This week we talked with new Rappahannock Record reporter Megan Schiffres. Megan is a May 2018 graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University and recently relocated to Kilmarnock to work as a reporter at the Record.
We talk to her about being a young person in the industry, the difference between covering a rural community and an urban community, artificial intelligence in the newsroom and a lot more.
To start, can you please introduce yourself and tell us about your new position, what you did before coming to the Record, where you went to school and where you’re from?
My name’s Megan Schiffres and I’m a community reporter and photographer at the Rappahannock Record. My beat currently encompasses Northumberland County and the town of Kilmarnock, which are both located in the Northern Neck of Virginia. My work thus far at the Record has focused primarily on local news, which in our area can mean anything from wheat farming to sailboat racing to local government coverage. I started at the Record two weeks after earning my bachelor’s degree in digital journalism, with a minor in gender, sexuality, and women’s studies, at Virginia Commonwealth University.
While at college I wrote for numerous Richmond-area publications including Gay RVA, RVA Mag and Capital Connections Magazine. At VCU, I had the opportunity to cover the 2017 Virginia General Assembly session through their capstone course, Capital News Service. My mentor at CNS, Jeff South, introduced me to the possibilities of data journalism and taught me over the course of that class how to effectively find, use, and illustrate data to reinforce my political coverage and visually represent numerical findings. I just moved to Kilmarnock but I’m originally from Fairfax, Virginia.
How was your time at the Record been so far? Are you finding that you were prepared for the newspaper grind thanks to your previous experience, or is it something new all together for you?
It’s been great, thus far! My coworkers are incredibly helpful and knowledgeable about the area, which has helped to ease my transition into local news reporting immensely. I’m still getting used to some aspects of the job, but I’m trying to view my struggles at this stage as learning experiences. I do feel that the capstone courses at VCU, in particular, prepared me for the newsroom because I got used to meeting hard deadlines and independently pursuing stories two years before I even officially joined the workforce. CNS was an invaluable experience in terms of preparing me for the reality (and chaos) of a reporter’s lifestyle.
What made you want to pursue journalism?
I first became interested in journalism when I started reading the news in high school. I realized then just how much I didn’t know about the world, how little of it I understood or was even aware of. It was a revelation for me, and as I gradually learned more about the state of our planet, I was deeply inspired by the journalists whose words connected me to the rest of the world.
Being a journalist, to me, is a privilege. I consider myself so lucky that my job is to indulge my own natural curiosity about the world around me, but more importantly, I view my work and the work of my colleagues in the field as a vital public service.
Knowledge is power, and so is representation in our society. As a reporter, I take very seriously my role in facilitating the spread of information in a way that is understandable, relatable and unbiased. I think that in order to report accurately and fairly, it is crucial that everyone’s story is told, especially the stories of communities whose voices have historically and systematically been silenced or overlooked.
Having worked in predominantly urban areas with your reporting, are you anticipating, or already seeing, any differences in working for the Record, covering more rural communities and issues in Northumberland and the Northern Neck?
The biggest difference I’ve observed thus far in my reporting is that I can now directly observe the effects of my work on the community. When I wrote articles in Richmond, I felt as though my words were something like a shout into the void, just another clamoring voice among thousands of speakers telling the public about the news of the day. Here in Kilmarnock, it’s safe to assume that most people have read the most recent edition of the Record, and that knowledge makes me feel a great deal of responsibility in terms of ensuring that what I write is both accurate and fair.
Do you think newspapers like the Record benefit from being one of the few publications in a pretty sizeable area? Do you think this puts more weight on the paper and its reporters to make sure every story gets reported to its full potential?
I think we as reporters definitely benefit from having our names associated with a paper like the Record, because its history in the community means that it is immediately reputable and recognizable to locals.
I think that being part of the largest news provider in the area puts much more responsibility on us as reporters, not only in how we write about the news, but also which news items we make space for in the paper. With only three full-time reporters on staff, we’re sometimes forced to make judgment calls about which meeting or event to cover over another, and that decision affects all of our readers every week. Representation, as I said before, is power in our society, so I take very seriously our responsibility to thoroughly and fairly report news that our readers need to know.
“Being a journalist, to me, is a privilege. I consider myself so lucky that my job is to indulge my own natural curiosity about the world around me, but more importantly, I view my work and the work of my colleagues in the field as a vital public service.”
As a young person in the industry, do you worry about longevity in your career, or do you think there will always be a need for a reporter in some form?
I definitely think that journalism is changing rapidly and will continue to change throughout my career. Video journalism, like the NowThis clips that proliferate Facebook, is an increasingly popular means of communication that I think will soon become the norm in my field. I also think that the rise of interactive data journalism is incredibly exciting, and an unparalleled method of communicating complex numerical ideas in a way that is not only bearable, but fun for the audience. As long as I am able to keep up with technological advances, and as long as I force myself to continuously update my tools in order to utilize the best communication devices available, I think my work can provide a needed service to the community.
As far as the longevity of journalism as a career is concerned, I hesitate to say that artificial intelligence won’t eventually replace me and my colleagues completely, but I do believe that journalism will exist in some form or another as long as people are curious about the world around them and willing to learn.
When you talk about A.I. in reporting, what does it look like in your head? Do you think this is a real possibility in our industry in the next 20-30 years?
To be honest, I was referring to a more distant future in terms of A.I. reporting, but I also foresee and hope that more technological advances will be incorporated into the work of a reporter in the near future.
Transcribing interviews, for example, is one of the most time-consuming tasks of a journalist, and it’s also an imperfect science. We record hundreds of hours of audio a year and every quote we use has to be perfectly replicated, word for word. Not only does every soundbite need to be transcribed exactly but it’s also critical that they are attributed correctly.
Part of the job of a reporter is getting thrown into new situations and groups of people at a moment’s notice, and that means we typically don’t know those around us by name, and can’t faithfully identify their voice from a recording unless we follow up with the speakers later. I can think of a number of times when I wasn’t able to use a particularly appropriate quote, simply because I couldn’t be 100 percent sure that I knew who said it.
Transcribing is a big part of a reporter’s day-to-day job, and messing up can have huge consequences, not only for ourselves and our reputations but the reputations of the newspapers that publish us. I have looked into transcribing software available today, but the tools available now aren’t perfect, and when your name is at the top of the article, you always have to be 100 percent sure.
All this is to say that, I definitely think A.I. could have a role in the reporting process sometime very soon, in terms of transcribing quotes and identifying speakers in groups of people. I think this advancement is definitely within the range of possibility and would save myself and my colleagues in the field a lot of time and uncertainty.
What’s a story you’ve got your eye on for the Record?
I haven’t pursued it yet, but I’ve been kicking around the idea of doing a feature story on roadkill in the area. It’s not the sexiest topic, but highways crisscross through much of the remaining wildlife in the Northern Neck and put both drivers and animals at risk of collision. I want to look into efforts in the community to prevent or at least minimize animal/human road accidents, possibly including revised hunting laws to quell overpopulation, reduced speed limits during certain hours and animal bridges.
Hobbies/interests outside of journalism: Photography, watching political satire, and reading queer theory.
Odd fact about yourself: I’m fluent in American Sign Language
Favorite author: Dick Francis
Favorite book: Trash by Dorothy Allison
One piece of writing advice you’ve cherished: The best thing you can do to improve the quality of your writing is to read.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.