If Stephanie Hayes were a color, she would be bold red, like her lipstick.
An hour before meeting Hayes, Elise and I tried to calm our nerves by drinking some coffee and practiced saying our interview out loud.
Fifteen minutes prior to 11 am on Friday, we walked to the Tampa Bay Times building. The building looked deserted from the outside and most of the palm trees were dead. I wondered if we were in the right place.
We found our way into the building and summoning all the courage I had, I pressed the elevator button and once inside, Elise pressed the button to level 7.
As the elevator went up, my confidence went down.
I hate talking to strangers…especially interviewing strangers. That’s the whole reason Elise and I teamed up, because we are two shy, writing majors. We went to the reception desk, as told, and asked for Stephanie Hayes. After a few moments a short, blond woman wearing a red blouse and a black skirt came to greet us.
I could tell we introduced ourselves awkwardly but she was nice enough to pretend that we did fine. She led us through a door and showed us around the floor. The working area looked like a small, organized neighborhood with quiet, empty streets and small cubicles for houses. The journalists were busy typing in silence.
To be honest I don’t remember everything she said but apparently the floor is divided into different sections, like the photography section and others sections I don’t recall. What I do remember is thinking, “There are many young people in this old building.”
She showed us the room they use to take pictures in and I asked if I could take a picture and she quickly said yes. I thought to myself “This is easy, I’m going to ask her if I can take a picture of the next thing she shows us!”
She walked us over to a board where they had pinned printed stories. Very excitedly I asked, “May I take a picture of the board?” her answer was “No.” My cheeks turned red and I put my phone away.
Stephanie Hayes’ career began when she asked herself, “Who would pay me to write?” she found her answer in journalism.
She began by writing editorials for the TBT in Carrolwood during her time in USF. Then she moved to St. Pete where she was an editor assistant. After that she wrote obituaries for one year and a half. She would write five obituaries a week and would be interviewing people over the phone daily.
“I learned a lot about interviewing and talking to people.” A skill I definitely lack.
From there she covered entertainment for two years and for the past six months her beat has been USF. “We move around a lot. You kind of have to know how to do everything. You need to be flexible.”
We moved to the break room so we could ask her more questions without disturbing the people around us. She microwaved some kind of frozen, diet meal. It didn’t smell good.
We asked her what was the most challenging part of her job and she said that the nerves never really go away. To make matters worse, you are constantly outside your comfort zone.
“If you had your choice you probably wouldn’t go knock on the door of a murderer’s house,” she said laughing.
When she said this, I thought, “This is one of the many reasons I’d never be a journalist.” I think she read my mind because she quickly added, “There are not a million jobs in journalism, so if you don’t really love it, don’t do it.”
She also advised us to be brave and just ask people what you really want to know because from her experience, “it’s amazing what people will answer if you just ask them.” We need to ask for more pictures, I thought.
We asked her if she gets crazy emails from people who feel offended by her articles and she said that it has happened in the past but in order to be a journalist you need to build confidence and “a lot of thick skin.”
One of my favorite things she said about what being a journalist is like is that, “You kind of figure our who you are doing this.”
The thing she likes the most about her job is that you can plan what you’re going to do on a certain day, but then there is something that changes your plans.
“It’s exciting! You’re never going to be sitting in a cubicle every day.”
So that’s what the flats under her desk were for! In case of an emergency, she’d take off her heels, put on her black pair of flats and run to her next story.
We asked her if her job gets overwhelming from time to time and she said, “there is a lot of stress, there is a lot of problems, there is a lot of issues, but when it comes down to it, it’s just the fun thing that keeps us coming back.” Maybe over the years, journalists get addicted to deadlines and stress. Maybe they are adrenaline junkies who get a rush from running out of time to finish a story.
She told us about the first time she saw her name on the paper. “I was in a 7/11 gas station and then saw the paper sitting there on the rack and I flipped it over and there was my story on the bottom of the page and it was like ‘holy crap!’ you know? ‘Me?’”
Hayes said that there are weeks when you’d write one big story or weeks when you’d write three or not even one. Fortunately there is not a quota that you must meet and editors will work with you to help you meet your deadlines.
“For the most part you decide what you want to write about.”
Elise came up with a very important question: if a topic is too close to your heart, do you avoid it? Stephanie Hayes took a time to think and answered, “No. Because it means that I care about it and it means that I’m going to write a better story.” She taught us that the key is to write about topics that are close to your heart but avoid writing about the people who are close to your heart.
I asked her about when she realized that she was a good writer. The answer was automatic, “always.” The three of us laughed and she told us that throughout high school she tried playwriting and poetry. “I was always good at it.”
For our last question we asked her what her goals for the future were and she said that she wants to be in the Feature staff and eventually be an editor because she likes editing. “There are a lot of opportunities here to keep growing and improving and you get better every time you write a story.”
She really surprised me when she said that she has written a fiction book and that she is currently trying to get it published. She told us that she enjoys writing in public because she gets her inspiration from people and from mundane situations.
Stephanie Hayes might not be certain of what her next big story might be because, as she said, in journalism everything is unexpected but she is certain of one thing: “I’ll always want to do journalism.”