Thursday, July 22, 2010

Upping My Game

This morning I wrote to T, a public defender who was a source of mine when I covered the cops and courts for an Iowa newspaper. I thanked T for making me better at my job--something I've had the privilege of thanking several people for.

"When I started covering the courts, you wouldn't even take my calls--and I can't blame you," I told T. "All the freshly minted journalism grads set upon the cops and courts beat, the franchise of the cub reporter. So many opportunities for you and your clients to get burned ... You expected me to do my homework, to understand where you were coming from, to learn and comprehend the judicial process. You expected me to ask intelligent questions. You were, basically, exactly what I needed--a dose of reality, a hard knocks crash course on what it meant to truly cover the news objectively and insightfully ...  Again, thank you for putting me through my paces. Still paying dividends today."

On that cops and courts beat, one of my fiercest competitors was M, a television reporter to whom I wrote a few months ago. "Sure, I wanted to do my job well from a basic standpoint," I wrote. "But the prospect of scooping you made me up my game. There truly was no better situation for a new reporter learning the ropes of the daily grind."

Then there was D, who, as a county supervisor, was also a source when I began reporting. I thought to put his name in The Letter Jar, then checked the Internet and found his obituary from three years ago. I decided I would write to his wife, A.

I remembered how, 22 years old and fresh out of school, I was struggling to cover the county board adequately—to understand which issues were most important to our readers, explain them well and represent the opinions of the supervisors accurately. And D, as I noted in my letter to A, wasn’t about making my job easy. It’s not as if he set out to make my job difficult, but he certainly made me work for every story I wrote, every issue I explained and every quote I captured. And he wasn’t afraid to tell me when I could do better.

"When I was covering the county board week to week, D was a tough cookie," I told A. "He made me pay attention, made me do my homework and didn't let me take shortcuts or easy ways out ... I remember complaining at the time at how hard it was to interview D for stories, how no matter how prepared I was, he could still challenge me. But looking back I realize I should be grateful for the lessons that experience taught me. After all, what is life but many, many unexpected, but ultimately rewarding, challenges?"

A few weeks later I received a letter in the mail from A. "Thank you for your letter re: interviewing D while on the Board of Sups!” she wrote. “He would have been very pleased to know he 'helped' someone, especially in their work area."

I do believe A is right--D would have liked knowing he helped someone, and I'm sure he's not the only one. That's one reason why I'm enjoying The Letter Jar project so much--not only am I filled with gratitude as the receiver of so much help and advice and support in my life, but I am perhaps spreading some joy to the givers as well.

FUN FIND: I was delighted when @skeldesign began following The Letter Jar on Twitter. I love her etsy shop of cards and notepads! I see the frog and owl varieties gracing my desk in the future.

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