It’s been a frenzy of a week with Napa Valley Film Festival this weekend and stockpiling stories for my upcoming trip to Cuba. When I plopped down at my desk Monday morning there was an interesting email waiting in my inbox. My editor had forwarded me a note from one of our sources at the harbor: someone sunk another person’s boat days before crab season opener. It’s a tumultuous time at the harbor and sabotage is somewhat common.
I knew this would be terrible news for a fisherman but I didn’t suspect within the hour I’d be sitting with him and his wife by their now empty berth and hearing their tearful story. The piece on vessel Tonita has made it into my quips this week because the encounter posed a reporting challenge. I had to show compassion while also being aware that this guy could be lying. He could have had it coming like some of the men at the harbor bar would later tell me.
Regardless, there I was at the docks. The Review’s photographer was shooting pictures of the boat, with the mast protruding from the water, as Coast Guard folks scurried about. I approached the couple totally unsure what to expect. In similar circumstances I’ve been told to basically go screw myself. Fishermen can be a bit temperamental. But this couple was different. To be honest, their openness surprised me. It was also a relief. It was one of those moments where I was writing so fast to capture this poor man’s words while trying to simultaneously look into his eyes to maintain the humanity of the conversation. He was sitting on some turned over box or plastic crate. At one point I realized that our eyes weren’t level so I sat cross-legged on the wood slabs of the dock. It felt like it would even the playing field and diffuse that weird reporter/source power dynamic that can get wonky.
I bring up the story because I wonder how much this sort of positioning/power dynamic actually changes the encounter. Did he say anything — or go to an emotional place — he wouldn’t have had I stayed towering above him?
Then when he started crying, I kind of put my hand on his knee. What am I doing touching this guy’s leg? I donno. It just felt like the thing to do. But now I question it.
Monday’s story at the harbor makes me think about how I interact with sources. Part of me thinks they are sources first, part of me thinks they are people first.
There seems to always be an excuse why it’s not a convenient time to write. Often this hesitance comes because I’ve spent much of my day writing, or better said, preparing for the writing stage (i.e. reporting.)
What ever happened to the days of writing for the sake of writing? In college, I’d sneak off during a lull in the school week to capture a moment. It was admittedly a self conscious exercise. I pictured myself reading from the journal as a grown up, allowing the writing to bring about a nostalgic recreation of that moment’s colors, smells, the excitement. These moment weren’t always the most poignant – though sometimes they were — and they were rarely as well thought out as I’d like. For the most part, they are raw moments I’ve tried to capture in a few pages.
I bring this up because I’d like to use this website as a sort of young reporter’s journal. There’s a point in a cub reporter’s first year or so when the formula of news writing is no longer awkward. It begins to kind of pour out without all that much thought. There are certain phrases we turn to without much thought. “Expressed concern,” comes to mind. Sure, this lingo is widely accepted, and, in fact, expected, but it also seems knee-jerk, tired and lacking creativity.
Swing to the other side, the “creative” side and you come off as trying to hard. (Quite a vulnerable position for a writer to be in, actually.)
Really what we’re aiming for here is simplicity, economy and elegance. I also aspire to throw in a healthy dose of sass.
I’ve gotten a bit off topic from my intention of posting about making time to write. For whatever reason, I’ve needed to let my mind — and finger tips —wander to the topic of style. Why? Let me try to make that connection: I find it difficult to sit down and write because I must shift among the amorphous lines of news writing, blogging, journaling and letter writing and somehow recover my voice in the process.
Like most things, I bet this is one of those muscles that just needs to be exercised.
Digging around the Review’s archives last week for stories to submit to the California Newspaper and Publishers Association contest, I found quite a few pieces that would have been promising had I gone a step further. You know the step that requires you to make that extra call? Find that last perspective? Add the graph that gives it wider context?
Often the wider context seems painfully obvious at the time. Sometimes it feels like I’m connecting the dots for readers who presumably know the basics of what’s going on outside Half Moon Bay. Paging through the archives, it was obvious that a few months, or even a year, can dim the timeliness of such stories. So my thought is to plug in those extra graphs in the top third of the story, even though writing them feels like hand holding. Maybe some of my hesitation is because it’s sometimes awkward to weave such “wider-context” blurbs into the fabric of an otherwise local story.
Some weeks, writing nine or 10 is an overwhelming task. Truth be told, for the five or so stories that beg for those “extra steps,” it’s just a matter of calling up an expert at Stanford, or googling around for a national news story that articulates the wider trend.
I’ll update soon with my thoughts on the film. Crossing my fingers it steams on Netflix…
Last week I did a deep dive into a larger story I’ve been covering intermittently for the last year. San Mateo County Harbor District operates Pillar Point Harbor, a harbor going through some major changes.
Here’s the link to a recent package on the state of the harbor: