Tag Archives: journalism

The art of not knowing everything

I once worked with a woman who gave elaborate thespian phone performances. Not the nasty $2.99 per minute kind, but plenty that had the undertow of a more genuine nastiness.

She lived at the desk next door to me in our little room in newspaperland, so eavesdropping was essentially unavoidable unless I brought in headphones and blared L7’s “Smell the Magic.”

I overheard her cooing sympathies for various health ailments and workplace stressors, humble babydoll requests for interviews, breathless apologies for misprints and uproarious laughs at jokes that couldn’t possibly have been that funny. But the minute the receiver hit the base, she would start swearing at the phone like a late-night cable comedian. She’d make colorful hand gestures at it, slam nearby file drawers with her foot, shake her head, yell at the ceiling like a thin, malevolent, female Charlie Brown.

If you threw a softball “what happened?” question her way during the episode, she’d gladly assail the character of her phone acquaintances (minor characters in her life, really) with ruthless assessments. They were incompetent morons at best, insane morons at worst. She was certain.

I was young and at first, I found her routine pretty funny. There’s a sexy, star-chamber quality to cattiness and gossip, especially in the workplace. Moreso in the media workplace, where you high five each other when you manage to unearth the failings of powerful people in the world and lay them bare in print. You feel like an insider. You know stuff that it seems like you shouldn’t. You feel smarter than other people. You find new, cleverer, wittier ways to call out what you perceive as stupid, inane or otherwise inferior. It’s so easy to know everything when you’re young.

But at some point, I realized that it wasn’t funny. It might even be dangerous. Not because I am a great arbiter of morals, but because it became easy to see that this behavior was bound to come home to roost on my own rear end.

I saw the same people who had bitched together about someone else bitch separately about each other. When you’re dancing in the middle of that kind of social quagmire, there’s no question that you’re going to be the bitched about person eventually. You will hurt people and get hurt. In the pernicious culture of the newsroom, I’m pretty sure I did my share of both.

I don’t remember a light bulb moment, but I remember the desperate feeling that I needed to extract myself from toxic work socializing as best I could. I started nodding more. Listening more. Withholding judgment. I searched for metaphors that would properly reflect what I was hearing from the person about how they felt instead of joining their rigged jury. This kind of listening has actually come in handy in my writing life a lot since. And my spiritual life. And my mothering life.

Finding the words to celebrate or applaud things authentically, meaningfully is much harder than finding new, clever ways to bitch about things. Vengefulness is easier than compassion. Suspicion is easier than faith. (This is clearly part of the way that Buddhism appeals to my protestant work ethic.)

It is harder to celebrate and find joy in other people’s children than it is to pick apart the alien ways that they might influence yours. It’s definitely easier to judge other parents and children than it is to see your own flaws. Playgrounds, like newsrooms, are breeding areas for cattiness. Yet, when I make a conscious effort to look for what to celebrate instead of what to criticize, I’ve discovered that finding joy makes everything easier. The older the kids get, the harder it looks, but it is easier. It’s more fun. It’s lighter. It’s less isolating. It’s worth the effort.

I make no claim that I’ve mastered these things. I decided early this year that aspirations are my gig, not hardened vows or easily fractured resolutions. I’m determined to remind myself of the mistakes I have made, or keep making. I’m determined to keep trying.

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Give me light

I had the remarkable opportunity to interview artist James Turrell a couple of weeks ago and preview his light installation at Franklin Park Conservatory.

I hope that the story I wrote gives local people a broader understanding of his work, and a sense of what makes this such a special addition to our local landscape.

The official illumination of the piece is tonight.

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Great Google-y moogly: An alternative “about me”

So, she recommended that whether we’re headed for BlogHer or not, women bloggers consider introducing themselves to the wider community by posting about the perverse-sounding act of Googling ourselves.

This isn’t, by any means, my first time at this. As a freelance writer, it’s something you do semi-regularly to find out who might be republishing your work without permission. The biggest offenders are music fan sites, and sometimes the musician’s site itself, although it’s hard to be offended when someone has taken the trouble to translate your review of Cher’s farewell tour into Spanish. And it’s a little confusing when Josh Groban fans reproduce your concert review and flank it with little flashing tulips, in spite of the fact that you refer to their vanilla heartthrob as “Donny Osmond Giovanni.” But this is the kind of stuff that happens.

Nowadays, the first thing that appears (beyond the links to that you can already find in the margins of this page) is a piece of my past persona as an alternative weekly staff writer, including the listing of an award I won with my colleagues for best local political story many years ago. We addressed the rise of hate groups in Ohio. My piece was an interview with Floyd Cochran, an ex-Aryan Nations recruiter who turned his life around to become a vocal advocate of social justice. This was a shining moment in my 20s, as the story was reprinted in alternative weeklies in Detroit, Los Angeles and many smaller cities in between. It was also picked up by PBS’s Not in Our Town campaign against American hate crimes and included in their education materials for years.

I wasn’t a journalism major in college. In fact, I went to a college that had “concentrations,” not majors, and mine was an amalgam of American history, American literature and creative writing. My work study job was student activist. I fell into journalism because I always knew that first and foremost, I wanted to write, and the close second was that I wanted to make a difference. So these pages of links, this life happened (at least a little) by accident.

Once upon a time, I went to a mall and asked a bunch of teenage girls what they thought feminism was. (I miss doing stories like this.) The article I wrote, “Feminism by Osmosis,” has been used in custom published women’s studies courses for several years since. No matter how much I have written in between, this is one of those pieces that keeps coming back high up in my Google image.

Another bit of feminist history that has followed me online (I think because I reprinted one on my first web site back in 1997) were two stories I wrote about the first woman to run for president, Victoria Woodhull – who was all the rage in historical non-fiction a few years ago.

I know more about Columbus, Ohio than you do. I spent two years as the senior editor of columbus.citysearch.com, therefore I wrote or edited a kabillion restaurant, hotel, attraction, bar, club, retail store, gallery, coffee shop, movie theater, park, weekend destination and other miscellaneous screen-length profiles that still live online.

Strangely, the work I’ve been doing as a Storyteller for the KnowledgeWorks Foundation for the past four years doesn’t appear until the bottom of the third page of my Google results.

There are also an endless number of artists’ web sites that list my stories about them on their resumés. You might already know who some of them are.

I am linked to a piece of my husband’s ignominious past by some obsessive Judge Judy fan site that tracked down a bunch of info about him after his appearance on that completely absurd show. (I didn’t go on the set with him. I knew he was going to lose. Declan — who wasn’t yet six months old — and I spent the day wandering around Hollywood instead. )

Without the Zollinger, my name is pretty common. Common enough that I was once in a video store and someone yelled for me from the front desk saying I had a phone call, and when I answered, the woman on the other line said “you’re not my sister-in-law.” I handed the phone back to the clerk, who then yelled: “Is there another Tracy Turner here?”

It’s almost enough to make me want to change my name to my husband’s.

I am routinely asked about business stories I have not written for the Columbus Dispatch, because another Tracy Turner wrote them.

Googling my shorthand name reveals that I also share it with an established artist, a BMW salesperson, a Texan OB/GYN, someone who takes still photos on horror movie sets and a guy from Kentucky who wrote a book of railroad tales and a biography of his brother, who died in a tragic car crash.

What happens when you Google you?

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Robert Rauschenberg, R.I.P.

Almost precisely eight years ago, I lugged a large canvas bag stocked with a notebook, a tape recorder and microphone up a couple of downtown escalators. My destination was a hotel lounge overlooking the statehouse, where I was able to sit down with artist Robert Rauschenberg for better than a half an hour. He was in town to accept the Wexner Prize, so the topic of conversation was broad and about his remarkable career.

One of the most affable people I’ve ever interviewed, he made me laugh a lot. And every time that I laughed, it seemed to fuel him to make me laugh more. That made editing the tape for the public radio segment I was producing about him a challenge, but it did not detract from the serious passion that he had, particularly when it came to shining a light on art’s relationship — or really art’s necessity — to politics and to science.

Beyond his obvious contributions to American art that many better informed individuals will eulogize this week, it was his philanthropic work – helping to advance humanitarian causes and education through art, as well as creating support for artists — that he expressed particular pride in during our conversation. The chance to talk to him face-to-face ranks among the most special privileges I’ve had in my career as a journalist.

He had been working on his Apogamy Pods, and explained what he was doing in a way that was profoundly (and simultaneously) scientific, spiritual, gentle and challenging. It occurs to me, thinking about him, that some of my best preparation for having a child that is so deeply interested in science has come from years of covering visual art. My son is impressed that I once spoke with one of the first and only artists in a mini-museum that was smuggled to the moon in 1969.

I was saddened to hear of Rauschenberg’s passing on Monday night. What a big life he led, what an immense personality he had, and what a legacy he has left.

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We look good in silver

I just received a happy piece of news in my email. For the second year running, KnowledgeWorks Foundation’s annual publications about urban high school reform have won silver Wilmer Shields Rich awards from the Council on Foundations (the awards aren’t listed on their site yet, but we received word from our editor).

As one of the foundation’s “storytellers,” I wrote pieces for both the small school and early college books last year.

The foundation’s “Think Tank” publication, Primer, also won a silver award. I wrote about my experience in the storytelling project for one of its issues last fall.

I began this work the same week that I lost the last of my grandparents, and a few short months before I got pregnant with Declan. For as long as I have been a mommy, I’ve also been a regular visitor at schools where the majority of the student body qualifies for free or assisted lunch. I have learned a lot (the Primer article I linked to above says much more about that than I can muster in a post).

And at the same time that any preconceived notions I had about the term “economically disadvantaged” have peeled off like onion skin, I’ve ironically had one of the biggest privileges of my freelance career — a regular working relationship with writing and editing peers from around the state. In a line of work that tends to be isolating, I can’t tell you how rare and wonderful that is, especially because they are some darn bright, talented, fun and passionate people.

Of our combined work, one of the judges said: “Loved the idea of storytelling to address impact – anecdotal evidence speaks to emotional core as does education… could serve as a model for others.”

While most of the more routine things I write for publication have to land within 50 words of a given marker, I’ve had the chance to write expansively during this project. And while my writing has often been carved down in order to see print, I’ve learned that I probably should be rolling in research and interviewing more people who don’t ordinarily get much ink (or pixels) and ultimately writing books. My peers in this project have really helped me to see, and become more optimistic about that possibility.

Having put in our four years, we’re getting ready to graduate from the project this summer, so, the award is a little bittersweet. Congrats, colleagues!

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The joys of local TV journalism

I used to think that the Midwest generated an inordinate amount of hysterically bad local television journalism. I was never sure whether the lack of substance (or a lack of a sense of irony) indicated that too many TV reporters grew up in sanitized pods, made the assumption that their audience did or just spent far too much time sniffing hair gel.

Then I watched a broadcast on a local Washington DC station, where the anchor stumbled through horrifying murder statistics and a puff story about zoo babies with a clock behind him that remained bizarrely crooked for the entire broadcast. And I watched some New York City-area broadcasts with their own amateur qualities. I realized we heartlanders are not alone.

Of course, John Stewart’s Daily Show has made the parody of the self-absorbed TV “journalist” obliviously reporting on a story that seemed clearly insane to the rest of us into an art form. But I’m glad to see that the real thing is still out there, alive and well (in this case, from Michigan). Although, watching this, I have to suspect that the producers have a sense of humor:


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Child helps journalist

Here is a story that I wrote for Columbus Alive this week.

Declan helped.

Not because he is a particularly good editor or writer at two and a half, but because he makes me think about the nature of the universe as well as its incomprehensible size — things that can come in handy when you’re writing about art. In this case, keeping up with his interest in spatial dimensions and string theory directly applied to the wonderful work and artist that I wrote about.

I consider some of the abstract concepts in galleries, community centers and museums on a fairly regular basis. In print, I try to make them less intimidating to people, to help them see the joy, intrigue and adventure inherent in considering the questions that art can raise. I don’t always succeed, but I try.

Growing up, I always considered science, especially physics, to be too large and logical for the likes of someone like me. But Declan has helped me see the joy, intrigue and adventure inherent in considering the questions that astrophysics can raise and how, much in the way that you don’t have to be a critic to appreciate art, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to appreciate the cosmos.

Life soundtrack: The Posies, “I Am the Cosmos”: Launch

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More on urban school reform

I’ve spent the last couple of days with my passionate and inspiring colleagues from the KnowledgeWorks storytelling project. At long last, our publications about early college and small school reform are out.

They are available to download online, or you can request free hard copies of one or both. Last year, our work won an award from the Council on Foundations. I have pieces in both of this year’s publications.

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Regret the error…

I love this! As a regular contributor to newsprint for over a dozen years, I’ve had a handful of embarrassing gaffes that still haunt me in the wee, paranoid hours in the night. (And a few that irritate me in the night because I’ve actually had errors edited into my copy as well.)

Here’s reassurance that even the best, most highly-paid folks in the biz make common, and sometimes hilarious mistakes.

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