Today is my last day at the Capitol -- for now. I'll be taking a month to celebrate the holidays and work on my tan in San Diego.
While I may appear tireless, I need the break. This semester has worn me out, and in the best ways.
Since I was a little sixth grader with frizzy hair and big dreams, I have -- rather inexplicably -- known I wanted to be a journalist. This semester taught me why.
Reporting in Jefferson City alongside my talented peers and under the watchful eye of my editor, Phill Brooks, I've learned a lot. Much of what I've been taught, I've detailed here, in this blog. I have written about the other lessons in between the lines of my articles, where I have visibly improved as a journalist. As a child, my growth chart was drawn upon my bedroom wall; this semester, it was printed on the pages of the Columbia Missourian and published on the web pages of MDN.
This semester has been, as they say, a blast. I can't wait to live the dream again very, very soon.
Earlier today, I thought I was seeing double; as it turns out, my vision is fine.
In fact, two state senators prefiled identical bills this week.
A staff member in Bartle's office confirmed the bills are, indeed, identical.
Last year, the two senators also introduced identical bills -- the same bills, essentially, they filed this week.
The 2009 versions were combined during the session into one bill. It's reasonable to expect similar results again this year.
A very unscientific poll of my colleagues in the MDN office showed most people believe this could be a strategic power play by the senators.
Another possibility: Goodman and Bartle submitted both bills in hopes of strengthening chances of one copy making it to committee.
Either way, if the bill(s)'s performance during the 2009 session is any indication, expect to see the proposals flounder in session again -- and, next year, reincarnated once more.
It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas at the Missouri Capitol.
When I arrived in Jefferson City on Tuesday morning, I was greeted by hundreds of feet of festive garland, red bows and a chill in the air.
A few of the offices in the Capitol have also embraced the Christmas spirit. Outside of the Secretary of State Robin Carnahan's office, where prefiled bills are submitted, staff adorned a Christmas tree with ornaments.
And, across the street from the Capitol, a 30-foot Christmas tree was erected Tuesday on the south lawn of the governor's mansion.
It's all enough to make this student reporter ache for winter break. Item No. 1 on my Christmukkah list? Work clothes -- for the legislative session next semester, of course.
(The session begins Jan. 6. Save the date!)
This week, an ABC News story created a stir when it reported that the federal Web site tracking government stimulus money listed jobs created in nonexistent congressional districts.
Tuesday, a check of the Missouri listing on the recovery.gov Web site showed a number of nonexistent congressional distrcits. Although the state has nine districts, numbers such as 10, 14 and 26 were named.
As of Thursday, the incorrect listings had been aggregated on the site in a category labeled "Unassigned congressional district."
Operators of the Web site emphasized to me earlier in the week that the errors did not mean the money had disappeared or the jobs were not actually created.
"We're talking about a data inputing error," said Cheryl Avidson. Avidson is the assistant director of communication for the Recovery Accountability Board, which operates the recovery.gov site.
Avidson explained that the data on the site is obtained from reports filed by the recipients of federal stimulus funds. If the recipient makes a mistake in the report, that mistake is reflected in the data published online.
"This is the first time recipients of funds have ever been required to file reports," she said. "If someone hit the wrong button or was not clear on their district, the system lists what they said."
Missouri state Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, said the numbers are misleading and even "fictitious."
"If you're going to be honest and open, the numbers have to match," he said. Stouffer is currently seeking the Republican nomination in Missouri's 4th Congressional District.
As late as Tuesday, Avidson said the Recovery Accountability Board was not responsible for, well, being accountable for information listed on the Web site.
"It's not the responsibility of the Recovery Board," Avidson said, getting audibly defensive. "We only received reports from those who received the money."
There are other minor discrepancies in the data being reported by the recovery.gov site.
Chad Livengood of the Springfield News-Leader reported recently that the reported figures for jobs created in Missouri were overstated. Those numbers were reported, like the congressional districts, by recipients of federal funds.
In addition, a small percentage of the money reported as being awarded to Missouri did not stay in the state.
Calculations based on data from the recovery.gov site uncovered nearly $6 million that was given as sub-awards to parties in fourteen other states. Even so, it appears this money is still counted as having been awarded to Missouri.
No word yet on how these contracts were awarded or if any preference was given to bids from Missouri.
Yesterday, Jefferson City was abuzz -- and a-Twitter -- with rumors, later proved false, of a hostage situation in government offices.
I was in my reporting lecture in Columbia (learning about writing for the Internet, no less) when I was tipped off to the situation by an unusual "tweet" from Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder:
"Sharpshooters on roof of Jefferson bldg. Hostage situation unfolding in Governor Office bldg. Police locked down the block. Developing ..."
In an instant, my reporter senses were tingling. Within minutes, I was off to the capital city to report the story. By 11:30 a.m. I was on the scene, with my Blackberry in one hand and my reporter's notebook in the other.
Because I was away from a computer, my ability to seek out information beyond the occasional press briefing was limited. Every few minutes, I found myself on my phone searching Twitter for updates.
What I found, especially early on, was a lot of information I could not independently confirm. As it turns out, it was because much of that information was incorrect.
Accuracy versus expediency
My experience was but one example of what seems to be a growing trend in news: Reporters in breaking news situations forced to weigh the importance of accuracy against that of expediency.
Ethically, the decision is an easy one: Accuracy always wins out. But when journalists must compete with everyday people who are held to no code nor creed nor professional standard of any kind, complications can arise. In the age of the Internet, if you're not first, you're last.
Nevertheless, I was beginning to become frustrated with the inaccurate tweets I had seen early on. Speed aside, they were hurting my ability to report and, even though I was on the scene, I was becoming confused with the constant contradictions.
I could not begin to imagine, then, the frustration felt by those at home following #JCMOhostage, the Twitter feed that had been established to track the situation. So I did the one thing in my power to get correct information out fast.
In my posts to Twitter, I took the time to ensure accuracy and posted confirmed updates as quickly as possible. Readers were appreciative, and thanked me later for the effort I put in to disseminate reliable information.
Accountability, in 140 characters or fewer
Contrary to early reports, there was no hostage and there were no gunshots. Thankfully, everyone was safe and all was well.
My first breaking news story wasn't really news at all.
But it was, like so many stories I've covered in Jefferson City, an incredible learning experience.
I learned the importance of responsible journalism in any situation, no matter how fast-paced. I learned the true weight of reporting, whether it be my own or that of others.
And I learned to report always with the utmost integrity and in service to the public -- in 140 characters or fewer.
Reporting as a member of the Jefferson City Press Corps is a thrilling experience to have while still an undergraduate. At times, however, it's easy to let it go to one's head.
Working from the Capitol just feels professional. How many students, after all, can say they have posed questions to the governor during a press conference? And how many students, especially outside of Missouri, can say they have, at one point, had a reserved parking space at the state's Capitol?
The ego boost is tangible even writing for a small news organization. And that, I'm beginning to learn, can sometimes be a problem.
I was fortunate enough to report on and write a four-part series on residential septic systems at the Lake of the Ozarks and the pollution problems these waste management systems create. (Credit where credit is due to my reporting partner, Max Reiss.) Reporting the series was a process of many weeks and, by the end, I had grown extremely close to the story -- so close, in fact, that I became unable to step back from the story I had crafted and recognize possible areas of improvement.
My editor, Phill, brought my curly-haired head back down to size. I may have grown-up-sized enthusiasm, but I am still just a student; admittedly, I don't yet know everything there is to know about reporting. Not even close.
A simple lesson this week, but an important one.
As for the story, I am truly proud of the result. Many thanks to the sources who offered their opinions and expertise; to Max, who acted as a mentor throughout the reporting process; and to the editors who tirelessly helped me to refine my story for publication.
It isn't easy to get face time with Gov. Jay Nixon.
Just ask Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah. Lager says he has tried six times to set up a meeting with the governor but has had no success.
Lager, who is heading a Senate committee to investigate the operations of Missouri's Department of Natural Resources, has repeatedly accused DNR of a cover-up and recently called the department's actions "obstructionate at best." His meeting with the governor, should it ever occur, will address such frustrations, among other topics.
Reporters in the Jefferson City Press Corps know how Lager feels.
Today, Nixon held a press conference to announce he will be firing former DNR Deputy Director Joe Bindbeutel but keeping on currently-suspended DNR Director Mark Templeton.
It was the first time many reporters have seen the governor in person for some time.
Granted, I have no problem speaking with Nixon's communications director, Jack Cardetti; however, when the state's largest lake is facing significant contamination problems, it becomes necessary for the governor to speak, and to speak often.
Today, he finally did.
Could coffee with the press corps be next? (The grande nonfat vanilla latte can be on me.)
In most newsrooms, articles are devised in cubicles and edited at a copy desk. At the Missouri Capitol, the empty conference rooms and chambers of the out-of-session Senate become the all-purpose meeting rooms where stories are born.
The first time I entered the Senate chamber, I was in awe of the room; the first time I discussed an article beneath the soaring ceilings that have witnessed so many defining moments in the history of Missouri politics, I was an awe of something different--the immense sense of obligation I felt to my story.
Don't get me wrong--I place an incredible amount of value on each story I report and always work my hardest to inform readers and convey the truth, regardless of where I'm working.
Working in the very halls that house Missouri's government, however, reminds me every day of what my stories mean and for whom they are meant. As hard as news outlets work to connect to stories and get in touch with the community on which reporters are writing, there is always a disconnect between the paper and the people. When the paper, however, is located in a building built by the people and for people, the paper is the people.
The effects are tangible.
Sometimes, journalists forget to be watchdogs of democracy; here, it is impossible to forget our civic duty. Here, beneath the austere dome of the Capitol, it is impossible to forget for whom we're really working.
Being new to the Capitol has its perks. For one, people cut me some slack if, for example, I get lost on the way to the Senate coffee room. Also, I am not yet considered one of the "media," which means sources might actually agree to talk to me.
On the flip side, however, being new comes with its share of frustration and embarrassment.
Today, Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, proved as much to me when he jokingly lied about his identity over the phone and claimed he was not a member of the Missouri legislature. If I had known Lager, perhaps the prank would have been in good fun; because I did not know the senator, however, his actions came off as confusing.
This week, fraternities and sororities across the nation are marking National Hazing Prevention Week. Perhaps, in the future, the Missouri legislature should be required to participate.
But don't take my word for it--I'm just the new kid.
Today, Gov. Jay Nixon introduced a plan to clean up Lake of the Ozarks. Along with radio reporter Max Reiss, I attended the press conference at Lake of the Ozarks State Park, learned the preferred Starbucks drink of the governor, and wrote a story on his big announcement (regarding the lake, not his coffee). Overall, I learned a lot about issues concerning Lake of the Ozarks and about what is being done to address these problems.
I also learned a lot about journalism.
Allow me, for the sake of background, to get personal for a second. While I may write for Missouri Digital News and the Columbia Missourian, I am also a sophomore majoring in journalism and political science at the University of Missouri. As a reporter, I'm not terribly unlike, well, a bill still in a legislative committee--I've got the basics nailed down, but it'll take a few more amendments and votes before I'm signed into law. Every so often, when caught up in the burning heat of a good scoop, it can be easy to forget one's own inexperience.
The story I worked on today reminded me--and humbled me.
My story today brought me not only my first press conference but also, more importantly, my first serious ethical dilemma in journalism. For the first time, the truth as I perceived it was so delicate and nuanced that I troubled to find the words to express it. And so, for the first time, I read an article with my editors and newsroom role models and talked it out, down to the very last word.
In the fast-paced newsrooms of today, one can be hard pressed to find conversations regarding exact phrasing, or about stated versus intended meaning. The absence of such discussions leaves some stories bare; others, sloppy. I was fortunate at this early stage in my journalism career to have participated in one such discussion--and to learn, firsthand, the immense responsibilities that come with a reporter's notebook.
Unofficially, it is Bike to Work Day at the Missouri State Capitol.
Officially, Jefferson City will serve today as the finish line for the fourth stage of the Tour of Missouri. It is an event that will draw biking enthusiasts from across the region--and displace those of us hoping to park anywhere near the capitol building.
Parking problems aside, the finish this evening will be an exciting and important one in terms of the final outcome of the race.
Race leaders Mark Cavendish and Thor Hushovd were locked in a tie for first after Hushovd claimed the third stage yesterday. Both Cavendish and Hushovd are known for their sprinting abilities on the bicycle, so there's no telling who'll step up to take the lead today.
Juan Jose Haedo, who narrowly lost the third stage to Hushovd, remains close behind the leaders, with only four seconds separating him from first place.
Today, the Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy and the Environment Committee of the Missouri state Senate met via teleconference. Members of the committee discussed progress made in the investigation into the late release of test results finding high E. coli levels in Lake of the Ozarks over the summer.
Three key issues stood out during the teleconference.
Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, emphasized repeatedly that the purpose of the committee's investigation was to alter flawed public policy, not to seek eventual prosecution. Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County, suggested the committee's proceedings are being perceived as a criminal investigation because of the response by representatives from the Department of Natural Resources. Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, said, "We've really gone off the deep end in terms of making this look like a [criminal] investigation." Bray claimed the committee's work had even become "intimidating" to DNR employees.
Lager also confirmed that the committee must now sift through over 200,000 emails sent and received by DNR employees between May and June of this year. According to Lager, only three Senate staffers are currently assigned to this project. Bray expressed concern that a projected date of completion for this large undertaking has yet to be proposed. "Who is going through these emails, Senator [Lager]? And when will we have a report?" Bray asked in frustration.
Finally, Bray questioned how testing will be carried out in the future once the five-year grant to AmerenUE to test contaminant levels at the lake have expired.
Lager closed the conference by making a goal to address those questions of senators not sitting on the committee through a future meeting. Furthermore, Lager stressed that he would only pursue a subpoena of records from DNR as a last resort.
Typically, the first week at a new job can be classified as mundane and filled with unexciting introduction and instruction. Mine, however, was quite the opposite.
Tuesday was my first day on the job and, incidentally, the last day on the job for Missouri state Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis City, and state Rep. Steve Brown, D-St. Louis County. Though their pending resignations had been rumored, few could have predicted a guilty plea would come so soon.
And so, as I toured the Missouri Capitol for the first time, I followed my editor, Phill Brooks, as he reported the breaking news for St. Louis Radio Station KMOX.
Thursday, I wrote my first newspaper story for the Columbia Missourian and Missouri Digital News. The topic of the story, a text-messaging-while-driving law that took effect today, was fairly cut-and-dry; however, I was interested to hear from a number of law enforcement and government officials who told me they doubted the law could be enforced.
Today, I listened in on a teleconference held by a number of state senators who are looking into the delayed reporting of E. coli levels in the Lake of the Ozarks. Expect more reporting on this, either on this blog or in a newspaper story, soon.One week down. I can't wait to see what Week Two will have in store.
Missouri Digital News is produced by Missouri Digital News, Inc. -- a non profit organization of current and former journalists.