Over the next month, we’ll be spotlighting big lessons from the Stry.us team. Next up: Reporter Sarah Elms shares what she learned from her experience in Joplin, Mo.
story by Sarah Elms
published August 26, 2012
I think all six of us at Stry.us would agree that this summer in Springfield, Mo., has been an incredible experience, something different from anything any of us has done before. We came from all over — Illinois, Maryland, Montana and Virginia — to this place in this country where the Midwest and the South overlap, on the hunt for great stories along the theme of an interconnected America.
I’d never been to Springfield before, so my only expectations came from the city’s website and Wikipedia page. I sat down at my desk in my Milwaukee apartment and Googled Springfield, Mo. I learned that it would be hot, there would be country music and there would be cashew chicken. Lots of cashew chicken. Living in Springfield would be a bit of an adjustment.
What I didn’t anticipate was how much this city truly has to offer, and more importantly, that there would be an endless stream of stories here just waiting to be told. There is a lot more to Springfield than meets the eye, and I feel extremely lucky to have been able to experience so much of it.
There is no way I would have discovered all of this, however, if it weren’t for my editors pushing me to get out and explore, to talk to strangers, to dig. The first week in Springfield not only allowed me to get to know the city, but it taught me a thing or two about reporting as well.
I’ve learned a lot working for Stry.us this summer. I’ve learned how to ask better questions, how to uncover stories and how to get close to people when I take photos, and I’ve gained a lot of confidence in my writing.
What stands out the most, however, was something less tangible than those. It was a matter of learning the importance of patience and persistence, and how to balance the two.
The experience that brought this home for me was during Stry.us’ weeklong series on Joplin’s recovery efforts when I reported a story on families still living in FEMA trailers on the outskirts of Joplin. On a sweltering July day, reporter Roman Stubbs and I found ourselves standing on the rickety steps of several FEMA trailers, hidden away in a park surrounded by corn fields.
The families living in the park had all been displaced by the catastrophic tornado more than a year earlier, and the trailers were set up to be their temporary homes while they search for permanent housing. We wanted to tell the story of a family’s long road to recovery, and what it’s like to be living in a constant state of flux.
One family, a single mother and her two children, answered the door and agreed to speak with us. But today wasn’t a good day for them — their house was a mess, they had errands to run — could we come back tomorrow afternoon? They’d never shared their story before, they said. No one had asked.
Tomorrow came and went, and they never answered their door. Most of the families at the park didn’t have phones, and all were without Internet. The only way we could get a hold of them was by showing up. The next day we went back at 11, and again at 2, and again at 4, and again at 6. We worried they had changed their minds, that they no longer wanted to speak to reporters.
It was getting late, and half of our team had to head back to Springfield, an hour away, to start writing. I stayed, because there was nothing for me to write without my key interview. Finally, a little after 8 p.m., someone answered my knock on the door. They still wanted to talk. They invited me in, and over the course of two hours I listened about the family’s rollercoaster of a year.
By the end of the night, I had my story. I drove home, relieved that it had worked out and grateful that the family was so willing to trust me and let me into its life. I realized that this story, like so many others, needed the perfect combination of patience and persistence in order for it to happen.
The lack of technology at the trailer park made it extremely difficult to keep in contact with my source, and for them to get in contact with me. There was no way for them to inform me that their plans had changed, unless they borrowed a neighbor’s phone or drove into town, and there was no way for me to check in other than driving out there and knocking on their door.
It was necessary for me to be patient and wait for the family to return home, but if I waited too long without getting an answer, the story would have to drop. Along those same lines, it was necessary for me to keep pushing — to talk with their neighbors, to keep showing up and knocking on their door — otherwise, the story wouldn’t have happened.
You need to have the perfect combination of patience and persistence with anything you’re reporting — if you wait too long to make something happen, the story can get away from you, but if you push too hard, people will often shut you out.
This summer I’ve learned that great stories come together once you find that balance. Once you learn how to do that, you’ll start telling stories you won’t forget.