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Friday, August 31, 2007

Defining success leads to new focus

A recent post on a freelance forum I belong to posed the question, "How do you define success?" The answers are as illuminating and varied as you'd expect. But if there's a common thread it's that success is not typically defined monetarily for writers and that what constitutes success evolves over time.

Making money has never been a motivating factor for me. Neither has the pursuit of fame. I view being a journalist altruistically. That moment hit home for me as I sat in an interview recently talking with three people involved with helping undocumented Hispanic immigrants assimilate to American culture.

With little to no resources, these three individuals are trying to change people's minds—both Americans and Latinos—about each other. It's a monumental undertaking and yet they are convinced that this is what is needed to solve the immigration crisis in our country—for groups of people to get to know one another.

It's so simple and yet so complex because you are dealing with so many obstacles—namely fear and prejudice—on the part of both groups. But I realized sitting there, understanding far more Spanish then I thought I would, that this is the kind of work that is meaningful to me—writing about people who are quietly going about changing our country.

My great-grandparents came to America from the Ukraine. (As the family archivist, I have their papers and photos.) I tried to imagine what they fled and what they confronted once here. What courage it takes to leave all you know behind and come to another country. And yet the dream of America and the reality are often so far apart today.

Likewise, I don't think there's any place more misunderstood among Americans than public schools. Even as parents, I don't think we really know what happens there during the day. Of course it's a mixed bag of successes and challenges. But how teachers, students and administrators deal with so many changes is fascinating.

As I begin my third year inside Cleveland Heights High School, covering the reform movement there, I've decided to expand my knowledge on education reform. I'd also like to explore how curriculum materials are chosen, how teachers conform or don't conform to teaching mandates, how scripted or unscripted the day is, how NCLB affects everything from what gets taught when and how to the breadth of educational experiences available. Of course I'll also be closely watching the debate over reauthorization of NCLB in Congress.

How faith plays out in our lives, work, art, music and literature continues to interest me greatly. Regardless of our spiritual background, I believe that faith of some kind, whether it's belief in a higher power or in some organized religion, inspires us daily. We may be aware of that inspiration or we may have never considered its quiet impact on our lives until someone asked.

Books continue to be a huge part of my life. I've done a good deal of reviewing for publication, but that's also something that doesn't pay much. Instead of spending time pitching reviews for publication and since so many newspapers have scaled back on book sections, I've decided to keep writing my reviews here. I'm going to write about what I'm reading here anyway, so this way I can indulge my inner book critic without having to chase down assignments for so little money.

Great stories to me will always feature ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I'm very fond of interviewing people and writing profiles. It's not often that I'll take credit for any journalistic skills, but I do think my ability to get beyond the surface of a profile is one of my strengths. So I'll continue to seek out and write those stories.

Multimedia storytelling is an exciting development in journalism. I'd like to experiment with audio in storytelling and, eventually, video. There are so many ways to tell a story and multimedia so enriches the experience. Hopefully, you'll bear with me here as I used this site as my testing ground for those experiments.

Greater Cleveland needs a good media criticism/commentary site. I'm willing to convene a group of talented people who would be interested in discussing how a site devoted to independent reporting and informed commentary could be built. My model for such a site here would be LA Observed: An Online Journal of Los Angeles Media, News and Sense of Place.

The Cleveland site will feature all the things I'd love to see in a good print magazine such as politics, business, economic development, education, culture, books, sports, history, profiles, travel, architecture, style, urban culture, media, the environment.... This site would be a mix of independent, in-depth reporting and intelligent, informed commentary. And it would be a mix of professional journalists and the best citizen journalists.

Does that sound interesting? Doable? Something you'd like to contribute to? Something you'd like to fund? If so, let me know (wendyhoke(at)gmail(dot)com).

I have a few stories I'm interested in selling, actually more than a few but those are all in various stages of pitching. One is an interview with syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer, one of the female pioneers in foreign correspondence. I had interviewed her for an article for Quill magazine in mid-summer, but I'm obviously not contributing to that publication in light of my having left SPJ. She was a wonderful interview and filled with amazing stories from a lifetime of writing about world leaders, revolutions, guerrilla warfare and more.

Linda Perlstein wrote the new book, "Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade," about how one Maryland elementary school works to improve test scores. It's an amazing story that I was first interested in because of the way she immersed herself in the school, much as I do for KnowledgeWorks Foundation. My original intent was to see how such reporting translated into book form.

But after interviewing her and learning more about the origins of the education reform movement, I've decided that this is a story worth telling on a bigger scale. The timing is exquisite given that the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind will probably be one of the first items tackled by Congress after Labor Day. Perlstein is incredibly knowledgeable having spent years as an education reporter for The Washington Post.

So I've sharpened my focus to education reform, social justice issues, religion and people. I'm grateful for the gift of time and freedom that the past month has given me.

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