What We’ve Learned: The Importance Of Focus.

Over the next month, we’ll be spotlighting big lessons from the Stry.us team. Up next: Jordan Hickey and the lessons he learned about not getting distracted in the face of so many great stories.

story by Jordan Hickey
published September 4, 2012

Jordan Hickey

In the first Springfield-related article on the site, we wrote about everything that you could see upon arrival in Springfield. We wrote about the looming lemon-colored face of Homer Simpson, Bass Pro, cashew chicken, blue ribbons, red flags — we wrote about what was immediately apparent even to someone looking in for the first time. We wrote about Springfield as if it were a new culture in a Petri dish. It was a means of understanding the parts of this city that bubbled up to the surface before even attempting to dig further. And I think, considering how new we were to the area, it was acceptable for that time. To a certain extent, it made the place more of an abstraction comprising many parts more than a large cohesive whole. But you can only look at a place like that for so long.

Examining Springfield from a distance — relying on numbers and clichés and all of that — would have made the project a much different, and undoubtedly, I think the team would agree, less of a stress-inducing endeavor. I think they’d also agree that’s there no better way to guarantee the death of a news organization than complacency. We could have chased the obvious stories and the stereotypes that exist in the Ozarks.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned this summer, it’s to be aware that such temptations exist. And while the thing about the superficial is a bit of a extreme example — realistically, the idea of resting on our laurels immediately is difficult to imagine — it’s something that has appeared in subtler ways.

When I first arrived in Springfield, I heard plenty of stories, and many of those — arguably, some of the best ones — were not stories that originated from Springfield proper. They were just north of the city or just south. They were in the outlying communities. They were good stories, but they weren’t necessarily stories that had much bearing on Springfield. However, I still chased after a few of those because they fell within what Dan and I had established early on as our focus area: Anything within an hour’s drive was fair game.

The problem was that there were a lot of stories. And each drive down to Ozark or Branson or wherever yielded even more stories. Better stories. The next one was always just down the road. And eventually, one morning following what I suppose could be labeled a “story-induced bender,” I found myself contemplating a drive down to Gainesville. Two and a half hours away. I realized that I’d zoomed out enough that Springfield was only just part of the narrative. And that couldn’t be the case.

It’s true that there were plenty of stories from the outlying areas and beyond that practically fell into my lap. But what I realized after the Gainesville temptation was this: Odds are, there stories just as good, if not better, up in Springfield. They just required a bit more digging.

Anyway, two other lessons:

1.

When you haven’t established something firm enough — or perhaps do the sorts of mental gymnastics necessary to rationalize a breach in the protocol just large enough to allow for that one story — that temptation to break away and do the “sexier” stories proves too much. And the thing is: There’s always going to be a better story just down the road. When you’re in Springfield, there’s one just to the south in Ozark. When you’re in Ozark, it’s Branson. In Branson, it’s something way down in Arkansas.

There are going to be times when it’s possible to have that sort of luxury, but in cases such as ours, sometimes you just have to dig a bit deeper for those stories; be a bit more patient, understand that they’re there and it’s just a matter of shifting enough of whatever’s covering it to the side before you can see it for what it is. If there’s one thing I’ve come to realize in the time I’ve spent in Springfield, it’s that there are stories everywhere. And — if you ask the Stry.us team — sometimes those stories just seemed fated to happen.

And another thing:

I told myself a while back that I could work anywhere as long as the opportunity to do good work presented itself. But if there’s one (other) thing that working in Springfield has made me realize, it’s that the work can only get you so far. It’s half of what’s necessary in making something awesome. The other half is people.

As I write this, what immediately floods back into memory are the nights. Late nights over Red Bull, coffee and gummy bears spent editing. Working literally all the time — 12-, 13-, 14-hour days. Talking theory and dropping names. Discussing ethics of Finkel and Lehrer, if there was anything that might redeem them and their careers. Talking about sportswriters. Feature writers. The state of journalism. And no one seemed to think this fanaticism was weird. (They probably did, but were just too polite to say it.)

2.

If you surround yourself with people who are just as dedicated as you are, projects like Stry.us can work. The project worked because — and only because of people.

Thanks for reading this summer. I hope you enjoyed it as much as we did.