By the time you read this, the 2014 regular session of the Mississippi Legislature will be underway. And there's a good chance, by then, we'll all already be kind of over it. Granted, this is only my third legislative session, which is nothing compared to some of my colleagues in the Capitol press corps and certainly compared to legislators who have served since the 1980s.
Still, assembling this year's Legislative Preview issue (see pages 14-17)—which includes contributions from Jackson city reporter Tyler Cleveland and freelance reporter Casey Purvis—and following pre-session news coverage has felt like listening to a coach's post-game interview peppered with rote cliches and folksy wisdom.
Oh, you're going to take it one play at a time, eh? Profound. Now, to be fair to legislators—and coaches—myriad variables affect the legislative process, including the whims and wants of the legislative leadership, statewide and national political climates that can affect and be affected by what's going on at the Capitol (i.e. the upcoming Republican primary for U.S. Senate), intraparty jockeying and the influence of interest groups.
What you're left with, if you spend any time in that environment, is the ability to anticipate the (non-) answer to just about any question posed to politicians and wonks alike. In all fairness, it's not you, Mississippi Legislature; it's me. I have a tendency get antsy when it feels like the news is getting tedious. In fact, that's part of why I moved on from my last job covering state government, in Springfield, Ill.
There, in a relatively short amount of time, I covered some big stories, including Rod Blagojevich's gubernatorial impeachment and Barack Obama's historic presidential campaign. As a young reporter, I was grateful for the opportunity to do what I thought was important work, competing against veteran political journalists from bigger daily newspapers.
Those were fun times, but the stories that I liked most took me to neighborhoods and regular people.
For example, when Blagojevich offered up an idea to provide health insurance to every adult in Illinois under the state's Medicaid program, naturally the political and policy debates around the plan were a huge part of our coverage.
Important stuff for sure, but my favorite story from that episode was about a 70-year-old guy, nicknamed Rock, whose wife had a debilitating medical condition. Rock's wife was unable to get health insurance because of the pre-existing condition—this was way before Obamacare—so to pay for her medications, Rock took odd jobs like demolishing vacant homes, using little more than his bare hands.
Blagojevich's insurance proposal, along with his entire governorship, ultimately failed. I ran into Rock a few months later, and he told me that our story had caught the attention of a state agency official, who offered Rock a part-time job with health benefits that would cover his wife's prescriptions. Rock's story is the kind I love: one that combines complex policy issues and political posturing, but told through the experience of a citizen.
I did lots of stories of stories like that and was proud of them, but eventually it was time to move on, so I wound up spending time in Seattle, Wash.; Boulder, Colo.; and Albuquerque, N.M.
When the opportunity arose to come to the Jackson Free Press, I jumped at it. My family roots are in east Mississippi, and Jackson seemed like a fascinating place to work, an underdog news town. I wanted to come to the JFP and cover state government again not because I wanted to go back to rubbing elbows with muckety-mucks, but because I missed community journalism and writing about people like Rock.
That brings me back to the current session. The thinking behind this year's legislative preview was to get beyond relying on talking heads yammering on and on about what they think is going to happen this year and focus on some of the groups and lobbyists (no, they aren't necessarily dirty words even if some have sometimes done some arguably dirty things), who are supposed to represent the interests of citizens to our lawmakers.
I rarely make resolutions, but going into my first new year as JFP news editor, I'm challenging myself to think differently about the way I approach not just writing about the Legislature this year, but all of our news coverage. Because at this point, I honestly can't picture myself doing anything other than what I'm doing, or in any other place but Jackson, here are my goals for 2014:
• Rely less heavily on meeting coverage and news conferences. Of course, we'll still cover "pressers," and will often write news stories based on them, but I'm making a commitment to push myself and other reporters here to always try to find people whom the news will affect.
• Get out into neighborhoods. I tell myself to do this all the time, but now I'm putting it on paper. After living in Jackson for two years, there are still huge swaths of the city where I haven't stepped a toe. That won't necessarily mean showing up on the scene of a breaking news event, but it might mean getting far away from downtown for lunch or dinner or, from time to time, doing my grocery shopping at a different supermarket than the ones I frequent now.
• Find diversity. Each week, when editing the features known internally as "littles" (i.e. Overheard, etc.), it bothers me if we've only written about middle-aged men, or white people or African Americans. Jackson is a diverse city, and we do a better job than every other news organization in showing off that diversity. But we're not perfect, and we can and will do better this year.
• Finally, be more people-focused in general; in other words, we'll look for the "Rocks" to tell more Jackson stories.
I resolve to do these things and will work with any reporter who writes news for the Jackson Free Press to do the same. Feel free to help me out.