The end of an era

This was day two of our internship. It feels like it was so long ago!

Looking over my last entry, I kind of get the feeling that I was feeling a little overwhelmed and homesick. It seems that I just fell off the face of the earth, never to be heard from again.

You won’t get rid of me that easy.

When I returned to the District after Thanksgiving, I was feeling a little down and a lot homesick. The holidays really are the most wonderful time of the year to me and my family. Every weekend we go to a different Christmas display and spend too much money buying each other gifts, baking and cooking stupendous meals. I’ve just finished eating my big Christmas dinner with my family before I sat down to finally post this entry.

But I didn’t really crawl under a rock my last three weeks in the city. I spent a couple of days developing a few story ideas and then dug in, barely getting two of the three stories finished by the end of the internship. In my last few weeks I practiced a new writing technique, learned a few things I need to do to make my stories really pop and tried my hand at some more feature stories and video.

I finished a data mining story with just two days left to my internship, and it was picked up by the Scripps Howard News Service and just about every gossip website because I used the word “Hollywood” in my lede. A few days after I posted my story, the Washington Post released another installment in their series “Top Secret America” about data mining on the local level that gives a lot more information than my story did. I urge you to read the entire series.

My last story was a straight-up feature about a busker. Mark Francis Nickens was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. He has been playing on the streets of the District since the mid-1980s, but is quick to point out that he’s never been homeless. Mark did a lot to try to dispel some of the stereotypes of street musicians for me. He explained that while playing at various Metro stations around the city he is often treated as if he’s a homeless beggar, instead of someone who is working to entertain.

I just worry that after he read my story about him he’ll decide to burn an effigy of me, just like he says he did with an asian videographer who portrayed Mark in a way he didn’t appreciate. I guess I’ll find out if I see Mark post something on Facebook about having a cookout with a brunette Barbie!

One of the highlights of the internship: A whirlwind tour of New England in 48 hours.

Even though I was pretty homesick toward the end of my internship, I wouldn’t trade a single experience I had in the District. I got to meet so many interesting people and push myself farther than I thought I could go. Plus, I made some new friends and had a few adventures.


Change of pace

And now for something completely different.

Typically on this blog, I talk about things I do and see, or things I want to do and see, not what I think or how I feel. When it comes to talking about how I feel or what I think about something or someone, or moments that shaped a part of my character, I freeze up.

I froze up earlier this evening when I was talking to one of my roommates about how this internship has changed my perspective on some things. She has decided to relocate to DC from the western U.S., and we were discussing what it’s like to be in a city where you know no one.

When I got to the part where I tried to vocalize how in the last couple of months I have changed from someone who valued having an exciting career above all else to someone who valued family and friends above all else, I mumbled out, “But, I don’t know.” I couldn’t articulate why I no longer want to relocate to DC.

After I filed my first open records request a few years ago, I thought I wanted to be a big-shot investigative reporter in the big city. I loved the thrill of uncovering something and I wanted to be able to expose some terrible scandal and be the cause of some kind of widespread change that improves everyone’s lives.

But after a couple of months in DC, observing people who have spurred change with their big-city reporting, I’ve realized that I would rather take a job with a small-town weekly if it means being able to have people I care about close to me and I wouldn’t have to miss things like birthday parties and anniversaries because I’m hundreds of miles away.

Besides. It’s about the journalism. Period. Why should it matter where I’m working as long as I’m seeking truth and reporting it?

Being away from everything and everyone I’ve ever known has showed me what’s important to me, and what I don’t want to give up. As difficult as it has been to stop being homesick long enough to work and then find ways to pass the time on weekends without reminding myself on Fridays that I would be hanging out with Bert and Ella (my best friend and her daughter) or that on Sunday afternoons I would be shopping with Mom and then trying to start a conversation with Dad as he’s watching football or baseball or NASCAR, I don’t regret a thing. I’m glad I’ve had the chance to be in this internship program and spend three months in an incredible city. I’ve made memories and friends I’ll keep with me for the rest of my life. But I miss being able to see the stars.

50 in 30

There are two kinds of perks with this internship: work and non-work. These are very technical titles, so pay close attention to the following descriptions.
Work perks are the kind of everyday perks one experiences as a reporter in Washington D.C. These are things like being able to go to the White House. Non-work perks are just about everything else. These include just living in DC and the general proximity to other eastern states.

I want to see all 50 states before I turn 30 on July 14, 2015. At the start of this internship I had about four years and 20 states to go. After the East Coast Extravaganza two weekends ago, the magic number is down to 13.

The first leg of our trip took though four states I had already seen before. We started in Virginia, where we picked up our rental car, passing through Maryland and Delaware to get to Philadelphia. I wasn’t particularly thrilled to go through Delaware again, but we passed through Wilmington and realized that there is a metropolitan area in the state after all. It turned out access to the Atlantic Ocean isn’t the only good thing about Delaware.
Pat’s Philly Cheesesteaks

Our first stop came in Philadelphia, where the four of us split between Pat’s and Gino’s to decide for ourselves who has the better Philly cheesesteak sandwich. My vote went to Geno’s because it had less fat on the meat. But the surprising thing was that as detesting as cheese whiz sounds, it was better than provolone. I wonder if Penn Station back home will whip me up a Philly wit’ whiz and wit’out onions? 

An interesting side note about one of the differences between the two cheesesteak restaurants, Geno’s still calls their fries “freedom fries.” Also, according to a friend of Ray’s (fellow intern/road warrior) who lives in Philly, they will not serve you if you order in Spanish. She tried it once and was denied service.

Better steaks, bigger political statements.

Danielle’s quest for postcards and mine for magnets led us to the first stock exchange in the country. The main floor had been converted into a tourist haven with miniatures of the liberty bell stuffed in about every corner. Sadly, these miniatures are as close as we got to the real Liberty Bell. With souvenirs in hand, we crossed the bridge, fist pumping our way into Jersey.

Little Victories

One of the things about this internship that can be frustrating is the amount of time we can spend on a story without any assurance that it will actually be picked up by someone. The easiest way to get a story picked up is to write it for one of the Scripps papers or someone else who requests it. My first story was picked up when I did the cost of living adjustment story for Trish Choate, the Washington correspondent for the Texas papers.

I know the other interns have been picked up in other Scripps papers or have been published on the Scripps Howard News Service (a national wire staffed by seasoned journalists, not just students.  We’ve recently established a relationship with El Paso, Inc., a weekly in Texas, where the mother of one of the interns this semester is editor.
So after I spent a week harassing sources and gathering information about a dicennial process I really didn’t know much about, putting a story out on the wire without knowing if it would get picked up or not wasn’t incredibly satisfying. 
The funny thing was, almost two weeks later, my editor told me El Paso, Inc. picked up my redistricting story. (Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the story online or gotten the paper clip yet.) El Paso, Inc. However, El Paso, Inc. wasn’t the only place that story was picked up.
USA Today, India Times and even Road Runner’s news aggregate linked to my story. Now, if people would just start linking to the Wire instead of Kansas City Infozine.

Blogger’s Note 11/15/2010: I got the clip from El Paso, Inc. today with my redistricting story in it. Score! 

Blood, Sweat and Tears

I hope you’ve been to by now and read the election stories Elvia and I wrote today. (In case you didn’t I linked to them on our names and the wire’s website is no longer password protected. Score!) And I’m sure you’re aware of the election outcome, so I’m not going to rehash any of that. What I do want to talk about is what it was like covering my first major election.
I’ve covered Student Government elections before, but sitting around with a fellow newspaper watching the Student Government people sit around waiting for election results is nothing like this.
In my previous entry, I explained how Elvia and I really wanted to cover something for the election, even if we knew no one was going to pick up our story. It was as much about the reporting experience and being part of something historic.
Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, speaking at the Republican watch party Tuesday night.
As soon as I walked into the Grand Hyatt I knew I had stepped into a whole new world. I wish I had a wide-angle shot to show you how the room was set up, but I was trying not to look like a newbie. In the center of the room, a roped-off cluster of risers held TV cameras from the likes of CNN. In front of the risers, photographers and reporters fought for outlets to power their laptops. Chairs holding laptops were haphazardly scattered around but concentrated more around the few sources of power left after the cameras were powered. The cluster of cameras linked to a strip along the left wall.
Reporters were restricted to this roped-off area, keeping us from ruining the night by pestering guests with questions, unless they wandered too close to the press pen. It was funny though, because they seemed impressed by the press contained in the center of the room. I am in pictures in at least eight people’s iPhones. It was so temping to make funny faces as they took their pictures, but I remained professional and just pretended to be busy doing something. I was actually watching the Kentucky elections via Twitter.
Some of the very excited crowd at the Republican watch party.
Once the festivities started, the press handler, a frazzled young woman in charge of making sure her kids stayed in their pen, escorted photographers between a roped-off area around the speakers platform and then back to the reporter’s area. Finally, once the guests got too thick for her to keep track of everyone between locations, we had to choose to stay by the stage or in the pen.
If I had to describe the evening in one word, I’d say loud. Every time Republicans picked up another state, everyone cheered and clapped. Whenever anyone spoke, everyone cheered and clapped. I’m sure the overpriced alcohol played no role in anyone’s enthusiasm.
Sometimes reporters would try to venture out of their pen to talk to people. Invariably, our baby sitter would escort them back behind the rope.
President Obama speaking at a press conference Wednesday afternoon.
But after the announcement came out that the Republicans regained control of the House and Boehner finally came out to address the crowd, the work still wasn’t finished.
Today, the president gave an address about the elections at the White House. I got to take my second trip there. This time, I got right into the White House and made it through security so easily I almost looked like I knew what I was doing.  Then, the fun began.
This time, when the president entered, I didn’t have the same, “Oh. My. God.” moment. Instead, I joined the chorus of shutters going all around the room. I took a decent number of pictures, and got a little video. And if you check the video on C-SPAN, you can see me off in the distance.

Capitol Hill

I went for another walk last Sunday, this time around Capitol Hill. Here’s a few pictures of some of the statues around the Capitol building.

It’s the Journey

A row of embassies.

I love the weekends. Don’t misunderstand me, I love my internship too. But I love being able to get into some jeans and my comfy shoes, grab a camera and just get lost in the city for a while. The weather has been perfect every weekend I’ve been out here, so I’ve been doing outside exploring before it gets too cold to enjoy things.

Last weekend, I decided to just go for a walk. I’m still too uptight of a person to just wander around without some kind of a guide, so I knew I wanted to end up in Georgetown and I knew the navigation in my phone would get me there. So with Google maps as my guide, I began the two mile walk from my apartment to Georgetown.

Latvian’s perception of American culture

I always have to remind myself that in life its not about the destination, but the journey. To get from Woodley Park to Georgetown, I passed by several countries’ embassies. Maybe I’ve watched too many movies, but when I think of embassies, I think of lots of important people walking around in cocktail party attire. These embassies looked mostly abandoned. Most were closed and looked like no one had been there in quite some time. The Latvian embassy had a photography exhibit open to the public, so I decided to go in.

The only reason I’ve ever heard of Latvia is because I worked with a woman named Lidija (Lydia) when I was a teenager. I was fascinated with World War II at the time, and she was a young child while Latvia was occupied by Germany. She told me stories about how her mother would hide Lidija and her sister under her skirts when they would go out into public to protect them. Lidija and her family emigrated to the United States when she was still very young, but she always seemed to remember Latvia fondly.

American perceptions of Latvian culture

Two older Latvian women oversaw the exhibit while I was there, one of them walking me through the exhibit and explaining the inspiration behind some of the photos. Groups of exchange students from the Latvian Culture College and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire took photos of their impressions of each other’s cultures.

Nature dominated UW’s photos because Latvians are very close to nature, one of the curators said. The Latvian students’ photos were dominated by pop culture references such as Coca-Cola, Michael Jackson and Bonnie and Clyde. It was an interesting interpretation of American culture.

One of the cute residential streets on the way to Georgetown.

The rest of my walk to Georgetown was mostly through residential neighborhoods. I made it to Sephora — the place I REALLY wanted to go and Barnes and Noble where I bought “Blue Highways,” a book written by a man who toured the U.S. by avoiding major interstates. I still haven’t started reading the book, but I’m looking forward to comparing his journey to the Gypsy Trip I took over the summer.

Busy Work

So much for weekly entries.

In all reality, I haven’t done anything super exciting or covered any particularly sensational stories lately. Most of the last couple of weeks have been spent finishing this story about community involvement in redistricting next year. I got a crash course in the process and learned all about how people can submit their own maps so they can make sure their own rights and interests are protected.

It was one of those complex topics that made me feel alternately brain dead and fascinated. The high stakes of the process was interesting; these districts will influence elections for the next 10 years. The volume of information and level of involvement in the process made it feel almost overwhelming at times.

I was relieved when I finished, but I’d hate to have this knowledge and background work go to waste after this story. I’m hoping to be able to keep following this story on the local level when I get home for a local news outlet.

Beyond that, I had my first story published by a news outlet a couple of weeks ago. Trish Choate, the Scripps Howard News Service reporter who acts as the Washington correspondent for Scripps’s three Texas newspapers, needed help one day writing a story about the lack of a cost of living increase for Social Security recipients.

Trish got a tip from one of the editors at the Texas papers that there was not going to be a COLA, but Congress was still getting a raise. Fortunately, I found out that Congress had voted for the second straight year not to get their own cost of living raise before I accused someone of greed, but discovering that fact took the wind right out of my story.

So, instead, I wrote a story about Congress really isn’t doing anything to make up for the lack of a COLA, and they don’t really intend to right now. It wasn’t quite as interesting as the original story, but it was fact. And that’s all that really matters.

My next project is going to be one story of a package all of the interns are working on. We’re all looking into different contributions into campaign financing to look at trends in donations over the last few years. We should have it finished by Wednesday, just in time to take the last half of the week off to attend the Online News Association annual conference.

Nothing like a cemetery to cheer you up

Arlington National Cemetery

There was a “One Nation Working Together” rally Saturday on the Mall, and I absolutely wanted nothing to do with it. I avoid dense crowds and large gatherings of people at all costs. I had no idea what I wanted to do yesterday when I woke up. I just knew I wanted to stay as far away from the Mall as possible. I ended up at Arlington National Cemetery.

I got there  late in the afternoon, so I didn’t get to see much.  I did get to see Kennedy’s gravesite and the Tomb of the Unknowns.

The ceremony of the Honor Guard was the most elaborate thing I’ve ever seen.

I’m not one to stand on ceremony. I try to stay barefoot as much as possible and just do things without much fanfare. The Changing of the Guard was about a 15-minute ceremony where the guard on duty is replaced by a new one. The relief commander comes out to announce to the crowd that the ceremony is about to begin and requests everyone stand. Then, he does a white glove inspection of the new sentinel’s weapon. After the inspection, the two guards and the relief commander meet in front of the tomb, salute and then pass orders from one guard to another.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

I was more impressed by what the soldiers have to do to become one of the guardians of the tomb. In addition to conforming to height and body build requirements, the soldiers memorize pages of facts about Arlington Cemetery — and that’s just the first part of the process. After being admitted, they begin learning the ceremony and 300 facts about Arlington Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknowns. Once they pass a test of 100 randomly selected questions out of the 300 facts they learned, guards are awarded a Tomb Guard Badge. The first badge is temporary, and they get an official, silver badge after spending nine months guarding the tomb.

I found my favorite part of the cemetery after leaving the Changing of the Guard ceremony. It was a memorial for journalists who died covering the wars.

Note the hem of his pants.
The handicapped entrance was full of veterans who came to watch the changing of the guard.
Left: Relief Commander. Right: Sentinel going on patrol.
War Correspondent Memorial

How to survive your first trip to DC

Mom and Dad’s first Metro ride. Their expressions say it all.

If you’re visiting DC for the first time, there are somethings you need to keep in mind. First, if you’re claustrophobic and don’t like crowds, don’t take the train. Second, check for scheduled maintenance on the Metro line on the weekend. It could keep you standing on a crowded train for an hour if you’re not careful. (There is a wonderful Android app for that.) Third, exercise before you come here. If you’re not used to walking, you won’t survive here more than a few hours.

Last weekend, my parents, brother and cousin made their first trip out to DC and learned these lessons the hard way. I think they’re all still recovering from the experience.

The Washington Monument at sunset.

My dad is the claustrophobic one. He really hates crowds, doesn’t like to be in large groups of people and gets kind of freaked out in small spaces. I was kind of impressed on how he dealt with the train. I was actually the one who got more irritated by the delays we experienced trying to get out to Pentagon City Mall.

I think we all were worn out by the end of Saturday. So much that we didn’t even walk the length of the reflecting pool to get to the Lincoln Memorial. We did however, get some half-way decent shots of it from the World War II memorial. And some pretty decent shots of the WWII Memorial itself.

Obligatory family photo at Mt. Vernon.

We spent Sunday in Virginia. I didn’t realize how much I missed real trees, open spaces and large areas of grass until we got to Mt. Vernon. It’s already a beautiful place, but that beauty was magnified by the fact that I’d spent the entire previous two weeks in a concrete jungle.

This was as close as we got to Lincoln.
Pretty World War II Memorial. This is why you must see the monuments at night.
Samantha and I at the National Mall.
My “little” brother.
With Dad
With Mom. I still haven’t figured out why the color is so different in this picture.