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Michelle's column: A handy reminder why she does what she does

I was a little surprised, two weeks ago, when I got an email asking me to speak in front of a Farmington High School desktop publishing class.

I got the email from FHS teacher Mark Toutge. I’ve known him for years, but this was the first time I’d been asked to come into a classroom in a while. A long while. I asked him what he wanted me to talk about. His answer was that he wanted me to talk about my everyday life as a reporter and photographer.

Now, that seems easier said than done. I just do what I do. It comes easily, it comes naturally. I’ve done it for so long, I really don’t think twice about it anymore. But his class was 50-some minutes long, and I had to fill most of that time talking about myself and my job.

At least I had a week to think about it. And I spend a good 45 minutes driving to and from work every day, so I had time to talk it out to myself, too. Yes, I talk to myself when necessary.

I probably had a bit of an advantage over other folks in my trade, in that I was able to actually touch on what I see as three different phases in the evolution of publishing. Thanks to my involvement with the Minnesota Newspaper Museum, I was able to touch on the days of linotypes and hand-fed presses — not that I could bring a linotype in, certainly, but I have lots of pictures to share. I was able to talk about my early days in the biz, back when we used the cut-and-paste method of laying out pages.

Believe me, what we do on computers today — what they were learning in Toutge’s class — is a far cry from the painstaking processes our predecessors had to use.

Then I shared a little bit about the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. Or, my safety net, as I told the students. We reviewed Minnesota’s statutes on access to government data and open meetings. We talked about what is considered public information and what isn’t.

And I tried to impress upon these high school students that what they put out on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram is, in fact, public information. That once they put something out on the Internet, it’s there for the world to see.

I tried to share the unpredictability of this news business. Last week’s standoff in Charleswood was an example of how one incident affects people, and at the same time, how rumor could blow something out of proportion.

I talked to them about the importance of basing your content on facts, not rumors or speculation. We didn’t have time to go into a big discussion on where to find creditable information, but I shares a couple of websites where I go to find the legal documents I need when writing about sticky situations.

Lastly, I talked about why local news matters. My job as a community journalist may not be as big or as glamorous as a television journalist, or even a daily newspaper journalist. But what I write here in the Independent Town Pages — what all of us here write every week — matters to someone in our community.

The stories we write sometimes might seem to be mundane. A road construction project. A city budget. Those are certainly not as exciting as a bull getting loose during the county fair, but if your taxes go up or your street is closed off, you can always turn to your local paper to find out why.

I guess it was a good experience for me, talking to these teenagers. Not just because I reached out to the next generation of readers, but because this experience helped me reaffirm, to myself, why I do what I do.

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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