When my cell phone rings and I don’t recognize the phone number, I usually don’t answer it. With all the scam telephone calls these days, I let the calls go directly to my voice mail.
After working a few hours on Sunday afternoon, I came home to several voice messages. One was from my old hunting buddy in northern Minnesota, another was from my sister-in-law, some were scam calls, but one was from a former newspaper colleague whom I worked with at a tri-weekly in northwest Iowa.
“Please call me back, I need your help and advice,” said Anna. “I can’t get these reporters out of their chairs to do a story.”
Anna and I worked together many years ago as budding young reporters. She was the education reporter while I worked the local government and courts beat. Our boss was a great guy and he had some weird ways of having reporters find new stories to write about. A bit of a tyrant … but he knew how to draw readers into the newspaper.
When I returned her call, she was almost crying. “I’ve had it with hiring these journalism grads straight out of college. They’re the laziest people I know. They want to sit at their computers all day long and wait for someone to return an email. Got any ideas on how to get them out of the building? It’s like their scared to talk to someone.”
During our conversation, I told her of a similar dialogue I had a couple of years ago with a communications professor at Iowa's annual newspaper convention.
Then, I reminded her of the day back in 1983 when our Editor Steve Herron loaded us up in his car and dropped us off in Laurens. “Dear Lord,” she said. “I totally forgot about that.”
Steve took his three news reporters and dropped us off in this small town of 400 people with one simple instruction: “Don't call me until all three of you have stories for tomorrow's edition.”
He left us stranded in a town where none of us knew anyone. Talk about an eye-opening experience.
We quickly learned that we had to talk to folks in order to find a story.
Of course, this was before everyone was joined at the hip with a cell phone.
We had to pound the pavement and knock on few doors to find a story.
We were armed only with a reporter’s notebook and a camera – the old-fashioned type where you had to develop your own black and white film.
Our results were incredible. We had fun telling the stories of people we never knew.
There was the grocer whose family had owned the local business for more than 80 years and he still bagged his customers' groceries and took them to their vehicles.
The local veterans club was hosting a raffle in order to save their club. It had been in open since World War II, however it hadn't had a new member since 1967. If I remember the story, they wanted to raise enough funds to pay their utility bill for a year.
The final story was written on the local barber who still charged a dime for haircuts. He was 87, but only worked in the mornings because his afternoons were either spent fishing or playing cards at the town's only diner.
When we found the town’s lone pay phone to call our boss to come get us, we chatted about our story finds. We all agreed that we would have never found any of these stories if we’d been sitting back in our desks. As we climbed into Steve’s car that afternoon, we begged him to drop us off in any town he liked next week. We all rather enjoyed the experience.
Of course, he reminded us he wasn’t our chauffeur. We each had cars to drive us anywhere we wanted to travel. We just had to look beyond the horizon to find a story. They are everywhere.
As I reminded Anna, it was one of the rare opportunities we had where we truly got to know our readers in a whole different light. Reporters just need a little encouragement and direction. Sometimes as an editor you have to show them the way.