Six presidential candidates in seven days. Four currently working, highly successful journalists in a semester. Three major news organizations in a day.
These are just a few examples of the contacts I’ve made in my field in only a couple of months. Since I began school at S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, I have experienced an impressive accrual of access. While I feel a certain inclination to brag, I share my experience not to sing my own praises, but instead to point out that if I can do it, you can too.
Perhaps the greatest access – or at least most access in a short period of time – I’ve created for myself was just last week, when I traveled to New Hampshire with my political reporting class and Democracywise to cover the presidential primary for the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle and the Syracuse Post-Standard.
Other than my work with the college newspaper and in school, this was the very first time that I was published by a newspaper – not to mention in the middle of a situation that felt truly historic and magnanimous. And I have to tell you, it was great.
I even made it through the cramped hotel quarters, cold weather (wool socks and face lotion were quick fixes) tight schedule, utterly catastrophic technological mishaps and lackluster food (though I will give New Hampshire praise for its Vermont coffee) with a smile.
Waking up on Thursday morning, our first day “in the field,” I’d already worked out my week’s schedule, only for it to fall apart quickly before my eyes. Working around two newspapers and an additional editor, my professor for the class, proved to be immediately inconvenient.
At one point, all of my frustration coalesced into a thud of my head against the steering wheel, after I’d parked my car behind a gas station outside the city of Nashua. I pulled off the highway for fear that I might run into one of the vehicles that were mysteriously disappearing from my vision. A few deep sighs, a Gatorade and a disgusted rejection of the establishment’s outside restroom, and I was on the road again.
This on-the-road epiphany – that I needed to start getting some sleep – was thankfully the worst of the trip. A few days later and I was rejoicing along with my stereo at the news that I’d gotten my first front page article with the Rochester paper.
All of this traipsing around an alien state, where people really like talking politics in public and don’t pay sales tax, reinforced the idea that it’s really not so bad prying personal information from individuals of any title or political standpoint. There, politics seem to be more of a community affair. People actually get to ask presidential candidates questions, shake their hands and look them in the eyes. And, a lot of people really want to tell you what they think.
I was really struck by the sense of openness I saw at the polls on Jan. 10, particularly when I stopped a friendly woman who had just voted at a location just outside of the city of Concord. As I gradually eased my way into the interview, it became clear to me that I wasn’t inconveniencing this recently unemployed woman with my inquiry, but instead I was giving her the chance to expand the vote she just cast into something even more meaningful – a part of the political dialogue that she saw as having a great effect on her future.
In New Hampshire, politicians frequently use the term “retail politics.” But while they are trading personal encounters for peoples’ votes, journalists are (hopefully) trading personal encounters for peoples’ thoughts and insights.
Last week, I was able to accost people for their innermost opinions with a little bit more clout (Julie, a reporter with the Post-Standard goes over a lot smoother than “Hi-I’m-Julie-McMahon-a-journalist-errr-student-studying-journalism-at-the-Newhouse-School-of-Syracuse-University-I’m-writing-an-article-for-a-class-about …”).
Of course, I charmed them all with my warm disposition and delicately phrased emails. And I eased into tough questions instead of insulting active citizens with “Who did you vote for?” the moment they left the schools and churches they had cast their votes in.
I may not have been quite so bold as that, but my boldness has definitely expanded since I got over my pride and started asking questions – and it has really, really paid off.
A gutsier mentality has helped me to develop connections between the possessors of information and its seekers. The best part of New Hampshire was, as any local you’re bold enough to ask will tell you: There’s a stripped-down version of the political dialogue. For anyone who wants answers this means an environment in which the pretenses of a hierarchy of access are abandoned and people can talk about what’s important.