I attended the hearing on Representative Wyatt’s bill about closing the state-funded hab centers and transfering the clients to the community homes. The hearing lasted two hours, and both the opponents and supporters are strongly involved and emotional. Although I wasn't covering the hearing, as my story will be a longer piece, I got a good chance to get more background information.
I got a great interview opportunity with the Department of Mental Health Director Keith Schefer. It was my pleasant to have this kind of meeting with the leader of the department. They filled me in with the background information of mental health in Missouri. I appreciated the director’s patient explanation. Then I turned on the recorder and fire up. I have to admit that some questions would be difficult to answer due to the controversy. For example, I asked, “Do you think you broke the promise with the hab center parents if they have to be moved?” To my surprise, Keith never avoid my questions. Even when I started my questions with softer ones, planning to move on to tougher questions next, he knew what I was looking for, and he would answer my tough questions in my mind with solid and comprehensive answers.
Phill wants me to produce a long-term story with several parts. With a plenty of materials I have gathered so far, I'm working on organizing and grouping the materials with five themes.
I'm covering a story regarding the Missouri Department of Mental Health and the budget cut. To reduce the cost, the department is trying to transfer mentally challenged clients from the large state-funded facilities to smaller community providers. There are a couple of mini stories under this bigger issue, so when I first pitched this story to Phill, I didn't realize that a lot of stories are related to each other. I started with the closing of Northwest Habitation Center in St Louis, but Phill insisted that there are something about the Bellefontaine, and the parents are very upset. I interviewed the spokesperson from the department, and he blocked my interview with the department director and the habitation centers. With limited information, I thought the story was just about Northwest until I searched Bellefontaine online.
A newsletter from a year ago about Bellefontaine caught my attention. A parent association was fighting against the cut of the department and their attempt to close Bellefontaine. I thought that was what Phill said, but I still dialed the number on the newsletter to get to know more. A parent who replied my phone really move my story a lot further. She told me the department has been refusing new patients to the center so that they could close the Northwest; while the spokesperson told me they close the center because there are not much needy patients.
I was excited to know this. What's more important and made me proud, Phill called in the department director himself to help me get through the spokesperson. He said he'd prefer me to interview the parents in St Louis, and he was right.Basically the story is the parents are fighting against the bill that would close state-funded facilities(northwest, bellefontaine, etc). The department is refusing new patients of the state-funded facilities, so the facilities seem to be empty and the department could consolidate them. The state is also trying to transfer more patients to community providers, which would replace those large facilities, but the parents complain that community providers lack of professional services.
Phill was right that I should do an in-person interview. I got incredible interview with 2 bellefontaine parents, 1 Northwest parents, and 1 guardian. I got the copies of the emails between the parents and the department of mental health, including Keith's response. With their help, I will also talk to a parent who visited a community provider himself. He will give us the pictures he took, so we could compare the community one and the facilities. A parent leader will come to the Capitol on Monday afternoon for a hearing at 1 pm, regarding disabilities. With Phill's help, Keith will have a meeting with me and other staff of the department on Monday 4-5 pm.
It's gonna be a long-term story with tremendous human interests.
I have been suffering from a lot of interview declines when I’m working on a controversial story related to horse slaughter. Both government department and animal activists don't feel like give a voice on this issue. However, I’ve been kept what I have learned from MDN and to be persistent. The reason why I’m very interested in this story is because it involves a couple of newsworthy elements.
1. It could be localize as Missouri House was trying to pass a bill last year to legalize house slaughter in Missouri, but it failed. The recent bill signed by President Obama means a victory of many horse owners to get rid of the ban.
2. Missouri is the 3rd largest state of horse industry. Allowing horse meat inspection and exports will have an impact on the state’s economy.
3. There are many horse owners in Missouri. This bill will have an impact on their interests.
4. This story also involves human interests because horse is treated by loving accompanies by many people. While slaughter sounds cruel and inhumane to some people, some animal activists unexpectedly support the bill because it prevents horse abandon and abuse.
5. It involves conflicts and will appeal to the audience.
With all these newsworthiness, I still feel excited about this story although being declined is frustrated. I keep contacting as many interviewees as I can because I want to get different voices to reflect the conflicts and controversy
It was not because I got something juicy out of the interview. The source I interviewed actually was not cooperating very well. I was waiting for more explanation and expecting him to say more, but he always stopped there. Luckily I got enough soundbites and background information, which compensated each other.
I'm not saying there's a standard formula for radio story, but there are certain important things that are supposed to be wrapped up in the limited 40 seconds.
1. Anchor intro: Make it ear-catchy. Important facts are not enough. We need to delivery it to the audience and let them know why it is important as soon as possible, such as what's unusual or newsworthy here. In the municipal bonds story, I highlighted that a failure is rare.
2. Before the soundbite, it would be a good idea to introduce the background of the source or his/her organization, so that the audience could make sense why I'm interviewing this person. I learned this technique after Phill edited my stories in this way a couple of times.
I'm glad to have the two nice stories this week, especially having followed up the first one during last week. It was a little frustrated last week because I couldn't get good audio interview. The two stories this week prove that good audio interview and good interviewees mean a lot to radio stories.
When I interviewed the Vice President of Moberly Area Economic Development Corporation, I was glad I finally got the interview from their corporation, which played a main role in introducing Mamtek to Moberly. My interview technique was starting from what they are currently working on, and then push a little bit to the Mamtek issue. I want to hear from their voices first, especially their voices are rarely heard since the Mamtek failure happened. What they are currently working on makes an interesting story because they are looking for more international partners. When I look back the process of producing the Mamtek and Moberly stories, I feel it's very important to advance the story step by step. It's also about be persistent and find out an interesting point from which the next story could be started with. That's what make investigative journalism appealing.
Broadcast is a good way to preserve emotion, and it works well when the story is obvious. However, when it comes to complex issues, I cannot just assume audience are as aware as I am. I need to actually write and explain the reasons to people so that they could make sense of the context.
I started to prepare for the interview for Rep. Jason Kander several weeks ago when Phill told me he knew Kander will go. I've tried so many times to reach him, and I'm glad that I got him talk just before they leave, and it's a good timing because the China hub bill is dead, or stalling. What's more interesting and makes my efforts worthwhile is that Kander said he doesn't know why he was selected by the governor. This is one of the questions both Phill and I want to ask. I've used this in my story.
What I learned again is never give up. I went to Kander's office every time I was in Jefferson City before I heard back from him. He is based in KC, so I could only talk to his contact person, who is only able to check his schedule for me. The first time I got a voice mail and simply told me that he was not available. I don't know who left the message, but I really doubt that she didn't help me to reach him, because it turned out that Kander would like to arrange an interview. So after I talked to another contact person, who did help me to reach him, I got his schedule, knowing when he will be at the Capitol. I met him at the House session and asked him questions about the failure of China hub bill and the impact on the trip. He admitted it would be a good tool to discuss with the Chinese if they passed it, yet it's still necessary to promote exports.
The same thing happens with the MU Chancellor's interview. I called his contact assistance and she didn't pick up the call. I left a voice mail and she didn't reply. I will call her or go to the office before next Tuesday when I'm in Jefferson City.
This will add to my feature story or a series of stories about this trade mission.
I understand that although telephone interview is fast and sometimes works the same as in-person interview, talking in person can add to the story surprisingly. Not only in-person interview can get better sound quality, it makes a big difference especially when the sources are hesitating for an interview. Therefore, I feel like when time and traffic permit, don't afraid to go and talk to people in person. Journalists should have a good conversation with people before they tell a story.
Also, always doing "homework" before the interview. A good understanding to the story enables us to ask good questions, which in turn makes a good interview. I was not familiar about the bond issue when the story just came out. I consider it as my responsibility to understand it properly before I tell the story to my listener. I'm not saying that reporters should be an expert in every field they are covering. Actually it works in a good way if the reporter didn't understand the issue before, and then understands it through learning, because the reporter is able to tell the story in simple language. That's one of my reason that I enjoy working on business story.
[Missouri Digital News is supported by the Missouri School of Journalism (home of the The Journalist's Creed),
the Missouri Press Association,
KMOX Radio in St. Louis,and
KSMU Radio in Springfield
MDN was designed and is managed by Phill Brooks]