"There's so much sloppy journalism out there, and we miss so much with our heads buried in our iPhones."
Jamie Self is a reporter at The Herald in Clover, South Carolina. Her path to journalism was not always certain, and she made several career detours along the way.
How did you end up at a small-town newspaper in upstate South Carolina?
I did not go to J-school and never took a journalism class in college. I hadn't ever thought about writing for a newspaper until about two years ago, when I began writing for a small weekly that circulates in rural western York County, SC. I was hired at The Herald a few months later.
Is it all high school sports and local business?
We're a small newsroom where some editors double as reporters and most reporters work across multiple beats, either by design or out of necessity when news breaks. But despite our size we get a lot done and are able to pursue investigative work and be competitive. Some days are slow or filled with phone calls, and I'm mostly at my desk. Others are far more unpredictable. Part of the fun of writing for a hyper-local paper is covering so many different topics. I can't pin down a single most interesting story. Lawnmower racing and the city's practice of spreading sewage sludge are stories I found fascinating. And there was the time the sheriff's office accidentally released a convicted murderer, then did not release details about how it happened until we pressed for them.
What were you doing before that?
My last full-time job after earning a Master's in literature was teaching freshman reading and writing courses at Boston University. My shift out of academic writing began in Boston, where my husband and I and some artist friends of ours were feeling disenchanted with academia after having spent so many years in it. Wanting to do something else, we devised a plan for an alternative lifestyle, which we called Transit Antenna—"a mobile living experiment" of living, working, and creating on the road. We bought a city transit bus, turned it into a custom, full-time dwelling for our two families, converted the engine to run on used cooking grease as a low-cost, cleaner alternative to diesel, and hit the road.
Where did you go and what did you do?
For two years we traveled the continent as far as Mexico and Alaska, smelling of french fries, picking up odd jobs for money, painting murals, doing performance projects, and spending time with the most interesting people we could find. I blogged about our adventures and picked up some magazine freelance work along the way.
And how did you end up back in rural South Carolina?
When our bus died and project ended, my husband and I came back to his hometown of Clover, known here in York County as "the town with love in the middle," where he wanted to paint a giant mural. While he painted, I decided to see about freelancing at the weekly paper. That worked out, and a few months later, The Herald had an opening. I landed an interview and got the job.
Was it difficult to leave Boston and a potential career behind?
I wasn't disillusioned in Boston as much as I felt that teaching, which I did enjoy, was something I'd be better at later in life after having better stories to tell of my own. I was also figuring out, slowly, that I'd picked that track as the safe bet, and hadn't really let myself pursue something with more risk, like writing professionally.
Were there things you encountered that made you second-guess your decision to leave?
We were worried about money, but I remember us being surprised at how little it took to live on the road. When our savings ran out, we found odd jobs to pay our way. My favorite was working at a meat-processing plant in Alaska. Only the sometimes fierce arguments we had on the bus made me second guess our decision, but the group always stayed together and pushed forward. Looking back, with us all living in such close quarters, the arguments were inevitable. The trip was a true test of our friendships, which are still intact today.
How do you look back on that experience now?
The mood on the bus at times oscillated between maniacal near-psychosis and feeling like the good luck would never, ever run out, like on our first night in Reno, when our friends won at a craps table and used the money to buy a Mercedes, right before our bus decided to die on us. I can't count how many times we asked, "How did we make it?" But really, it's tough to package it. To this day I'm still realizing the ways that experience shaped who I now am professionally. Being thrown in new situations all the time no doubt helped find footing as a journalist. Writing all the time built my confidence so that by the time the project ended, I knew all I wanted to do was write. The only questions were about what and will it pay.
Did anyone at the paper show you the ropes?
The senior reporter there, Andrew Dys, didn't say a word to me until I was a few months into the job. I wondered for a while whether he was simply a jerk, and today if I asked him, he'd say, yes, my initial impression was right, with a big smile on his face. One thing he's pounded into my head is that the story you get on scene is different and better than the one you get any other way because people are strange and compelling and say the most curious things and have the most surprising perspectives. [W]hen you are on scene and tweeting and shooting video and uploading pictures and typing out a quick story for breaking news alerts and beaming it all back to the office—all the things a newspaper reporter is required to do these days—one thing you might forget to do is look around and take in the scene. I understand and embrace the changes that require me to be a one-woman mobile newsroom, and I'm getting better at doing it all everyday. But it's important to be on scene and actually be there, paying attention. There's so much sloppy journalism out there, and we miss so much with our heads buried in our iPhones.
Makin' It is the work of journalist Brady Welch and illustrator Skyler Swezy, the team behind YrDoingAGreatJob.com.