What I learned from reporting on Alexandria

(Photo/Paul Friedman)

Almost three years ago, I walked into the offices of the Alexandria Times to interview for a freelance copy editor position.

What started as a way for me to make some extra money amid a sea of other freelance work then became an all-consuming job, especially after I was promoted to staff reporter and photographer in May 2015.

But all good things must come to an end, and so it goes that February 24 marked my last day with the Times.

In almost two years in this general assignment role, I feel as though I’ve learned so much, about journalism as well as about the city I live in. It’s experience that will stand me in such good stead for the future, so I wanted to share some thoughts before starting my new chapter.

Local news matters

In conversations since November’s presidential election, I’ve mentioned to various people my concern that I will become the most boring person in the world when discussing politics.

I say this, because I’d honestly rather steer largely clear of talking about President Donald Trump, the dysfunction of Congress and the apparent swamp-draining that I’m told is going on as we speak in Washington.

That’s not to say that national politics is not interesting — it is. And I hope that lots of people go and vote in the 2018 mid-term elections, and stay involved trying to influence national policy.

But covering Alexandria has taught me that local government, especially in a decentralized country like the United States, matters a great deal.

With the Times, my primary political concern has been city council, a collection of seven individuals who make decisions that have an almost immediate impact on Alexandria.

Examples of that are perhaps no bigger than on the waterfront and in North Old Town. Council approved projects in recent years, and since then, the construction has either begun, is well underway or is set to begin very soon.

And local government is where the federal government’s latest policies are put into practice. For Alexandria, that means the edicts dictating the cleanliness of the Potomac River must be listened to and acted upon, in spite of the feds not helping out financially with this massive project.

It’s easy to get carried away with the national discussions and believe it’s the only thing that matters. But it’s not. Local politics can have some big consequences too.

Relationships matter

When you’re a local news reporter, it’s not only about the stories you report and the news you break, but it’s also about the people you meet along the way.

And those people can help you in the most surprising ways.

While at the Times, I broke news from a PowerPoint presentation given at an annual meeting, from being handed a copy of another PowerPoint presentation by a contact during lunch, and from people I’d never met before being willing to email me or pick up the phone.

It can be easy in journalism to sit behind your desk in an ivory tower, desperate to avoid the general public and determined to keep your own counsel.

But people all have a story to tell, perhaps about themselves or about others.

From covering Alexandria, I’ve learned just how important talking to people is, not just for interview purposes but to get to know them as human beings.

Maybe I ran into someone during lunch, or at dinner, or at an evening event. Or maybe we spoke at an early-morning event with the chamber of commerce, or a meeting of the waterfront commission.

But everyone I met offered me something positive, even if it did not directly help me with a tidbit of news.

With shrinking budgets and time pressures seemingly preventing them from getting out into the community, it’s easy for journalists to be chained to their desks and telephones.

But there’s so much more to it than that.

High school sports is the best

When I moved to the U.S. in 2013, I wanted to be a sports reporter, ideally covering only soccer. I had no idea how I’d get there and no real idea on where to start, but it was an aim.

Now, I’m not so sure, and that’s in part because of the two-and-a-bit years I spent covering high school sports, both as a freelance and staff reporter for the Times.

There’s something quite beautiful about the organized chaos of it all, far removed from the collegiate and professional sports world of media relations staff, packaged statistics and stilted interviews with media-trained athletes.

Instead, it’s up to me as the reporter to build trust and relationships with coaches, cover games and more often than not compile my own statistics, then convince nervous student-athletes that they can talk to me, even if I’m holding a voice recorder in my hand.

What made the most impact on me was seeing how much it meant to the players and the fans.

On two consecutive weekends last year, I watched Episcopal’s boys and then girls basketball teams win nail-biting conference tournament finals. At the final buzzer, their teams poured onto the court, followed by their fans.

Kids and coaches were in tears. You could see how much it meant to them all, especially those seniors who wouldn’t get another chance to win in the postseason.

On the flipside, I remember covering the T.C. Williams girls soccer team in its first ever state semifinal last year too.

It was a game they should have won: they had over 30 shots, but their opponents scored on one of their only meaningful attacks and won 1–0. The T.C. players were crushed, especially after such a great season.

With the growth of travel sports and elite player development, especially in soccer, people have suggested that high school sports doesn’t matter as much as it used to.

In my experience covering Alexandria, that is so utterly wrong. And that’s without mentioning the love for football in this city, which while not as big as in other cities, is still huge.

There’s always more to report on

Despite the positives, I reflect on my period with the Times and naturally wish I had done more.

I wish I’d spent more time covering the Virginia General Assembly, at least in a way that localizes what’s going on in Richmond during the short and frenetic legislative sessions each year.

I’ve done a bit during the 2017 session, and have been proud of what we’ve achieved with it. But there’s always more to do.

Decisions are being made and legislation is being discussed that could have real implications on Alexandria and its citizens.

I wonder if there’s a way to make, say, Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s budget proposal and the version passed by the General Assembly with various amendments relevant to Alexandrians, beyond the high-profile topics that have an impact statewide. There has to be, and it’s something I hope will be explored further.

Secondly, I look at my coverage of high school sports and wonder if it could have been done differently.

Earlier this week, I attended an event where remarks were given by a sports reporter for The Washington Post. He was really interesting, but it pained me when a member of the audience asked the question: “What are good local sources for high school sports coverage?”

To be clear, this was at an event in Alexandria, run by an organization filled with people who are supposed to be among the most knowledgeable about city sports.

Perhaps my coverage should have been more robust and spent more time publishing box scores, statistics and standings. Perhaps I could have done more with the limited space, even with the weekly print edition meaning that scores and upcoming fixtures are outdated sometimes hours after the newspaper hits the streets. Who knows?

What happens now?

I’m sad to be leaving the Alexandria Times. From it starting as one of many freelance opportunities to becoming a job that more or less came to define my relationship with the city, it’s been quite a ride.

But perhaps my moving on is a good thing.

I’m excited to start a new position in Arlington County, covering that jurisdiction for ARLnow.com. It’s going to be a challenge, but one I’m excited to get stuck into.

And with more elections to come this year in the General Assembly, for Arlington County Board and school board as well as the statewide governor’s race, there’ll be plenty to keep me occupied.

As for my relationship with Alexandria, that will surely evolve too. I’ll remain a resident commuting to Clarendon every day, and now am faced with the question of how I continue to be involved in civic life.

Perhaps it means applying to serve on a city board or commission, perhaps it means advocating for issues that are close to my heart, perhaps it means something else. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot since I handed in my notice at the Times.

Whatever the future holds, I’m excited to see what it brings, both professionally and personally.

I’ve enjoyed the ride so far. Long may it continue.

(The photo was taken by Paul Friedman, a local gentleman I met at an Alexandria Aces collegiate baseball game last summer. Paul’s photo shows me interviewing outfielder Niko Hulsizer after a game, and I like it very much.)

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