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J-School Confidential: One Down, One to Go

With almost a full semester in the books, this hopeful journo checks out the past and looks forward

By Katia Bachko - November 30, 2007
As the semester draws to a close, a Columbia j-schooler reflects on the skills she's learned and the work remaining to be done. From a favorite assignment on observation to the difficulty of interviewing the elderly, she discusses the eye-opening first five months.
Every autumn I try to leave New York to see the evidence of the seasons changing. But as the semester's insanity closed around me, I could only watch as the ginkgo tree around the corner from my apartment shed its leaves and littered the sidewalk with its noxious berries. Act I of j-school is about to come to a close and it's time to take stock of how far I've come and where I'm going.

I've always considered myself a slow eater and a slow writer. And it was a delightful revelation when I realized I was no longer the latter. At my old job, a month-long deadline for a 1,200-word story felt too rushed. So when my professor started pulling events from the AP Day Book and sending us out to cover them, I was sure I couldn't possibly report on a morning event and meet a deadline in the afternoon. But to my surprise and delight, I could.

This discovery has been completely liberating. Now I know I can and should dedicate most of my time to reporting, because the writing comes so quickly. Still, not everything has changed. Sitting through dinner with me continues to be torturous. It takes me half an hour to finish a slice of pizza even when I'm ravenous.

The second discovery of the semester is that I have two perfectly functioning eyeballs. This sounds silly but as a magazine editor, I did all my reporting over the phone. Plus, most of the service pieces I wrote didn't call for a ton of visual details, so I never really had an opportunity to look around.

This semester, starting with an observation exercise (600 words, no adjectives) about Penn Station, my professors have encouraged me to report with my senses, and I've fallen in love with the process.

If my next employer needs me to shoot some video or make an audio slideshow, I am confident I can stand up and deliver.

Of course, this love affair with details can result in an agonizing editing process. Professor Sig Gissler calls it "killing your kittens," which entails removing beloved tidbits from the story. I fill my notebooks with colors, scents, and sounds, and even if those details don't make into the final piece, I feel better when I sit down to write because I can turn to these specifics.

I've also become techno-savvy. Although I've lived with a bona fide technology expert for the past five years, I never learned the tools of his trade. But the past semester has provided a trial by fire in audio and video recording and editing. Am I ready to be the next Ken Burns? Not quite. But if my next employer needs me to shoot some video or make an audio slideshow, I am confident I can stand up and deliver.

But enough patting myself on the back, I still have a lot to do in the coming semester. Looking over all the stories I've written, I can see a gap between what I set out to do in the beginning, and what ends up on the page. Overall, I need to work on getting more sources and talking to more people so that I can be flexible with which quotes I use.

Part of this is an interviewing problem. During street reporting, I need to get better at asking follow-up questions and go beyond the first surface answer. Unfortunately, in those situations, I'm half-nervous and half-grateful to have someone talk and sometimes my brain disengages.

I also need to think more about the way I ask questions. This month I was reporting on how some older residents in my beat dislike the young new bikers, and all the new bike lanes and bike parking that the city is proposing. It was easy to get the 20-somethings to talk about problems they've had in the area, but I couldn't figure out how to get the old-timers to open up to me.

Luckily, I have one more semester to shape up, and no doubt pinpoint other areas that need work. Stay tuned.

Katia Bachko is a writer and editor in New York City. You can reach her at

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