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J-School Confidential: Rude Awakening

The difficulties of covering a beat and other revelations from the first month of j-school

- October 5, 2007
In the latest installment of J-School Confidential, new Columbia student Katia Bachko reflects upon her first month at school, her new beat, and her newfound respect for the simplest stories.

I am sitting in a room with more than 200 people and crying. Everyone is crying.

No, these are not uninformed j-school students who've just heard the news about the imminent demise of newspapers. My classmates and I are listening to excerpts from StoryCorps in a presentation by David Isay, a former radio journalist and documentary-maker and the founder of the project. Isay is at Columbia to deliver what can only be described as the world's saddest motivational speech. His advice: Listen. It falls on ready ears. We emerge into the August night with tear-streaked cheeks, and, at this moment, I am aglow with certainty: I belong nowhere else.

Since school started on August 16, the first lesson I learned is that experience and accomplishment aren't the same thing. Before Columbia, my classmates were soldiers in Iraq, investment bankers, amateur opera singers, published poets, book authors, UN officials, and rock stars. I'm constantly thinking or saying, "Wait, you did what? Wow!"

Two truths have emerged quickly: 1. I love being at school. When I take in the bona fide collegiate scene, I feel a heady rush and my mind floods with clichés: the possibilities are endless; the world is my oyster, and so forth. 2. I need to be at school. On the beat and at the keyboard, I feel challenged, pushed beyond what I know and what is comfortable.

For one thing, I'm not used to doing my own reporting. As an assigning editor, my job was to have a good idea and then find someone else to execute it. Now I have to do both, and I'm finding that the execution part is much harder than it seems. It's often said that people who master a craft can make the difficult seem effortless. I'm learning that what may read as a simple story can represent hours and hours of legwork before the writing begins.

Nervous at the beginning, I was secretly hoping for a little hand-holding.

In the past, when I set out to critically read the newspaper it meant evaluating bias. Now, I marvel at the most straightforward hard-news articles. They are a wonder of time management and resourcefulness: How did the reporter know with whom to talk? How did she find such articulate sources? I am humbled by these details, filled with respect for the writers who accomplish these daily feats with grace.

The concept of news judgment has also hit me like a ton of bricks. In undergrad, when professors talked about it, the discussion always veered to the "Dog Bites Man" versus "Man Bites Dog" example. News was unusual or significant or important. At the magazine where I last worked, it was easy to find the relevant in a sea of information. I had to answer two questions: Does this pertain to our niche readership? Have we covered this recently? If I could answer no to both, I usually had a story.

But when writing for a general audience, the world at times seems vast. The people on my beat -- I'm covering Greenpoint, Brooklyn -- are warm and willing to share their stories. I'm still not 100 percent certain how to take what they give me and turn it into a compelling article. I pride myself on being observant and fill my notebook with small details, but I haven't found a use for them yet. I am training myself to think critically about the local conflicts on my beat, but I still have to learn how to turn a sharp insight into something larger.

Above all else, I've realized that j-school requires major self-motivation. Nervous at the beginning, I was secretly hoping for a little hand-holding. I wanted some supervised activities during which I'd be coached on how to approach strangers on the street, conduct a proper interview, ask good questions, and then synthesize all of this into a super story. In truth, we had a few lectures and discussions about the basics of reporting before our first assignment, but it all seemed like too much too soon.

On the street, I felt abandoned and unprepared. Wasn't j-school supposed to teach me how to do this instead of throwing me to the wolves? Sick with anxiety, I walked around looking for a person to interview and everyone looked wrong. "That guy is walking pretty fast, he must be in a hurry... Oh no, this woman's bag looks sort of heavy, she probably doesn't want to stop and talk."

It was sunny and warm out but I was walking around with a cloud over me. Just then, I turned a corner and I heard a friendly voice say, "Nice day out!" And so it began.

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Katia Bachko is a writer and editor in New York City. Contact her at