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A sigh of relief

A sigh of relief

Picture of Kelley Atherton

My blog post is a little late, but here I am!

Between March and May, I had several moments of panic about whether I was going to be able to complete the last two of the three stories I promised for the California Endowment Health Jounalism Fellowship.

Getting an interview with the director of the county Dept. of Health and Human Services who would be really the only person who could talk about state cuts to health programs was what I was really stressing about. For months, I called his office and he was always out of town. I finally set up an interview for March 11. The previous night around 11 p.m., I got an AP News Alert on my iPhone about a massive earthquake in Japan and a subsequent tsunami. I went online to see if there was a tsunami warning for Crescent City since historically Japan and the West Coast are connected by earthquakes. It's believed that the last major quake in the Cascadia Subduction Zone (offshore of the West Coast) in 1700 caused the "orphan tsunami" in Japan that came without warning. I found no alert on the USGS's website and went to sleep. I was awakened by my mother in the Midwest at about 5 a.m. who saw on the news of a tsunami heading toward the West Coast, specially toward Crescent City, which is a magnet for tsunami waves.  (I live far enough out of town that I can't hear the sirens.) My editor called minutes later that I should come into town ready to report and the day began. That night, I remembered by interview schedule for that day and laughed. I had complete forgotten about it as I was consumed by a tsunami that killed thousands in Japan and had destroyed our harbor (and nearly the town, again), I called the director of DHHS' office (which had to be evacuated that Friday) the next week and re-scheduled the interview, which finally did happened a couple of weeks later.

The next few weeks, our paper was consumed by the clean-up in our harbor, the state and eventually the federal government declared Crescent City and other parts of California disaster zone so the CalEMA and FEMA money can flow here. For at least two weeks straight our main story(s) was about the aftermath of the tsunami here. In April, things can calmed down enough that I could return my focus to my fellowship stories.

My story on tooth decay, I had done a few interviews and needed to get a photo op and chance to talk to some parents of small children. Luckily, there was going to be a walk-in clinic April 1. My editor wanted me and our photographer to go out on an assignment that morning for the next day's centerpiece (we had to stop using photos of harbor destruction at some point) so there was a time crunch. We stopped by the clinic on our way out of town and there were indeed families for me to talk to and for our photographer to shoot pictures of. It worked out well considering the clinic had been cancelled the previous few months and this was our last shot, but I still wish I would have been able to spend most of the morning at the clinic in case that families with a more compelling story walked in the door, but my daily stories don't generally stop until my editor says he'll "leave me alone," so I can write the stories - at which point he knows he's going to get a story out of me that will fill the Saturday paper (it's our Sunday paper, which we don't have).

Once I've finished writing a story that's taken me months of reporting, I have a sense of relief. But then my editor reads it and there's more work reorganizing sections, rewriting sentences to make them more clear, taking out parts. There's another sense of relief when the editing is done and the designers are putting it on the page and I go home to try and take my mind off the story. That usually doesn't work and I end up laying in bed worrying about typos, whether names are spelled correctly or huge inaccuracies because I've completely misunderstood the story (that has never happened, but I still worry nonetheless) and that I'm a fraud of a journalist. The real sigh of relief comes the next day when I'm thinking about the next story.

I'm happy that I can completed my fellowship stories, but I'm a little sad that the experience is over with. I learned a lot, meet some awesome people, had some fun and got to see L.A. for the first time. The most important thing is that the fellowship helped to take me out of my reporting funk and has motivated me to do more stories that stretch me as a reporter and writer.

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