WJI 2015 Day 2: Dealing in the lives of others as journalists

May 19, 2015

By Kaylen Tanner

You are dealing in people’s lives. Caitlin Byrd, local reporter for the Asheville Citizen-Times, kept repeating that reminder: You are dealing with people’s lives. Her recollection of telling a woman, over the phone, about the sudden deaths of three friends, due to a plane crash, reveled how hard that can be. When asked if she would continue her current career Byrd responded with a strong yes. Despite being intimidated by the responsibility, she explained, it is still the greatest honor to deal in people’s lives.

Byrd recently began covering a new beat in hipster Asheville, the innovators, entrepreneurs, and startups. For us reporting startups in the program she provided lots of advice: Be kind, use Twitter, develop connections, but, above all, do quality work. We gave it a try. We started trying with people’s lives … with each other’s lives. Charged with researching and telling a classmate’s story in less than four hours, and giving them time to do the same, we set to work. 

The problem with the 2015 WJI students is their complexity. Simple stories needed context for significance. The biographies of others- parents , friends, boyfriends and mentors-  intertwined with the main character’s story. Conflicts did not end like in traditional narratives. Add a fast approaching deadline and the pressure of presenting a new friend to themselves and their peers, and out comes fast-paced, narrative, short-form, rough journalism. Dealing with people’s lives, real people’s lives, was messy.

We had a guide. Russell Pulliam, Associate Editor of The Indianapolis Star, member of a journalist dynasty, and master of the journalism craft, peered over our shoulders to gently shape our final products. 

He taught as much with what was unsaid as what was said. Pulliam’s first lesson was a small grammatical riddle, one that proved the devil is in the details. With an eye for both the nit-picky grammar and the overall shape of a story he enabled us to bring each other, real people, to life on paper. 

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