By Anya Proctor
Typically, when I think of a newspaper office, I imagine hustle and bustle that swallows one whole, marked by swarms of high-speed busybodies rushing to meet deadlines and racing to get stories. When I met Elisabeth Parker at the doors of the seventh floor of the Tampa Bay Times this morning, she greeted me with a calm smile and led me to a quiet arrangement of cubicle desks, which was quite barren with the exception of a handful of occupants. She would later inform me that at the Times, days don’t usually start until about 11 a.m.
We sat at her desk space, where Elisabeth had pulled up a chair for me, and we began to get to know each other. I told her about my assignment to shadow a professional journalist, and naturally she inquired of my desire to be a journalist. I told her I wasn’t sure if journalism was for me, but that writing was my strongest suit—which accounted for my decision to declare journalism as my major. I told her I didn’t think I was reporter material and attributed some of that to my being shy and unassertive. I was then comforted to hear Elisabeth say that she thought most of the Tampa Bay Times reporters were introverts, and advised me that having a job that challenges you or makes you uncomfortable is better than complacence.
I then asked about her own journey to the Times and as a journalist. She majored in journalism at USF after which she became a paralegal. Elisabeth has a kind heart with a will to help people. As a paralegal she worked to free victimized women and children from repressive domestic situations. When involved in a custody battle between the parents of a young boy, however, Elisabeth learned that not all aspects of her profession—even with her concentration on helping victims—had the best interests of clients at heart. Seeing a case be drug on at the expense of a young boy and the profit of lawyers caused a shift in her career focus. Although she would continue volunteering on her own to help victims of destitution, Elisabeth decided to work professionally as a journalist. When she moved to Tampa in 2002 with her husband, she interviewed at the Tampa Bay Times, and shortly secured a position as a local reporter.
Elisabeth covers mostly local happenings in the Tampa area, with a wide range of topics under the heading of “human interest.” The jurisdiction allows her a lot of flexibility and she explained that she initiates about half of her stories with the other half coming from outside tips. She showed me the story she’s currently working on: an investigative piece about a local Hindu priest who is being ousted from his rented temple at the hand of county code enforcements. Code violations were discovered upon the filing of several complaints by neighbors.
The story had many plots, twists and oddities, all of which were discovered by Elisabeth’s reporting and investigative skills. She told me that she was tipped about the story which she then pursued by obtaining permission to attend a Hindu festival conducted by the local priest this past weekend. She showed me pictures, videos, and told me what she learned from talking to locals. I watched her contact a few sources to get details and conduct a bit of research. She showed me a system that members of the Times use to communicate. She used it to request information from a kind of “fact-checker” who sat a few desks away, and whose job it is to run background checks and find information at the request of fellow Times’ reporters.
I also saw Elisabeth talk with her Editor, who critiqued her developing story and offered advice about its angle and composition. He reminded her to complete a budget line for the story, which confused me until I learned it had nothing to do with money and was a format to describe the content and dimensions of Elisabeth’s story as it would be applied to the actual paper.
She particularly likes writing stories like this one. It requires some digging and causes people to think, she says. She offered a quote from a fellow employee that resonates with her: “It’s easy to write about people who want to be in the paper.” She often receives from people asking her to write about themselves or their causes which reeks of public relations. Elisabeth and I agree in our distaste for advertising and our attraction to the raw nature of journalism. She stressed how important it is to be objective and present situations for readers to discern.
Elisabeth describes a typical work day with hours from 10 to 6, although it varies depending on what’s happening in her work and personal life. Basically, it’s flexible. She writes about two stories a week and largely chooses what she writes about. Her position at the Times was strikingly comfortable and relaxed, which I didn’t expect.
I also met other Times workers: a breaking news reporter, a political reporter, popular culture columnist, photographer, interns, and an aspiring journalist at the front desk. The Tampa Bay Times represented to me the range of journalism. Anyone with a particular passion and aptitude for writing can work to become a journalist.
I loved the feel of the Tampa Bay Times. It was perfectly messy, comfortably loose, and filled with goodhearted people pursuing their interests at the benefit of the Tampa community. I hope to someday work at a place where a certain disjointed harmony overrides the monotonous stereotype of the office, and where ambition dictates direction. A day with Elisabeth Parker at least assured me that this is possible.