Never begin reporting a story believing you know the ending.
Throughout my seven years as a reporter, it is by far the most important lesson I have learned and one I often wish others would take to heart.
Whether it is a routine municipal meeting, a new data set or a tip received, deciding the message before gathering all the facts and feelings from those involved will not yield a worthwhile, or precise, story. It will prevent you from asking the necessary follow up questions or being open to an alternative explanation. If you decide the message before you finish the reporting, the resulting story will not accurately inform the public, it will not uncover the unsuspected, it will not aid those in need. Instead, it could mislead, misinform or perpetuate a narrative that may or may not be true.
Being open to a story you didn’t expect or tossing out hours of work because there is actually no story there, is hard. It takes more time, more energy and more effort. It may make sources or readers upset. It might mean going against what other reporters or editors are doing or suggesting. It almost certainly means not sticking to the plan you thought you had. But just as certainly, it will yield a better story.
Plans are good, curiosity and flexibility are better.
I began this year reporting on the potential construction of a turf field in Lyme-Old Lyme and mismanagement of funds by the Region 4 Board of Education and Open Choice schools. I thought I’d be spending the year following how districts respond to the unfunded and unenforced mandates required by the legislature and the department of education. I was hoping to do more long form pieces, to take a step back from the day-to-day news. On a personal level, I didn’t think I’d still be reporting for the Connecticut Examiner or living in Connecticut by the end of the year.
But for me, as for most of us, 2020 was not the year I anticipated or planned for.
Twelve months ago, none of us would have predicted a global pandemic, the closure of thousands of restaurants, mandated remote schooling for kindergarten through college students or a widespread, contentious debate about policing and racial justice in America. The fact that these things happened is important, but the real stories are how they impacted each of us, and the best stories – the essential ones – are the impacts we didn’t expect, the ones with endings I would never have guessed.
The same is true for me.
Personally, twelve months ago, I would never have predicted I’d be on maternity leave learning first-hand the challenges I’ve been reporting on for years. I didn’t know I’d learn that attending prenatal and other medical appointments alone and less frequently is nerve-racking, that new motherhood is indeed lonely at times, that daycare is both incredibly expensive and hard to come by, that curriculum changes and offerings like preschool in public schools certainly will impact where my family chooses to live in the future.
This week I’ve read dozens of “good riddance” 2020 posts. Many people are referring to this as the worst year yet, the year that didn’t go as planned. As I look back over my 200 stories from 2020 detailing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns, I understand where they’re coming from. This year certainly didn’t go as planned, but then again I never believed it would, and for me, the ending – snuggled in at home with my new daughter Rosalie – is far better than I ever would have written on my own.