Nov 10, 2009

Big Sisters Extra

I did a story on the Big Sister Association of Greater Boston about a week ago. The link to the story is on the right. I thought it came out well, all things considered. I've come to realize that working for a local, community newspaper has certain benefits and drawbacks.

I often get invites to events I would otherwise not have access to. This is cool when I get to walk into a Michael Jackson tribute concert at the House of Blues and bring a friend along with me. As great as that access is, it rarely leads to a good story. I had a great time running around the House of Blues taking pictures of people, but in the end, no story materialized from it. Other times, you have to cover a story that doesn't interest you, but is something the paper wants to have. I've found in theses cases, the product I publish is often some of my better work. I don't know how to explain that.

I think the worst aspect of working for a community newspaper is having people approach you with story ideas. Let me be clear here, I don't mind being approached, it's just that the stories or events that people want me to cover tend to be self-serving and not really linked into something that the entire community would want to know about. Or worse, it's a retread of something they saw in the paper last week. When one of my friends emailed me about doing a story on Big Sister Association of Greater Boston, I was concerned because I couldn't immediately figure out the reason for the story.

I have a process that I go through when people pitch me. First, I ask myself if it's something I'd read in the newspaper. This is probably the hardest test because there is very little I would read. So, the test goes hand-in-hand with would other people be interested in reading about it in the newspaper. If it passes those two tests, I'll send an email to my editor asking if the paper would be interested in the story. More often than not, they are, but there interest comes with conditions, in this case I had to make the story not so much about Big Sisters mentoring program but about the lack of black women acting as mentors in the community. Big Sisters would only be the lead in, not the entire story.

I don't generally like doing stories that people pitch me because there is too much of a risk of not being objective. People don't suggest stories to you so you can tear them down in print. It's all sort of fluffy, "look how great we are" stuff. i understand the need for this, but it's difficult to maintain journalistic integrity when you're doing a favor for your friend or fellow church member. I was wary when my friend emailed me because there was space for this story to just be a fluff piece on Big Sisters.

You'll notice that Big Sisters is the brunt of the story because in doing research I came to realize that they are one of the few groups that is actively seeking black women as mentors. Because they have such a high number of "ethnic" Little Sisters they are pushing to match them with more big sisters of color. I thought that was the most interesting issue and because of it, kept the focus on their work and new programs.

They have an office on Mass Ave, which is near the green line. The building looks like an apartment building from the outside. A doorman sits behind a desk that looks to be wedged into the corner of the narrow entry hall. there is a stairway that leads to the various offices in the building behind the doorman's desk. Located on the second floor, the Big Sisters office is very spacious. I was only saw the large conference room but there appeared to be offices down a hallway behind the receptionist's desk, which was to the right of the door. They had just received these new chairs and asked me to sit in one while I waited. They were quite comfortable.

The interview, itself, went very well. I spoke with Maren Johnson and Judy Neufeld, who were more than happy to talk about their new programs and generally gave me a sense that they were really excited to get some coverage by the Banner. They even gave me names of current Big Sisters to talk to for a first-hand perspective of the mentoring programs. I also gave my friend grief for being late when she was the one who set the interview up.

Sometimes stories like these can be a drag. I sometimes find it hard to write about something that I know is just giving someone a chance to cast some light on themselves and not benefit anyone around them. But Big Sisters is different. I respect the work they do and I'm glad to help them generate some buzz about their new program so that it can become successful.

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