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.

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