Blog Posts.

Busy. Crazy. And busy some more.

I’ve been at The Baltimore Sun for nearly six weeks now, and it’s been a very busy blur. I’ve had to get comfortable with all of the new systems (e-mail, budgeting stories, filing stories, requesting photos, etc.) while covering lots and lots of news.

I’m covering Annapolis and Anne Arundel County — mainly government, but also a little bit of everything. And Anne Arundel County has no shortage of news.

In  my first week, I managed to land stories on A1 twice — first, when the county executive vetoed a stormwater fee and second, when I wrote a quick-turnaround profile of the state’s corrections secretary.

A few other stories I’ve liked: A co-written, in-depth look at safety concerns in obstacle/mud runs; a feature on the county’s foster parents of the year and a bit of a spat between the former county executive and the new county executive.

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Don’t believe everything you read in a press release, and other odds and ends

It should go without saying that reporters need to check information in press releases.

I had two examples of this recently. In one case, a press release about a political candidate turned out to be a hoax. And in another case, a press release didn’t tell the full story.

***

I ended up helping out with coverage of Sine Die, the last day of the General Assembly.

I didn’t plan to cover Sine Die, but there was a last-minute push to roll back a bill (the “rain tax” or stormwater fee) that had passed the year before. So I covered that push — which failed — and wrote a story wrapping up that and other environmental issues.

This year’s Sine Die was amazingly calm compared to last year, when lawmakers adjourned without passing a proper budget. The day was filled with impromptu press conferences and partisan maneuvering.

A quick iPhone photo of Gov. Martin O'Malley talking to reporters on Sine Die, the last day of the 90-day General Assembly session.
A quick iPhone photo of Gov. Martin O’Malley talking to reporters on Sine Die, the last day of the 90-day General Assembly session.

This year, I managed to tag along with a group of staffers and lobbyists on a tour of the State House dome! Needless to say, that was pretty awesome.

Atop the State House dome in Annapolis on Sine Die, 2013. Yes, it was windy! Thanks to Susan O'Brien for taking the photo.
Atop the State House dome in Annapolis on Sine Die, 2013. Yes, it was windy! Thanks to Susan O’Brien for taking the photo.

***

A few days after Sine Die, I appeared on WYPR radio on “Midday on the Bay” with Dan Rodricks and Rona Kobell. We talked about the environmental bills that were considered during the 90-day session.

You can listen to the recording here. (Warning, it’s a full hour.)

WYPR studio in Baltimore.
WYPR studio in Baltimore.

***

I recently left The Capital newspaper after almost exactly 10 years there, and nearly three years before that at a sister paper, the Maryland Gazette.

Here’s the last bylined story I wrote for the paper, about a grant that was awarded to help rebuild Annapolis City Dock. And the last story of mine to actually appear in print (it held for several days) was about prisoners growing American chestnut trees.

The Patuxent Institution in Jessup -- I'm glad I'm on this side of the fence, and not the other side.
The Patuxent Institution in Jessup — I’m glad I’m on this side of the fence, and not the other side.

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In cleaning out my desk at The Capital, I found some interesting things.

I found a file folder full of thank you cards and also some nasty-grams. (“Take those carbon credits and shove them up your a—, you liberal scum” is a favorite.)

For some reason, I have a big pile of press passes and badges. I have no idea what many of them are for, but the ones issued by the White House (for covering Naval Academy graduation) are pretty cool. I’ll keep those.

Here’s perhaps the most poignant thing I found. I found the first issue of the Our Bay section that was started while I was at The Capital. Here it is, side-by-side with the final Our Bay section from earlier this month.

The first and last Our Bay sections from The Capital. I wrote for and coordinated the section from 2006 until 2013.
The first and last Our Bay sections from The Capital. I wrote for and coordinated the section from 2006 until 2013.

Being a journalist sometimes means being a historian

Anne Arundel County’s first county executive, Joseph W. Alton Jr., died on Friday morning.

I helped my colleague Allison Bourg by combing through decades’ worth of old newspaper clippings about his life.

I’m always happy to help when I can on breaking and important news, even if it’s off my beat. But I really do enjoy reading old stories.

First, when someone dies, old stories are the only way to get their voice in the story. As a reader, I find it interesting to be reminded of some of the things the deceased person said. And the old quotes help to fill out the deceased person’s character a bit.

Plus, I just love journalism in all forms, especially from years ago.

Because Alton was county executive, a state senator and a sheriff at various points, my newspaper had tons of clippings. And the ones I found on Friday didn’t even cover Alton’s full career.

Envelopes full of newspaper clippings about Anne Arundel's first county executive, Joseph W. Alton Jr.
Envelopes full of newspaper clippings about Anne Arundel’s first county executive, Joseph W. Alton Jr.

I was surprised to find that there seemed to be bias creeping through many of the stories. It seems the reporters and editors mostly seemed to like Alton. Some of the wording and descriptions certainly wouldn’t fly in today’s press, where we do our best to play stories straight and keep any personal feelings out of the news stories.

Another thing that wouldn’t fly: “women’s” stories. I found one report about a birthday party for Alton that described what his wife was wearing and even complimented her figure, listing her height and weight. (!!) There also was another piece written by a “women’s editor” describing how the wife helped during a campaign by taking calls at home for the executive. (Again: !!)

I also was intrigued by the deadlines. The Capital was — and still is — an evening newspaper. Nowadays, the final deadline for the evening print edition is about 9:30 a.m. It used to be later — maybe 10:30 — when the paper was still printed in the same building.

But back then, the deadlines must have been much later. When Alton was sentenced in federal court in Baltimore (he had pleaded guilty to soliciting contributions from companies that wanted work with the county government), the sentence came down at 10:35 a.m. And that evening’s paper included the full story, photos and a sketch of Alton in the courtroom.  The writer might have been able to call in his story from a pay phone, but the photographer and artist surely had to drive  back to Annapolis.

One of many newspaper clippings about Anne Arundel's first county executive, Joe Alton. This is when he was sentenced after pleading guilty in federal court to soliciting kickbacks from firms seeking contracts with the county. He ended up serving about seven months.
One of many newspaper clippings about Anne Arundel’s first county executive, Joe Alton. This is when he was sentenced after pleading guilty in federal court to soliciting kickbacks from firms seeking contracts with the county. He ended up serving about seven months.

Most interesting of all, however, was a story about what prison life would be like for the county executive.

I had to do a double-take when I saw that story, because I wrote essentially the same story last month, when John R. Leopold, Anne Arundel’s most recent former executive, was sentenced to 30 days behind bars on misconduct charges.

A 1974 story describing what a former county executive's life will be like behind bars. I wrote a similar story in 2013.
A 1974 story describing what a former county executive’s life will be like behind bars. I wrote a similar story in 2013.

Even lawmakers get starstruck

If there’s one thing that Democrats and Republicans in Maryland can agree on, it’s the awesomeness of the Baltimore Ravens.

(Unless they are Redskins fans, of course.)

The love for the purple-and-black was on display Friday in the House of Delegates, when Super Bowl champion and Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith stopped by a for a visit.

It came at an interesting time, as my colleague Alex Jackson explains in his weekly “From the Dome” column. State delegates had just waged a contentious battle over the state’s gas tax — so contentious that, at one point, Republicans walked off of the floor of the chamber in protest.

I was across the hall in the state Senate when all this happened, and I walked over to the House once the Senate wrapped up. As I approached the chamber, I heard applause and hollering, which didn’t make any sense, given how mad everyone was.

Then I stepped into the press area and saw Smith at the podium and all the cheering quickly made perfect sense.

One of my favorite celebrity-at-the-State-House stories was when Orioles great Cal Ripken Jr. visited. I remember senators from different jurisdictions laying claim to the Hall of Famer. Baltimore City said Ripken played there. Harford County pointed out he grew up there. Baltimore County pointed out that he currently lives there.

So many lawmakers wanted their picture with Ripken that the Senate president asked the shortstop to stay in the Senate lounge, and he excused senators a few at a time to get their photos.

Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith addresses the Maryland House of Delegates.
Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith addresses the Maryland House of Delegates.
Maryland state lawmakers pose for pictures with Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith at the State House in Annapolis.
Maryland state lawmakers pose for pictures with Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith at the State House in Annapolis.

How not to be an environment reporter

I’ve covered the environment and the Chesapeake Bay for several years now, but I did something a couple weeks ago that I’d never done before.

I dropped my notebook in the water!

Not how you want your notebook to look.
Not how you want your notebook to look.

I had been out  on the water with the Natural Resources Police in Talbot County, reporting on a story about police staffing levels.

We were at the dock at a seafood company, when one of the watermen selling his oysters handed me my dripping notebook.

I hadn’t even realized I had lost it! It must have slipped out of my winter jacket pocket while I was shooting pictures. (Or maybe while I was meeting the very friendly local dogs.)

The good thing is that I already had more than enough material for my story. Plus I could record interviews with audio or video with my iPhone or camera, if needed.

Back in the newsroom, I carefully pulled out my pages of notes, sheet by sheet. I laid them out to dry and they were perfectly readable and usable (if a bit wrinkly) the next day.

Next time, I’ll keep better tabs on my notebook. And I’ll bring a spare.

Laying out wet notebook sheets to dry in the newsroom.
Laying out wet notebook sheets to dry in the newsroom.
Dry but crinkled notebook pages.
Dry but crinkled notebook pages.

Telling the big story with video

The biggest story of the year for my newspaper so far (OK, I know it’s still early, but still …) is the conviction and subsequent resignation of the county executive, John R. Leopold.

The afternoon that the verdict came down, several reporters were called in to help our lead county politics reporter who had been covering the trial.

I ended up missing an annual summit where environmental advocates talk about their top issues for the annual state General Assembly session.

I helped get quotes from people commenting the verdict and at one point, sat on a curb outside the courthouse and patched together a quick reaction story on my laptop.

But one of my favorite parts was putting together some short videos to help tell the story.

The first one features iPhone footage from one of my fellow reporters that I edited together. The other three were shot with my Nikon D7000.

Making a (small) difference

The best stories often come from simply asking questions.

A couple years back, I was inspired when people would ask me: Does anyone ever get fined for sewage spills?

I dug around and found out that fines for sewage spills are often quite small.

That generated another question: Where does that fine money go?

The result was a story that I published this past summer. The fines for water pollution — along with certain water permit fees — goes into something called the Maryland Clean Water Fund. And the Maryland Clean Water Fund, I found out, pays mostly for salaries, program administration and other overhead.

It does not really go toward on-the-ground (or on-the-water) pollution cleanup/remediation/prevention projects.

There’s nothing illegal or even improper about it. This is exactly how the fund was set up.

I didn’t get too much feedback on my story at the time. But it did inspire two local lawmakers to take up the issue.

They’re sponsoring the bills that would require that water pollution fines be spent on cleanup projects or environmental restoration projects.

I don’t know if the bills are going to go anywhere, and it’s not my place to advocate for or against them. But I am glad to see that my story has spurred discussions among lawmakers about the fines and the fund. That’s what I think newspapers should be all about: Sharing information and spurring discussion.

As I once heard the late, great Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham say: “Newspapers give people the information they need to make our democracy work.”