjects because it gave me a chance to learn outside of the classroom - among other things. Now, as a graduate, it gives me the opportunity to learn even beyond college.
Which was why today I headed down to Route 28 in Salem (the same 28 that runs through Bridgewater, Brockton and Boston, for those of you keeping score at home) to find out if local mechanics had seen a rise in the number of customers coming in to find ways to increase their fuel efficiency.
Turns out that quite the opposite was happening, but that's the subject for another blog update on assumptions based on logic that are wrong.
I did learn an incredible amount of how to keep my car in tip-top shape. Turns out there are literally dozens of factors that contribute to either higher or lower gas mileage in a vehicle, from wheel alignment to spark plugs. From Jeff Husson, owner of Husson's Motors, I learned that the best thing to do was get the air filter changed regularly and to keep an eye on my tires. The manager at Meineke stressed proper tire pressure, telling me that softer tires increase friction with the road and can wreak havoc on your gas consumption.
Down at Midas they told me about a number of different avenues I could take to keep a lean gasoline diet. Among them were replacing the spark plugs, regular oil changes and tune-ups.
At the Jiffy Lube I heard a rumor that fully synthetic oils did a better job than the regular refined stuff. I can't vouch for it, Tim Bergeron - the mechanic on duty - told me that he had heard about a couple of major companies doing research into the matter had arrived at that conclusion.
When all was said and done I learned that basically, the best way to keep your car efficient was to change the oil and air filters regularly and keep an eye on the tire pressure. After that the cost of keeping your car well maintained on a regular basis rose from $50 a trip to $500.
Well out of my price range unfortunately, but good to know.
North Carolina - where I spent several days earlier this week - and specifically Topsail Island is one of those odd conglomerations of modern Americana that you can't do anything but appreciate.
Like parts of Cape Cod or Hampton Beach, Topsail island is a hodgepodge of lifestyles, culture and contemporary American society. From the local fried seafood place to the overpriced beach store, you can find a Topsail Island just about anywhere in the country. But of course, then it wouldn't be Topsail Island anymore.
You can hear the nasal Yankee twang as often as you pick up the southern drawl in a conversation. Everybody drives a truck, though only the locals have the American made pickups. License plates vary not only in number combination, but in origination. They range all across the eastern seaboard, from Connecticut and Massachusetts to Florida.
By and large the houses are owned locally and many are rented to northerners - who aren't given the ignominious distinction of carpet-baggers, though I did hear a couple folks talking about Bill Belicheck and the "Cheaters" - or other out-of-towners.
Like the Cape, Topsail Island has a transient feel to it, at least while I was there during what was presumably the height of the tourist season. Every Saturday the new group of renters sits in traffic to cross the bridge onto the island while last week's renters wait in equally awful traffic on the other side of the road.
Still, the local flavor stimulates the palate. A roller-rink, open nightly, sits above the town's post office which one person described to me "could have come straight out of Mayberry."
I didn't get a chance to sample Topsail's townie-bar (and restaurant and pub), but after getting turned away at the door by a lanky looking fellow standing next to one of the town cops having his evening beer in uniform I had my fill. I did get a chance to sample the fair at the local crab shack and sucked down fried scallop, french fries and onion rings along with a couple of Coronas.
So while the view might have been the same as you could get somewhere on Cape Cod, and the restaurants and nightlife could have been found anywhere along the boardwalk at Hampton Beach, Topsail Island deftly maneuvered between the crass empty over-commercialization of a place like Daytona Beach and the almost oppressive tightly-woven fiber of a Nantucket town.
One of which is exploring new areas, issues or ideas and meeting new people every day. Fostering some of those relationships and making new contacts, be it within city hall, the police station, amongst the selectmen, is extremely enjoyable. One of the things I have missed about reporting on UMass was the ability to know offhand who I needed to get hold of for any situation.
Crime? Deputy Chief Pat Archbald down at Dickinson Hall. Student Government? Aaron Buford (depending on whether he was answering his cell phone that day or not) or Sean down at Student Affairs. Some sensitive issue you knew the University wasn't going to talk to you about? Ed Blaguszewski at the News and Information office.
I knew I was going to eventually get back to that point no matter where I ended up, but the process of rebuilding those contacts has been unbelievably enjoyable.
I've established a good report with the Salem PD lt in charge of dealing with the press (he was "just busting my balls" last week when he chewed me out in a friendly sort of way for misspelling his name). I'm also in good favor with many of the officials in town hall - especially after that feature on the son of the director of Public Works' return from Afghanistan. I've also written a couple of articles on the various fire department's in the area and they no longer just consider me a voice on the telephone.
A big part of this job appears to be establishing those contacts early on and doing a good job of nurturing those relationships as they grow. Sure, I could end up burning bridges here or there down the road, but only if necessary, and as a last possible move.
Oh, and the other thing I love about my job? I sat out on the back porch this afternoon sipping ice coffee and working shirtless to keep up on my tan.
I think the first, and probably the foremost, would have to be trust. How much trust can you place in the information given to you by a source? And since every story, no matter how big or how small is derived from various sources of even more varying credibility, how much can a reporter, a newspaper, or a media outlet put into corroborating information?
The Times did the right thing by saying "hey, we didn't get this completely wrong, but we didn't get it all right either. And for that we apologize."
In a situation where editors could have easily made a number of excuses for the problems with the mother's account of her tribulations, approaching deadlines, corroborating evidence, the credibility of the photojournalist, etc., they took the higher road. In a time where every mistake, every missed fact, every poorly chosen adjective chips away a little bit more at the public trust of newspapers, editors, reporters and photographers alike, the Times may have made a step in the right direction.
The "House of Filth" story (as it has been dubbed by at least one of my editors) did make the front page today. I thought the layout was pretty nice...made me miss the nights spent swearing under my breath while trying to make a story wrap around a headline and a photo in InDesign.
What I mean by that is pretty simple. With all the tools given to the modern journalist it has become increasingly possible for the reporter to never have to leave his or her desk. If some news breaks call the parties involved and get a statement. Need background information? Just a quick Google search away.
I can't remember the last time I actually used a phonebook to find a phone number. Hell, if you're lucky, you can get most of an individuals background information straight off the Internet.
Of course, the downside could mean missing the real story.
Earlier today I received a press release detailing the closure of a split-level house in a nice neighborhood of the Salem suburbs. A 2-year old girl was found wandering down the street naked by a neighbor - who called the police. After they returned the child to her parents, about 1/8 a mile down the road, police noticed the smell of rotten food and trash coming from the house. Inside they found raw sewage backed up in the upstairs toilets and sink, rotten food and trash throughout the house, as well as feces and dirty diapers on the carpet. Town officials quickly closed the house due to the unsanitary condition of the home.
Now, I could have written up the story pretty quickly with only a call to the police department and another to the Health Department. Would have been all I'd have to do to get the story filed by tonight.
I actually did all of the above. And then I drove down from Windham to the house. Which is where I ran into a couple of cops, a detective and the health inspector. It made the whole story for me. Not only was I able to get photos of the investigation team as they went into the house (which was later called "unfit for human habitation), but I got a heads up on where the investigation was going and the ability to describe the house and yard in my article.
I put a link to it up here tomorrow when it runs (rumor has it front page material, but we'll see).
The lesson is, as always, to do the legwork. I was given a lesson (thankfully a happy one) in doing the extra work and going the full nine yards over just mailing it in from behind my desk.
I'm off to cover the celebrations in Salem. Barring any rain tonight, it will include a DJ, vendors and fireworks just after dark. Windham and Pelham were scheduled to have their festivities last night, but severe thunderstorm warnings and torrential downpours throughout the early evening, left both postponed.
Pelham expects to celebrate Sunday evening instead. Windham is rescheduling for Labor Day. Who ever heard of Labor Day fireworks?
Need help getting into the spirit of things today? Look no further:
I got to be the bad guy the other day when I arrived at the scene of two homes damaged during last weekend's severe thunderstorms. Nobody likes talking to a reporter, I have found, and especially not when you have a tree lodged through the second story of your house.
The best way to get someone who has no interest in talking to you, who is in fact insulted that you're stepping on their property to ask them what sound like inane questions about their home, their life or their loved ones is to empathize with them. Doesn't always work, but if you get lucky they'll bring down the barriers and treat you as if you weren't a member of the paparazzi.
This time I got lucky. "I'm sorry for your loss," I told the two women I found sitting in lawn chairs and staring at the mess that once served as a focal point in their lives.
"I can understand what you're going through," I say, after initially being brushed off. "My family cabin up in the Lakes Region was destroyed last year. Couple of trees took most of the porch and a portion of the house out. Same situation as this."
"Thank you," says one and the other nods slowly.
We begin talking about the homes and the amount of damage and I don't come off as much as a walking turd with neither the sense nor the etiquette to let them mourn in peace. Often times, if you show a little respect and good manners, and display a certain amount of patience by not giving into the pressures placed on you by the editors waiting on the story, you can get the full story.
The best example I can think of off the top of my head would be the death, allegedly by suicide, of a UMass student last year. Under the pressure of trying to get the news out, both myself and Eric Athas posted immediate stories on our respective online media outlets. Since the family wasn't talking and friends were being asked not to talk to members of the press both of us borrowed - in varying degrees - information from her facebook page.
Both members of her family and her friends criticized our decision to do so.
Which I don't question. Journalism is a double-edged sword that way. You do what you have to do to get the story out and ask questions later.
Still, Will McGuinness found that middle road and resisting pressure from me to get a story on her life, alleged suicide, and mourning friends out as soon as possible he contacted the family and stood back, waiting for them to decide the appropriate time to speak out.
What he got was a great story and a personal connection to the family that exceeded anything the other newspapers - competing to get her tragic, paper-selling story out - had.
Sometimes a little patience, and a little deference, can go a long way.
A (fairly) recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Derrick spends his days attempting to break it big into the increasingly shrinking world of professional journalism. He is, of course, an optimist.