What does a neighborhoods reporter do, anyway?
Mark Simon says he created The Journalism Salute podcast in 2020 to recast journalism in the US.
He says in his introduction to each episode that he wants “to put a spotlight on the people and organizations providing communities and groups with the journalism that matters to them. I want to show that these groups are real and important and that it’s really important that we know and respect who they are and what they do. They’re not ‘lamestream media.’”
So when he asked me to join for an episode about my work in Charlottesville, I agreed because it’s nice to be asked. We regularly try to share what we do and why with our community, but it’s not often that we get the opportunity to be interviewed about our values for a national audience. Plus, I’m proud of the work Charlottesville Tomorrow does and I wanted to share some of our approach as a newsroom — we’re doing journalism a bit differently here.
Simon, who honed his interview skills while working as a journalist for ESPN, asked me about a slew of different things. We talked about what a neighborhood reporter does, what defines my reporting (that’s a tough question to answer!), and how I approach stories and local journalism in general.
We also talked about how the Unite the Right rally in 2017 affected me as both a person and a journalist. Charlottesville is a place, a community, and not a hashtag, so I appreciated the chance to talk about real people who live here — including myself.
Here’s a transcript of one part of the conversation, very lightly edited to read:
Mark Simon: Now, I bring up the following story not necessarily to make fun, but just to show the different types of things that a journalist will do. The headline from Oct. 24, 2022 is “The downtown mall is getting its first ever public bathroom, and community members are ‘ecstatic.’” I’m guessing that this story got a lot of readers. It was very comprehensive, it had some very funny quotes, the best of which was, “This isn’t the first time the city has tried to answer your pleas for a place to pee on the mall.” Can you tell us about that one?
Erin O’Hare: Sure! So, I love doing this kind of reporting because it’s like, it seems like not a big deal, right? A public bathroom. But there’s so much more to it than that — and this is something my editors tease me about all the time. They’re like, “We send you off to write a 200-word thing about whatever, and you come back with all of this stuff, this great story.” So with that one, [the bathroom] is a big deal, because there was no public restroom on the Downtown Mall. It’s an economic center, it’s where there are a lot of businesses and coffee shops and that sort of thing, and the city wants everyone to go down there, walk around and whatever. But unless you were buying a coffee or eating at a restaurant, you had no place to go to the bathroom. That’s kind of ridiculous for a place that’s seen as a vibrant center of town.
I got all of that reporting basically done in a day because I just went downtown and talked to people. And what I did was prioritize people who maybe normally wouldn’t be asked about the bathroom. I asked people waiting at bus stops. I asked business owners with diverse backgrounds. Also, we have a day shelter for unhoused community members on the Downtown Mall —I asked some of those folks as well, because they don’t have anywhere else to go to the bathroom. So those were the voices that I made sure to include. I lucked into this, but the first person I talked to was the man with a medical condition!
Simon: I was gonna bring that up! I think this is kind of cool, because this is instructive for young, aspiring reporters, right? You said that you were lucky but, I found particularly in my job too, that sometimes you make your own luck by doing what you said, which is going out and just talking to strangers. Like you say in your bio, you’ve never met a stranger.
O’Hare: Yes. And that guy and I used to live in the same neighborhood, and so I would see him around. We’d kind of acknowledge one another but we had never had a conversation. And when I introduced myself, he was like, “Yeah, I’ve seen you around… I get the sense that you know what’s going on.” He was very open with me, and I really appreciated that. I think he’s someone who a lot of people see because he’s always riding the bus. But maybe he doesn’t get asked what he thinks.
Simon: Hopefully you won’t take this the wrong way, but it reminded me of a tweet I saw from a writer based in Hawaii, who said one part of journalism is working on a 4,000-word story for weeks that 1,000 people read, and then working on a story for a day that 20,000 people read.
O’Hare: Yes, absolutely. If I were to write a story about the obscenely long line that extends out into the main road at Raising Cane’s, that would get tens of thousands of reads, whereas a story about evictions and eviction rates is not going to get as much readership.
Simon: Are there other things that characterize your reporting?
O’Hare: That’s a really hard question! I asked my editors. Jessie Higgins, our managing editor, tells me that I work backwards. Most journalists will find an issue first and then they find their sources, whereas people come to me with their stories and that leads me to the issues. So I always have way more stories than I can write at a time because of that. I’m really fortunate to have the trust of a lot of people in my community, particularly people who haven’t been asked about themselves or about their stories. And so I think my reporting is very person-first, as well. And it’s usually not, almost never, motivated by or focused on people in power. It’s the average, normal, ordinary person who becomes the focus of the story I’m writing, but also who I’m writing for usually.
And then my editor-in-chief, she says that I find really good zinger quotes — not “gotchas,” but ones that are clever and paint a picture of what’s really happening. And that’s always a fun thing for me.
You can subscribe to The Journalism Salute on their website, where you can also read Simon’s story about three things he learned from our conversation.
Have more questions about how we do journalism at Charlottesville Tomorrow? Get in touch here!