Monthly Archives: February 2012

So Weird: Business Trip

ST. LOUIS—I listed which kid was playing when with which friend after school. I loaded the dishwasher, finished the laundry, prepped menus and set meat out to thaw. I set the rice maker and walked the dog. Then I grabbed my suitcase and headed to the airport for my first business trip since the Clinton administration.

It feels really really weird.

I’m at the annual conference of the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, a k a NICAR, and I’m away from home for five days. I flew on a plane by myself and didn’t have to take anyone else to the bathroom or retrieve impossible-to-reach dropped crayons off the airplane floor. My Lovely Bride has all the info on where I am, but really, nobody knows where I am.

It’s starting to make me twitchy.

When I was a newspaper reporter in New Jersey in the late 90s, there was a woman who would swoop in a couple times a year with some big story that would mobilize the whole newsroom and make the rest of us drop our work to help with hers. She would glean these A1 Sunday prizewinners from public records and spreadsheets that no one else knew how to handle. I remember puzzling over why she couldn’t come to work each day like the rest of us, and why she wasn’t working on a story for today, tomorrow and Sunday.

“What is her problem?” I wondered.

I realized years later that she was doing two things: making herself invaluable (on her own schedule) and probably raising a family at the same time.

I no longer misunderstood her. I wanted to be her.

I figured out that she used computer-assisted reporting to massage piles of data to find big stories – stuff that daily reporters don’t usually have time for. When she found that whitebread Morris County, N.J., was a serious heroin destination, our paper explored how it got there (I visited Newark Airport and wrote about drug mules) and profiled all the county residents who overdosed.

I knew this NICAR conference was the way to learn how to get started, so I shelled out for the plane ticket, the hotel and the conference.

My Lovely Bride has been hugely supportive of the whole thing. No, she said, I don’t have to pay for it out of my savings. Her lawyerly training worked in my favor when she invoked what she calls the “but-for test.” But for this professional training, I wouldn’t incur these expenses. In my mind, I justified paying for the conference with my November USA Today piece and last month’s article in The Baltimore Sun. (Dear Tribune Co., Now’s a good time to send the check for that one.)

One presenter talked about how he used public records to investigate a grass-roots group that supported a local utility’s new power line in its Southwestern Virginia community. (The reporter actually stood under the line and held up a light bulb – it lit up from the random electricity floating through the air. Yikes.) He found that, ironically, the local Sierra Club president also led the grass-roots power-line group. And that his PR firm worked for the utility that put up the power line. And that the power company actually set up the fake grass-roots group.

Gotcha! They were all in bed together!

That’s the kind of reporting that makes me twitch, but in a good way. I want to commit acts of journalism to help right wrongs and shed light in dark corners. But it took the reporter months and months to put it all together. And I don’t have months and months. I have laundry to fold. Things to do.

My jealous-o-meter started to go crazy as the guy told how he had reported this story in the late 90s at the Roanoke, Va., paper that had rejected me for an internship. He went on to The Star-Tribune in Minneapolis and then The New York Times’ Washington bureau.

I could have done that, too! What have I been doing for the past eight years?

Oh right, raising my children.

I decided long ago that being married was more important to me than being a great reporter. I just had to remember that. I figure the power line reporter spends way less time with his kiddos, if he has any, than I do with mine. I love good journalism, but not at the expense of my family. I guess I’m not that ambitious after all.

I started to react the same way you might during an internship or summer job that makes you realize you actually don’t want to do that kind of work. The amount of information at this conference is overwhelming. Maybe this isn’t for me.

But one presenter said to start with a stupid story, like what’s the most popular dog breed in your city, which you can find by nagging for a database of pet-license records. And you can find all the owners’ names and phone numbers in the licensing data so you can call them up. Reporters hate pet stories, but readers Eat. That. Stuff. Up. And you can run cute dog pictures.

Or you can get the electronic records from when judges swipe passes to enter and exit the court parking garage and find out how many hours they actually work. Confirm or dispel the perception that they don’t even work bankers’ hours.

So maybe it’s a while until I use federal workplace injury data to show that (made-up example) inadequate safety inspections are contributing to deaths among Baltimore emergency room employees and utility line workers.

But ya gotta start somewhere.

I can go up the Gateway Arch Whenever. I. Want. To.

In the meantime, I get to sit in a room with a bunch of reporters and soak up all their smarty reporter energy. Plus, I get to enjoy a few days where somebody else makes the bed. I can read a book uninterrupted, and I can take the tram up the trademark Gateway Arch whenever I want to.

P.S. Heartfelt thanks to the Gideons of St. Louis for helping me enjoy a beer without using a bottlecap opener by resting it against the door lock and giving it a few swift whacks with a Bible, which happens to be a good read.