Life on the GA: Summer at Tulsa World

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My 13-week internship at Tulsa World wrapped Friday. This week, I’ve entered the land of lesson planning and textbook shopping. Three words: Take me back.

This summer marked my return to reporting after a brief-ish hiatus. Between getting married and starting grad school, it had been a year since I had done anything journalism-related. This  gap prompted two emotions as I adjusted to my new position: 1) Overblown anxiety, especially the what-if-I-forgot-how-to-interview-and-tweet-and-stuff kind 2) Wild enthusiasm for every assignment.

My editor, Paul Tyrrell, put up with both extremes. Never has an intern been so eager to tackle the obligatory Miss Oklahoma pageant coverage and then gone on to produce a whopping six stories on pageantry. It helped that I went to college with the contestant who won, but let’s be real. I enjoyed it.

This "Queen of the World" crown and wand go to any reporter who has both a front-page centerpiece as well as a section front published on the same day. The sweet synergy was that I got the crown for a story about (you guessed it) pageants.
This “Queen of the World” crown and wand go to any reporter who has both a front-page centerpiece as well as a section front published on the same day. The sweet synergy was that I got the crown for a story about (you guessed it) pageants.

The GA (general assignment) beat is a world away from the topics I covered as a breaking news reporter at The Oklahoman. No police reports, shootings, prostitutes, trials or house fires. Instead, I encountered puppies, pageants (see above), ponies, pop-up weddings and a lot of other off-beat topics that don’t necessarily start with “p.” It certainly made for cheery days.

holding a puppy
Me holding a teeny chihuahua in west Tulsa during an interview. My sources were having a garage sale, and I headed straight for the cardboard box marked “puppies,” of course.

Over the course of my internship, I accumulated 50+ bylines, put more than 4,000 miles on my Toyota, filled 15 notebooks and worked on two intern enterprise projects that I’m really proud of.

The first was about the levee system in west Tulsa / Sand Springs. Click here to see the kicking project page that Emily Farris (OSU intern) designed. I know it doesn’t sound like a sexy topic, but the Arkansas River levee is a disaster waiting to happen. The levee is almost 80 years old and isn’t prepared to handle another flood. If it fails to hold, the lives and livelihoods of 10,000 people are at stake. I met some of the residents who live with the levee jutting up in their backyards. They were so kind and welcoming and insisted on giving me fresh eggs from their chickens. I like how the writing and the photos turned out, and theirs is definitely a story worth hearing.

The second project is slated to run this coming Sunday (last I heard). It’s on food deserts in Tulsa. Tim Tai (photo intern from Mizzou) and I spent weeks finding the right sources for this project. We wanted to highlight several different barriers that residents face getting to the grocery store.

We ended up picking three main characters and experimented with telling their story over a 24-hour chronology on a single day, Aug. 5. We started by going to a Wal-Mart on the night of August 4. SNAP benefits (aka food stamps) become available in Oklahoma on the first, fifth and tenth of each month. Families on SNAP flocks to grocery stores at midnight on the eve of those days since it’s their first opportunity to get groceries. It’s WILD how busy the stores are this late. Equally astonishing was how many children in pajamas were shopping with their parents at midnight. We interviewed a mom who was there with her three kids.

Then, Tim and I went and slept for several hours before waking up early to drive to Sperry, Oklahoma (located 10 miles north of Tulsa). We followed a 90-year-old woman in Sperry who can’t drive and has to depend on the mercy of relatives to get to the store. Sperry’s grocery store burned down 10 years ago, and you have to go to the next town over to get groceries. That means you need transportation, which makes it hard for people who can’t drive to access food, regardless of means.

Flattering photo with Tim as we rode the public bus. At that point, we had been reporting for 18 hours.
Flattering photo with Tim as we rode the public bus. At that point, we had been reporting for 18 hours.

Our last angle focused on families who have to ride public buses to get food. We didn’t have an arranged source for this angle, so much of our afternoon on Aug. 5 was spent haunting bus stops, looking for grocery shoppers. We finally found a person to interview out in Sand Springs. We were so excited that we jumped on the bus without thinking about how we would get back to our cars. Robust high-fives go to John Clanton, the photo editor, who gave us a ride back out to Sand Springs after we rode the bus to the end of its route downtown. Always an adventure on Tulsa’s public transit.

Because we found these three characters who all went to the store on the same day, I ended up writing the story in a 24-hour structure: midnight shopper, morning Sperry resident, evening bus rider. I’m really pleased with the result. Tim and I turned the last of the text and photos in on Friday, so I’m looking forward to seeing how the copy reads in print.

All that (^) to say “thanks,” Tulsa World. My summer on the GA only reaffirmed how much I love journalism and renewed my resolve to get back into it after I finish grad school.