Students teach me why I love journalism

If you ever get the opportunity to talk to students about your profession, I highly suggest you do so.

Principal Bradley Warren of West Elementary School sent an email to The Arcadian, sharing his students’ Leadership group that created a newspaper called #WestLeads News. Inside, the second-grade students covered the week’s weather, The Leader in Me habits they learn at West Elementary, the Spirit Week schedule and more. They even had what we in the news industry call a “bishop,” a box that says who works on the newspaper. There were headlines, bylines, graphics, photos and photo captions.

I was so impressed that I told Warren I would love to meet the students. Soon after, second-grade teacher Michelle Lawrence invited me to the day they participate in Leadership Camps.

I came to class and spoke with the students about where news comes from, how the newspaper goes from a story idea to a printed paper, important tools of the trade (pretty much a note pad, a pen and a camera are the basics) and what someone must study in college in order to become a journalist.

It is always a bit nerve wracking when you open up the floor for questions. You never know what is going to come out of a child’s mouth. In the past, I’ve been asked if I have ever been arrested, to which I clarified that I was not a member of the paparazzi. I didn’t dig through people’s trash or shoot photos through windows. This time, the best question went to a young boy who wanted to know, “Why are there so many words in a newspaper?”

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The students received two copies of The Arcadian, and they flipped through all the pages multiple times. I had never witnessed children so enraptured by a newspaper before. They loved all the colorful photos.

It’s that kind of curiosity that is needed to keep newspapers alive. Since I started pursuing a career in journalism in 2007, everyone has told me, “It’s a dying industry. There aren’t going to be newspapers in 20 years.” I honestly don’t believe that.

Facebook is overflowing with stories with exaggerated headlines and unverified sources. Television broadcasts are constantly being slammed for being biased, and recently, big-time news source hosts have come clean and admitted some of their biggest stories were faked.

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Working on the next issue

Newspapers are still vital, important parts of society and especially small communities. Small community newspapers work diligently to provide accurate coverage of as much of the county as they can with usually a dismal amount of staff. They rely heavily on community members to keep them informed on what’s going. Some would argue that everyone in the county should subscribe to their local newspaper in order to stay informed, find out when events are planned for, learn about important decisions made by elected officials, etc. Unfortunately, there are varying opinions about what is or is not important news.

Take the students for example. The newspaper they created as the local weather forecast. The Arcadian does not. Several of the students loved the photos of animals from the local shelter while others were attracted to the sports photos. Some children enjoyed looking through live event coverage and feature stories to see if they recognized anyone. Each part of the newspaper was important to different students based on their interests, backgrounds and people they knew.

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Michelle Lawrence instructs the boys how to make a search word puzzle.

In the same way, community members care about different parts of the newspaper. Some only grab the issue they themselves or their family members were featured in. Some pay attention to the front page too look for “big, splashy” stories exposing corruption or mayhem while a handful of people never want to see any coverage that can be interpreted as negative. Others want more sports coverage. Still more only want to read who was arrested and who died each week.

Our job as journalists is to cover as many events, meetings, features as possible deemed “newsworthy.” We report on the great successes, innocent mistakes, poor decisions and anyone who tries to fly under the radar with illegalities. We are the watch dogs of DeSoto County. Combining these stories together, we strive to create a product that will entertain but ultimately inform our readers as a whole to what they should know about their home.

While there are disagreements about news and how news should be covered, I believe that newspapers have a permanent place. They may not always be on paper, but the local newspapers (whether in print, online or via Hogwarts owls) will continue to thrive because of their important role in the community of keeping elected officials honest, sharing successes of local businesses and encouraging residents to know all the facts, all the points of view to then make an opinion when voting, protesting, supporting or talking about news in the county.

And, it starts with promoting that curiosity and hunger for accurate information with students just like the second graders at West Elementary School.

The power of committed citizens

During my three-year career in journalism, I believe I’ve attended more government meetings than many local government officials … I’d even add than a few entire councils combined.
In North Carolina, I covered four city councils, two boards of county commissioners and one school board for nearly two-and-a-half years. Every Monday, Tuesday and sometimes even Thursday for three weeks out of each month, I went to meetings with my press badge and my little reporter’s notebook. I listened to budgets, topics like how many pigs should a resident be allowed to own in the city limits, banning dogs from parks, grant applications, building a veterans’ monument, developing a new town seal and so much more. I saw great accomplishments happen, massive verbal fights break out between council members, and residents and town officials crying. I even watched a resident tell the town attorney that no matter what the law was “that’s not how we do things” in that town.
But, while I was there documenting it all because it was my job, hundreds of residents missed out.

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Dressed up in newspaper!

Since arriving in Arcadia, I have attended several DeSoto County School Board and Arcadia City Council meetings, as well as two DeSoto Board of County Commissioner meetings. And, there is a stark difference between those meetings and the ones I went to in North Carolina.
People.
Yes, DeSoto residents regularly come out to their government meetings. Once upon a time, I was the only person sitting in the audience as government officials debated and decided the fates of issues directly affecting residents. Now, I’m surrounded by community members who don’t mind taking the time to listen in on their elected officials’ thoughts, discussions, accomplishments and hardships.
Now, I wasn’t always alone at those meetings. There were two or three regulars for a few towns. At the school board meetings I attended, there would be well over 30 or 40 people in the room at the start of the meeting. The school board members would hand out a variety of awards and recognize student artists who contributed to the art gallery in the school district’s administration building.
Immediately afterwards, however, a mass exodus of people flew out the doors right as the business part of the meeting began. Usually, if I walked into a council chamber where many people were present, it meant that a group of residents had a complaint. Then the council members would spend 15 to 20 minutes going over an issue they had already discussed and decided on a few months ago, but no one had been at the meeting to tell the council members their opinions.

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The Arcadian’s political Q&A forum for the primary election

It is refreshing and exciting to see DeSoto County residents so engaged in their local government. Many residents I see at the meetings do not speak during public comment, making me assume that they are there just to listen and stay informed, not because they have complaints. In fact, quite a few residents use the public comment times to talk about something happening in the community and make an announcement. Only a few times have I heard complaints.
And, I’m not saying complaints are terrible. Complaints are great as long as they are presented in a level-headed manner in order to show opposition and another side of the story. But, what I love about DeSoto County is that the engagement is mostly positive and encouraging.
I also see a lot of sharing of news stories and tidbits from the meetings on Facebook accounts. Not only is that individual informed, but by sharing information through social media, he or she is encouraging neighbors and friends to be educated as well.
Your civic engagement in local politics makes your elected officials better politicians. They are better informed of what’s happening in the community, they are more aware of your concerns and they appreciate your support and dedication.
I’m delighted to no longer be the only member of the audience. As one who remains unbiased for my job, my presence acts as a “watch dog” but not as a someone who can present opinions, criticism and praise. So, it’s nice to be joined in the ranks of usually not-quite comfortable chairs, listening to the hushed whispers of residents as decisions are made. DeSoto County is a stronger community because of its active involvement and commitment to civic engagement.

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Please stop ‘buggin’ me

When I was little, before turning off the light at bedtime, my father would say a little rhyme as he tucked me into bed. He’d whisper, “Good night. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite. But if they do” — and he’d dramatically pause here — “smack ‘em with a shoe!” Possibly due to that little ditty, I’ve chosen crushing an insect with footwear as my go-to execution method. However, when facing off against a Palmetto bug in my new house, I started to get creative. Still, it was a shoe that ultimately saved me from certain death.
When I told my friends in North Carolina that I was moving to Florida, they immediately recounted tales about destructive hurricanes followed by icky stories of how cockroaches will infest every corner of my home no matter what measures I take. Now, somehow, my irrational brain found more to fear from a six-legged insect than the powerful destruction a hurricane can cause.
As a child I once found a cockroach in the family living room and innocently asked my mother, “Mommy, what’s this?” She screamed as if being stabbed and grabbed me, pulling me away from the bug. We weren’t allowed back in the living room until my dad came home several hours later to find and crush the cockroach. Now I blame her for my bizarre fear of something so tiny and seemingly harmless. To be completely honest, I admit that my fear of these bugs is so great I almost turned down this awesome job!
Since my arrival here, I have been schooled in the difference between a cockroach and a Palmetto bug (although if you present both to my mother, her screaming will remain at the same volume and pitch despite the differences). A small cockroach I can handle (as long as there are no more than two at a time). Once an insect gets larger than the size of a dime, I start freaking out.
Just barely a week after moving here, I found a Palmetto bug on my front porch late at night when I went to walk the dog. I politely told Mr. Palmetto Bug that he could happily enjoy the comfort of my front porch, but he was not allowed inside my house. Yes, I talked to the invertebrate. (I know, I know, but it’s the little things that give me mental comfort.) Still, I spent the night tossing and turning, waking every so often because I just knew something was crawling on me.

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From turnerpest.com

The next morning, I sat down for breakfast and noticed a dark spot on my white walls. “That wasn’t there yesterday,” I thought.  Sure enough, it was the dark, fat body of a Palmetto bug.
He was sitting pretty high up on the wall underneath the cat tree. I decided the best thing to do was suck him up with the vacuum cleaner hose and then dump the vacuum canister outside. I wouldn’t have to touch him, and that would be the end of it. So I stood on a chair, placed the vacuum cleaner on top of the cat tree and held up the hose to the wall. Now I’m pretty tall, but I was still a few inches short of the bug. His antennae waved back toward the vacuum hose, but there was something wrong with the suction. Now aware of my method of attack, he lazily crawled out of reach onto the ceiling. I climbed down and checked the vacuum hose. It turns out my boyfriend had put a different attachment inside the hose for storage, limiting the amount of suction and ruining my chances of an easy, mess-free incident.
For the entire day, the invader loitered on the ceiling. When it was time for me to go to bed, I faced a true dilemma: Go to bed and hope the Palmetto bug doesn’t crawl in my ear and lay eggs in my brain; stay up waiting up for it to come down; or go through with some outrageous plan to get close enough to kill it.
I poured myself a bowl of cereal and called my boyfriend, Jonathan, to discuss my options. As I was finishing my late night snack, I noticed the bug making the trek down the wall.
“The bug’s coming down the wall,” I whispered (because obviously the bug has super hearing and understands English).
“Grab a shoe and go kill it,” he said.
I suddenly chickened out. “No, I can’t!”
“Lex, go over there and kill it! Man up!” What a typical response from someone who is hundreds of miles away and doesn’t have to go near the very representation of fear itself.
Slowly, I tip-toed across the living room with my phone in one hand and grabbed one of my tennis shoes by the door. I walked over to the Palmetto bug, which was now at chest level on the wall.
“Ahh, it’s so gross!” I cried. “I don’t want to do this. I hate these things.”
Jonathan was laughing hysterically.
As I was about to squish it, the bug darted a little to the right. I screamed. Jonathan laughed some more.
Taking a quick breath, I leaped forward, slapped my shoe against the bug and screamed again. When I pulled my shoe away, the bug’s exoskeleton fell to the floor, and some gooey juice and a few legs remained on the wall.
“He’s dead!” I cried and then shivered, shuddered and freaked out around the living room before photographing the scene and vacuuming up any evidence of the intruder. There, my first Palmetto bug execution was over.
I had originally thought I would be safe from having to kill these insects because of my two cats, who are avid hunters. After the incident was over I turned around, expecting to see them ready to attack on command. Rameses, the youngest, was nowhere to be found. Sparta had his entire face in my bowl of cereal, lapping up the milk I had abandoned. Thanks, guys.
I am sure this will be just one of my many stories involving bug killing, frog removing or snake relocating I will tell while living in Florida. In North Carolina, almost everyone has a copperhead snake story or, especially in the mountains, a tale about a black bear getting in the garbage. But the gators, tall wading birds, large bugs and plethora of reptiles and amphibians are all new to me. It should make for some very hilarious reading for all of you.

To subscribe to The Arcadian or to sign up for our electronic edition, call 863-494-2434. Ask for Jackie.

Making myself at home

Most journalists are notorious for being introverts, so when Arcadian Editor Steve Bauer asked me to write a column introducing myself, it was more daunting than the interview process to get this job as assistant editor. In fact, I was recently interviewed for a local television spotlight at my last job, and the interviewer’s first question was “Tell us about yourself.” I literally replied, “Um,” and stared ahead for a minute before stumbling through an answer.
I’m naturally shy, a trait I have learned to overcome in my roles as editor-in-chief of a college newspaper and the education/small towns reporter at a community newspaper in North Carolina for the past two years. More than likely if you ask me who I am, I will talk your ear off about two things: My pets and my work.
My pets are like my children. Sparta and Rameses are my cats, and Bindi is my Australian cattle dog/German shepherd mix.
Sparta, or Spartacus when he’s in trouble, is an Egyptian Mau mix my mom found under a car on a rainy night at a gas station near our home in Mount Holly, N.C. With his golden lemur eyes and ringed tail, he was too cute not to keep. When I went to college at Western Carolina University, Sparta came with me starting my sophomore year. Since then, we have moved multiple times across North Carolina. This is the first time he’s come with me to another state. So far, he is loving the Sunshine State, with its plethora of sun to bask in and lots of lizards to chase.
Rameses is only a year old but is already close to 15 pounds. Not because he’s overweight; he’s just a big cat with a lot of muscle. He’s also known as “Rameses the Destroyer,” because quite often he will get a glint in his pumpkin orange eyes and will wreak havoc, destroy mankind’s livelihood and run amok. He’s chewed through wires on my Internet router, gone missing inside a dresser and peed (twice) all over the dog’s bed. Somewhere, though, he’s got a good heart, and when he finally decides he likes you, he’ll snuggle and give you kisses with his pink nose.

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Sparta, above, and Rameses

Bindi is a rescue dog I adopted just over a year ago from a kill shelter. She’s got a huge heart of love and loyalty for me. If you see us out and about in town on walks, please stop by and say hi. She will be wearing a black harness across her torso that reads, “Please give me space, do not pet.” Bindi was abused by her former owner, which has damaged her emotionally and mentally. At first, she can be very shy and if she’s frightened, she reacts in a negative way toward strangers. The harness warning helps keep people from running up to her and getting in her face, and allows me to provide instruction on how to approach her safely.

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Bindi in her harness

All three made the 14-hour drive with me to Arcadia on May 29. Looking like a champion navigator, Bindi rode in the passenger seat of the U-Haul truck with my dad as we traveled through heavy flooding in South Carolina, which involved a two-hour detour thanks to the tropical depression in the area, and “Mickey Mouse traffic” in Orlando. Sparta and Rameses rode in my Honda running loose throughout the car. Sparta, as I mentioned earlier, is a seasoned traveler, but Rameses has rarely been in the car. I was expecting him to yowl, scream, cry and throw a fit throughout the entire trip. On a previous trip we took together, Rameses whined and crawled back and forth from the headrest behind my head to the passenger seat headrest for the entire hour ride. I felt it might be appropriate to start writing my obituary of how I was killed by my cat while moving to Florida. Considering the dramatics of my life so far, that somehow felt like a fitting ending. However, it was the rain in South Carolina that caused the biggest drama on the trip rather than the Rameses the Destroyer.

For the past two years, I have worked as the education and small towns reporter for a community newspaper published five days a week. I covered the meetings for six town councils, the local school board and the local community college. I also spent time in the school system as a student in the classroom (yes, I actually took fifth-grade science tests, while in kindergarten learned how to write my name and walked around with sore muscles for a week after eighth-grade gym class); skeet shooting with Junior ROTC students; jumping into creeks with 4-H Club members; and discussing STEM education with teachers from all grade levels. At first, I started out as just a journalist, new to the area with no family or friends. However, it wasn’t long before my insistence on not only observing and reporting, but also participating in local events, made me an active member of the community.
As you can imagine, there are many differences between a small county in North Carolina and Florida. For one, the superintendent in Caldwell County is appointed, not elected. I also come from a place where the school system involves 24 schools, including two alternative schools for students who need special direction and instruction in order to succeed at their education. In Caldwell County, there are police chiefs instead of marshals, and there is a lot more furniture instead of oranges.
But, there are many similarities as well. The elected officials of the community are present at nearly all public events, the community rallies around projects to make their home a better place, and people are overwhelmingly giving in their time and kindness to other people. Already, I’ve scoped out volunteer opportunities I can’t wait to get involved in, met a few of my neighbors, discovered several parks to enjoy with my dog and in less than a week already feel at home.
This is a homecoming for me in a way, because although I’ve lived in North Carolina most of my life, I was actually born in Tampa. The sun, the atmosphere and the people feel familiar to me. I thought I’d be shell-shocked and unbelievably homesick at first. Instead, I’m excited, I’m getting a tan and I’m hoping I find an alligator in my front yard. I’m looking forward to meeting you all through interviews, emails, letters, phone calls and while I’m out and about in the community. While I’m shy, I do enjoy meeting new people and hearing your stories. So, please don’t hesitate to say hi!