Weird, Wet and Wild  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   February/March 2006

Weird, Wet and Wild   

When a key source calls, reporters answer—no matter what.

By Rachael Jackson
Jackson is a former AJR editorial assistant.     


Reporters get into this business knowing full well that they can forget any notions of a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. workday. But now cell phones, the Internet, e-mail and BlackBerrys have made it all but impossible to ever truly leave the newsroom. How far would you go to make sure you got a story? Dedicated reporters share their own tales below.

Stacy Finz, San Francisco Chronicle. Finz was driving to Yosemite National Park — she was working on a story about a murdered park naturalist — when she got a call from an FBI agent. Driving with her knees, fumbling with a map and unable to locate a pen, the general assignment reporter improvised. "All I could find was my lipstick," she says. "So I took about 10 pages of notes in a lovely Chanel red."

Robyn Dochterman, Minneapolis' Star Tribune. Dochterman was waiting for her partner's chemotherapy appointment when she got the critical call for a magazine story she was freelancing. "I slipped out into the lobby in search of a quiet place to talk and write, but, of course, a booming loudspeaker constantly announced the hospital's emergencies. After several interruptions, my exasperated source had had it and demanded to know what the problem was. I explained as best I could."

Kevin Fagan, San Francisco Chronicle. Here's some juxtaposition: Fagan interviewed the mother of an abducted 8-year-old girl while he was at his own 8-year-old daughter's birthday party. The mother had no phone of her own and had borrowed one to call him. Fagan, who was hosting the art-themed party, knew he might never reach her again, so he took the call. "I pulled out a pen and took notes on party napkins that had cake frosting all over them," he says of the interview that took place about four years ago. "It was my day off, but that doesn't matter when you're on a story."

Barbara Kingsley, formerly of the Orange County Register. Kingsley was in labor on December 4, 2000, when her front-page story about a controversy over oceanfront property ran. "The epidural started kicking in in a big way, and I was feeling pretty good," she says. "One of my sources called with some follow-up info, and I talked to her awhile and then begged off. Then a bit later a reader called, angry about the story. I listened to her for a while and then told her that I was in labor, and I had better go. She said, 'Oh my goodness!' and then proceeded to complain for another five minutes." Three hours later Ellie was born. Kingsley has since left the Register to teach journalism.

Leann Holt, Albuquerque Journal. This children-and-families reporter has found that she need only jump in the shower to get a source to call her. Two years ago, when she was writing for her college paper, Holt waited all day for a phone call from one of the deans at the University of New Mexico but finally decided to take a gamble and shower. "Just when I got my hair soaped the stupid phone rings," she says. "I didn't even grab a towel. I conducted the interview standing at my washing machine in a puddle." Sadly, some of her notes were blurred by the water dripping from her hair. More recently, at the Albuquerque Journal, a showering Holt accepted another call from a source. This time her cell phone almost didn't survive the interview — she had to get it repaired.

Larry Hannan, Florida's Naples Daily News. Larry Hannan was getting a skin test — his doctor was pricking his back with pollen, ragweed, dander and other allergens — when the head of the local Democratic Party called. "I was sitting there shirtless with a bunch of stuff in my back," he says of the September interview. "The doctors are making notes on what my back looks like while simultaneously I'm conducting an interview."

Katie Ruark, former intern at the Arizona Republic. Ruark was waiting at home for a call from a Phoenix city official when her puppy, Berretto, got sick, and she rushed him to the veterinarian. Predictably, the source called while Berretto was being examined. "I took notes from the source as I held the dog through the vet visit," the former intern says. "The source never knew, and after some medication my puppy was fine."

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