As I sat on the texture-coated concrete steps of downtown Portland’s Crown Plaza building, I grew nervous. I was early--I am always early--but in about eight minutes my class was scheduled to meet with Oregonian reporter Andrew Theen (he reported on Wayfinding in 2016), and so far I was all alone. It was my first time holding class outside of the classroom, and I had confirmed the time and place with Cohort 2 (and Andrew) at least a dozen times. Did I mention I was nervous?
Just then a truck drove past with two familiar faces, and soon enough I saw another Wayfinder approaching on foot and then another and another until ten students stood beside me eager to begin the day’s lesson, which for me had already started. “Relax,” I thought.
Andrew greeted us in the lobby and escorted us up to the offices of the Oregonian, where other reporters were quietly focused on producing the stories that reach more than 1.1 million readers each month. We wound our way back towards one of several conference rooms named after Oregon rivers, and once we settled in, Andrew told us a bit about what he does.
“One of the most important parts of my job is talking to people and building relationships.” He was referring to his contacts on the transportation beat, but this also applied to the people he interviews. A large part of interviewing is establishing trust as well as demonstrating interest, and he talked about the importance of finding out more about people to help show that interest. He also emphasized the importance of asking weird questions.
“I always forewarn people that I’ll be asking some weird questions.”
We needed some examples.
“I’ll ask them how they got to work that day, or what the name of their dog is, or what they did that morning--things that seem unrelated but might make a difference later when you’re writing the story because you never know what might be important or useful.”
After inviting questions from the students, our conversation took different turns as we discussed other aspects of reporting such as bias and how reporters keep that in check. We talked about fake news,and we talked about the challenges of writing. We talked about circulation and readership and the struggles newspapers face, but we also talked about hope and the ways in which the news serves the community. We talked about how to select the best quotes, but more importantly we talked about how to find the heart of a story.
After our talk, I e-mailed Andrew to once again thank him. “It was a fun discussion,” he replied. “You have a sharp group.”
It’s true. I have been teaching writing for twelve years, but Wayfinding students are different. They are taught to nurture those qualities in themselves that inspire confidence and fearlessness. They spend so much of their time challenging themselves that they expect no less from others. They are curious to know more, and when given the opportunity to ask questions of a professional, they ask the kinds of questions that get to the heart of what those people do and why they do it. Students at the Wayfinding Academy are the kinds of students teachers wish for. They are interesting, engaged, and insightful.
I learned a lot that day. We all did.