I’m a big believer in core competencies: figure out what you do well and focus on it.
I’m also happy with my career. I’ve found what I like to do and I have abundant opportunities to do it.
All of which is to explain why it takes such a big push sometimes to get me out of my comfort zone.
But yesterday I was pushed rather abruptly out of my comfort zone, professionally speaking, when news of an unusual and complicated crime broke in our town and my editors sent me out onto the street.
Covering breaking news is the kind of work I learned about when I studied journalism in high school, but my career path has taken me a long, long way from the life of a beat reporter. I’m an arts correspondent and a feature writer. Most of my topics are fairly low-key, whether they involve a tuba concert, a play about the Armenian genocide, a family with a long-lasting tradition of publishing a quarterly print newsletter, or the record number of twins who enrolled for kindergarten in Carlisle one particular autumn.
It could reasonably be said, therefore, that my job tends to be easy. I talk to people who want to talk to me, whether to promote an event or to explain their own passions. I never have to ambush story subjects as they walk out of their offices or ask people contentious questions.
So my first, albeit unspoken, response when my editor called yesterday afternoon to ask if I could drive across town to investigate the scene of a police shootout was “Can’t you find someone more qualified? You know I’m not that kind of reporter.”
But better judgment prevailed, and I told her I’d see what I could do.
I was resisting it every step of the way, though. I don’t how to do this, I told myself as I drove the four miles to the crime scene, which involved a shootout between local police and a carjacking suspect that took place midafternoon on a main road in Carlisle. I don’t know how to get information from people who aren’t eager to talk. I don’t know how to get a statement from the police chief. I don’t know how to dig up eye witnesses if there aren’t any standing right on the street with their hands raised.
And then it occurred to me that it’s really easy to say “I can’t” and “I don’t know how.”
Let’s just pretend you do know how, I suggested to myself. Act like a real reporter for once.
So I parked near the blockade and made my way to the police officer who was directing traffic, the imminent danger having passed once the suspect sped on to a neighboring town. And at that moment I realized something else. I wasn’t Nancy the room parent asking parents to bring in popsicles for Field Day, and I wasn’t Nancy the class fundraising officer trying to get my prep school classmates to make a yearly donation, and I wasn’t Nancy from church imploring people to join more volunteer committees.
I was a professional doing my job.
“I’m from the Globe,” I said to the officer on the scene. “Are you able to talk about this incident?”
He wasn’t, but he said I could continue past the roadblock to get closer to the crime scene and talk to the officers there.
“Really?” I was surprised. “You’ll let me go through the roadblock?”
“I have to. You’re the media,” he replied curtly. Oops. Apparently he knows the rules of my trade better than I do.
Eventually I made my way to the police station for a statement from the chief. He wasn’t talking yet, but no one at the police station told me to pipe down and go home. They told me to call back later for an official statement. They treated me like a reporter who knew how to cover a breaking crime story.
I still needed eyewitnesses. I thought about calling my editor and saying “I’m sorry, but no one was standing in the roadway offering to tell me about the shoot-out they’d just witnessed.” Then I imagined her saying “No kidding. Get the story anyway.”
So I emailed six acquaintances who live along the stretch of roadway where the incident happened. I posted on Facebook asking anyone who had witnessed the event to contact me. I stopped by our town’s only coffee shop, found the owner, who chats with everyone who walks through the door, and asked him to keep me in mind if he heard anyone talking about it.
By the time I got home, I had three messages from eye witnesses.
So that story came together. In the end, a more senior reporter actually wrote it; I was just listed as a contributor. But that’s enough for me. “I won’t get a byline from this,” I told my husband.
“But you’ll get some professional credibility, plus you gave your editors what they asked for,” he pointed out.
He was right. I’m no beat reporter and still don’t really believe I have the mettle to do this kind of story every day, but when the opportunity arose, I somehow managed to, if not exactly run with it, at least walk with it. I followed through on what needed to be done.
And for at least an hour or so, I was too busy tracking leads to tell myself “I don’t know how to do this” or “I’m not a good enough journalist to do this” or even “I’m too insecure to approach people who don’t want to talk to me.”
For one brief afternoon, I stopped telling myself what I couldn’t do. And during that time, I learn what, in fact, I could do.