New kid on the block

One of the newer Willmar-area bloggers on Areavoices is Sarah Kallevig, who blogged recently about moving to town and how she’s getting to know the community, making friends and figuring out where to find a really great chocolate chip cookie.

It got us thinking: Who’s expected to be more familiar with the community than reporters are? We’re forced to learn quickly where city hall is located, who’s on the school board and how to spell everyone’s names. What does it take to learn the ropes? And which is better – to be an oldie or a newbie?

Staff writers Ashley White and Anne Polta debate the pros and cons of being the new kid in town vs. the veteran.

Anne: “Veteran”? Um… I’ve been around long enough to fit that description, I guess. There’s an advantage to being familiar with the town. I know my way around and don’t worry too much anymore about getting lost. Local newsmakers aren’t strangers; their names and faces have become familiar.

Ashley: I don’t really mind the “new kid in town” label. It’s pretty fitting, since I haven’t even been here three months yet. It’s always challenging to uproot and settle into a new community, especially when you’re expected to report on the news in that community almost immediately. I still get lost practically every time I leave the office on assignment. I even have to use my GPS to navigate downtown Willmar. It can be frustrating, but I just try to take it all in stride. I know (or at least I hope!) that it will get easier.

Anne: It does get easier. I especially enjoy being able to dig into a story with some knowledge of the background, the history and the players. When I was a newbie I didn’t have this knowledge, and there were times when I failed to ask key questions or wasn’t aware of the nuances. Familiarity with local history can really be an asset in covering the news.

Ashley: Yes, it’s sometimes hard to know what those key questions are when you don’t have background on a topic. I am always so impressed, Anne, when someone asks you about something that happened 10 years ago, and you know exactly what they’re referencing and remember so many little details. All of the other reporters here are goldmines of information, too. It’s a little intimidating to be the newbie in a newsroom that’s so experienced, but at the same time, it’s a huge help – and relief – to have all of these local experts sitting five feet away from me.

Anne: Well, there still seems to be a lot I don’t know. I think one of the big dangers for reporters is getting too comfortable. After you’ve been around for awhile and have had time to settle into a beat, develop a wide network of sources and learn enough to feel somewhat competent, it’s easy to turn complacent – or worse yet, bored. I have never, ever been bored with what I do but it’s sometimes challenging when you’re confronted with a story that feels like deja vu. That’s why I love having new people in the newsroom; they see things with fresh eyes.

Ashley: Exactly. Because I am so new to the community, I am always on my toes. I don’t have time to even think about being complacent or bored. To me, every story is fresh and has the potential to be exciting. If I’m asked to cover an event that happens every year, I may see a different story than someone who has covered that same event for the past five years. It doesn’t necessarily make one story better or worse, it just makes them different – which is so important in this industry. You need to have those “fresh eyes” and different voices represented.

Anne: I think of newbies as a reality check. It’s easy to fall into the trap of taking things for granted. We assume “Oh, everyone knows the hospital is city-owned” or “everyone knows we have a community theater.” But everyone doesn’t know this, and it’s a disservice to readers to assume they do.

Ashley: I actually didn’t know the hospital was city-owned. Point proven. I do think there are certainly advantages whether you’re a newbie or a veteran. Too often, I find myself thinking, “If only I knew more people or had a better understanding of the area, I could write more compelling, interesting stories.” I don’t always remember that there is value in hearing or seeing something for the first time.

Anne: This brings up the whole issue of newsroom turnover and whether turnover is good or bad. It can be unsettling for readers when they constantly see new bylines in the paper, or for sources who find themselves dealing with a new reporter every couple of years. We don’t always think of newspapers as having a relationship with the community, but they do. Institutional memory is important, and you lose something when there’s high turnover in the newsroom. On the other hand, I think newsrooms are better, more lively, more diverse, when they can welcome new faces from time to time. We started this blog by asking who’s better, veterans or newbies? The answer is that we need both. Agree?

Ashley: I agree completely. As with most things in life, it’s all about finding the right balance. You can have one or the other, but it’s best when you have both.

Readers, what do you think? Do you notice when a new reporter comes to town? Do you think too much turnover in the newsroom is a bad thing? Let us know in the comments.

I’ll keep my notebook, thank you very much!

Gretchen Schlosser, public safety reporter for the West Central Tribune, takes aim at the bad guys with a simulated firearm. Chad Oakleaf of the Willmar Police Department, right, helped show her the ropes.

One of the perks if working as a news reporter is that sometimes you get to experience things that the average citizen doesn’t get the opportunity to do.

Wednesday was one of those days for me. Thanks to Willmar Police Capt. Jim Felt and Officer Chad Oakleaf, I got to step up to the firearms simulation training system, pick up the laser-equipped gun and shoot the “bad guys” on the screen. Or at least I tried to shoot them.

For the record, during the bank robbery scenario, I hit the bank robber coming out of the building wearing a bullet-proof vest and firing a machine gun. I also hit the guy who fired at me after breaking into a building during the burglary scenario.

What I didn’t do was effectively stop the guy coming at me with an axe or recognize that there was a gun right next to the drunk man threatening to kill himself. The three officers in the room had to point that out to me.

A little time using that training simulator proves what I and other regular citizens should already know: It’s a heck of a lot easier to watch our local law enforcement officers do their jobs than to actually do their work, even if it is just a training simulation. About 10 minutes with the laser gun and I was ready to go back to being armed with a notebook, pen, camera and digital recorder.

Read about the firearms simulation on www.wctrib.com. Then go thank a law enforcement officer for their efforts to protect and serve our communities. Their jobs are much more complex, challenging and dangerous than we often realize or acknowledge.

- Gretchen Schlosser, staff writer

 

‘Pollutants of emerging concern’ deserve our attention and action

Endocrine disrupters in Minnesota waters are affecting fish populations.

We are only beginning to learn about many ‘’pollutants of emerging concern’’ that are adversely affecting aquatic organisms in our waters. Dr. Heiko Schoenfuss, a biologist and director of the aquatic toxicology lab at St. Cloud State University, gave an idea of the challenges we face during a presentation at the Hawk Creek Watershed Project’s annual meeting on Feb. 8 in Willmar.
Many of the pollutants are compounds that disrupt the endocrine systems of aquatic organisms, and consequently have gotten lots of press. It may be dramatic to describe them as monster fish, but the adverse effects being seen are scary. In the waters below Boulder, Colorado, only 25 percent of the fish are males. One-fifth of these males have ovaries and produce eggs as well as sperm. ‘’Very much screwed up,’’ is Dr. Schoenfuss’s not-so-scientific but accurate description.
Other effects do not seem so Frankenstein-ish, but damaging all the same. There are flathead minnows that do not have the reflexive, defensive response to curve like a ‘C’ when a predator is near. There are male fish that do not carry out nesting practices that are essential to the survival of progeny.
Scary too is when some of the physical and behavioral changes show up. In many cases it is not the fish initially exposed to the compounds that show the signs, but their progeny one and two generations later. In human terms, that would be a 20 to 50 year lag between exposure and consequence.
In most cases we are still trying to understand the occurrence and the effect of exposure. We are a long ways from knowing the implications to human health, but have every reason to be concerned. The hormones produced by fish are the same as those we produce. All animals share endocrine systems that are unchanged for 300 million years.
It’s only in the last 10 to 15 years that analytical chemistry has allowed us to identify the suspect compounds in our waters. They are often found in dilutions measured in parts per billion or trillion, but don’t be misled. They are potent at these levels.
None of the compounds are regulated, and we create and consume them in large volumes. Detergents, pharmaceuticals, industrial and agricultural chemicals comprise many of the pollutants. Some are natural. People and other animals naturally excrete trace amounts of a compound of estrogen.
What’s not so natural is to discharge the wastes of millions of people into one waterway, such as occurs in the Mississippi River below the Twin Cities. Wastewater treatment plants do not remove these compounds.
Many of the compounds in the pills we swallow are not removed either, and are endocrine disrupters. The active ingredient in the birth control pill and the compounds in many mood altering drugs used to treat depression and other mental health conditions are endocrine disrupters.
Dr. Schoenfuss is concerned because our current water quality testing protocols do not address these compounds for what they are. We test for individual chemicals. These chemicals exist in our waters always as compounds, and only affect organisms as such.
Also, our current procedure is to expose an organism to the chemical, and watch for mortality over the course of a few hours. Yet in the case of endocrine disrupters, we know the serious consequences may not show up for a generation or two.
Add one more reason to be concerned about what is happening. We initially thought that the primary source of these compounds was from wastewater treatment plants. They do discharge large volumes, but so do many other sources. The Grindstone River runs through a heavily forested portion of Minnesota. Failed septic systems along the route have tainted the waters with endocrine disrupters and affected fish no differently than is being seen in urban waters.
Agricultural lands are contributors too. Anti-biotics and growth enhancers fed livestock, and manure, all contribute. We’re also seeing that the chemicals reaching our waterways mix and biologically transform into compounds that can be endocrine disrupters.
Dr. Schoenfuss has tested fish from the length from the Mississippi River in Minnesota, and along portions of the Grindstone, Redwood, and South Fork of the Crow. He’s found the compounds and their effects.

- Tom Cherveny

You have a story to tell

Since I started in my new position as community content coordinator two months ago, I’ve talked to quite a few people about starting a blog. The conversation almost always starts the same: “What would I blog about?” they ask, usually quickly followed by, “I don’t really have anything interesting to say.”

Nope. I don’t buy it, and I (politely) tell them so. And once we start brainstorming, these same people produce some absolutely fantastic ideas for a blog (read from two of our newest local bloggers here and here). They are confirming the reason I ultimately wanted to take this job: Everyone has a story to tell. Blogging lets you do that. And it allows the rest of us to hear from people in the community who don’t always have the opportunity to tell their stories.

With that said, we’d love to have more people blogging for the West Central Tribune. If you still need some convincing, though, I’ve put together a list of the top reasons you might want to consider blogging:

1) It connects you to a larger community. No matter where you’re blogging from (even if it’s rural Minnesota), blogging gives you the opportunity to connect with and meet people across the United States and even the world who share your passion. Even the biggest blogging skeptics have to agree: that’s pretty incredible.

2) You’ll learn something new. No matter how invested you are in what you’re blogging about, it’s impossible to know everything about that subject. If you visit other bloggers who write about your topic, you’re almost guaranteed to learn new things – or, at the very least, see your blog topic through someone else’s eyes.

3) Blogging gives you a voice. Ever feel like no one is interested in what you have to say? Maybe your spouse’s eyes glaze over when you talk sports or your 85-year-old grandmother just doesn’t get why you watch so much reality TV. Not on the Internet. With millions of people using blogs every day, you’re almost guaranteed that someone will take an interest in yours. Don’t get me wrong: It can take time to build up a community of followers, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t see a ton of web hits right away. But if you post consistently, tag your posts for search engines and cross-promote your blogs on your social media sites, you’re likely to build followers. People like to read what other people think.

4) If you’re a business or organization, you really should be blogging. Writing a blog lets your consumers see you as a person, not just as a company. On your blog, you can post quirky things that happen at the office, introduce new hires or tell stories about people who have benefited from your product or service. Facebook, newsletters and other promotional materials limit the amount of space you have to tell these stories. On the Internet, you can share to your heart’s content.

5) It’s not as time-consuming as you might think. In the era of Facebook and Twitter, it can be hard to justify spending a lot of time writing lengthy blog posts. But not every blog post has to be 1,000 words. If you already have Facebook and post regular status updates, consider using those as a blog post and adding a few more sentences or a link to another article. You can put as much or as little time into your blog as you want. But be warned: Many people find that once they start blogging, they enjoy it so much that they make more time for it.

6) There are no rules when it comes to blogging. There is article after article out there that will tell you “how to write a great blog,” but in reality, no one can tell you how to blog. Sure, there are some best practices you may want to keep in mind, but a blog is completely yours and how you run it is up to you. Period. So if you want to take a month-long hiatus from blogging or if you decide that you’re going to blog in all capital letters with 12 exclamation points after each sentence, no one can tell you that you’re not doing it right. Which brings me to my last and final point:

7) BLOGGING IS FUN!!!!!!!!!!!! It really is. Blogging gives you a creative outlet to tell your stories and say what you want to say. Don’t feel like you have to be a professional writer or grammar expert to start a blog. Just be yourself, and when in doubt, refer to #6.

I’m sure I could think of many more reasons to start a blog. These are just the ones that came to me quickly. If you’re now convinced that blogging is something you or your business/organization should be doing, why not start a blog on Areavoices? If you have questions or an idea for a blog, e-mail me at awhite@wctrib.com, give me a call at 320-214-4308 or find me on Twitter @Ashley_WCT.

P.S. What are some things you’d like to see on this blog? Any burning questions you have about our reporters/editors or the news process in general? Let us know in the comments below!

Ashley White, community content coordinator