This week we talked with editor and reporter at Style Weekly, Laura Ingles. She talks about her start in journalism as a persistent freelancer for C-ville Weekly, the future and uniqueness of alt weeklies, the big story that she believes will continue to grow in Richmond and why she always writes the first draft of every one of her stories with pen and paper.

To start, please tell us a little a bit about yourself—both personally and professionally.

You know, this is how I start so many of my own interviews, and turns out it’s not the easiest question to answer.

My journalism career started in 2011 when I showed up in Charlottesville with a laptop and very little else. I’d written a few features for the Collegiate Times when I was a student at Virginia Tech (go Hokies!), but aside from that and a handful of freelanced pieces for a children’s magazine, my professional writing experience was pretty minimal. After I introduced myself and pestered the C-VILLE Weekly editor for a couple weeks, he tossed me a small news assignment to see if I could hack it as a reporter. I then freelanced for him for a couple months before enthusiastically joining the team as a news reporter.

After three years at C-VILLE (as news reporter and then lifestyles editor) I left full-time journalism and did the nonprofit thing for a little while. For three years, I worked in outdoor education and youth development, and continued writing as a freelancer for C-VILLE, Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine, some corporate blogs and as of last fall, Style Weekly. I missed being in a newsroom, though, so in January of this year I found my way back to the full-time alt-weekly world, and here I am at Style as the lifestyles editor. I’ve loved putting words on paper since childhood (I was the kid that read Harriet the Spy in third grade and subsequently carried a composition notebook around with me till the end of elementary school), and I’m delighted to get to do this for a living.

As for my non-professional life? I’m a runner, Girl Scout troop leader, mildly obsessive podcast listener and cat lady.

What do you think it was that made you miss being in a newsroom? More specifically, what is it that appeals to you about working in an alt-weekly newsroom, as compared, to say, a daily’s newsroom?

Well, in the name of full disclosure, I’ve never worked for a daily, so it’s hard to compare the two. I’ve got friends and colleagues who crush it at daily papers, and they tell me they couldn’t imagine doing news any other way. For me, though, I love the flexibility that a weekly allows. We don’t print every day so we have to be choosy when it comes to what we cover, and I appreciate that our format and deadline schedule allow me to use my reporting chops in different ways. I enjoy spending weeks reporting on and writing long-form features, digging into those backstories because we have the time and space to do so. At the same time, there’s a thrill in running across town when news breaks, texting quotes to my editor for social media, and rushing back to the office to post a story on the website as quickly as we can.

We all wear a lot of hats over here, and when I’m not writing news or features, I’m managing the Food+Drink content. I love that over the course of one week I can cover the soft opening of a new brewery, edit a freelancer’s restaurant review, write a quick online newser on the student walkout and interview the president of the NAACP’s Richmond chapter for an upcoming cover story.

How was your transition to Style been? What are some memorable stories for yourself that you’ve been able to do since starting there?

Honestly, and I’m not just saying this because I know my editor and publisher will read it, I couldn’t have asked for a better transition here at Style. The work itself is similar to what I did at C-VILLE, and still being (relatively) new to Richmond, I’m re-learning what I discovered years ago in Charlottesville: The best way to get to know a new city is to knock on doors, ask questions and write about it. When I showed up on day one, our photographer (Scott Elmquist) basically said “Hi! In an hour I’m photographing a guy that you might want to interview so we can get a story up online and also we should go cover a public housing protest this afternoon. Welcome!” He and our editor (Brent Baldwin) kept apologizing for my first day being so hectic, but I was happy to hit the ground running.

As for memorable stories thus far, I enjoyed covering the women’s march in Carytown and a VCU writing class for diverted offenders. I also got a kick out of gathering some of my food writers under the same roof for a blind Girl Scout cookie taste test and writing that up. 

Do you prefer writing over reporting, or vice versa?

As much as I enjoy coming up with the right questions to ask and conducting interviews, at the end of the day I’m a writer. Especially when I’m compiling a heavily-reported feature, there’s a point in the process when I look at my stack of notes and recordings and think, “How is this ever going to become a cohesive story?” For me, the challenge (and satisfaction) is in figuring out how all the pieces can fit together into something that people might want to read. It’s also worth noting that I hand-write everything first, which means a box of a dozen or so spiral notebooks filled with original drafts of nearly everything I’ve written lives under my bed. For some reason I just think more clearly with a pen in my hand, plus transferring my words from paper to screen is a built-in editing step for me.

“It’s also worth noting that I hand-write everything first, which means a box of a dozen or so spiral notebooks filled with original drafts of nearly everything I’ve written lives under my bed. For some reason I just think more clearly with a pen in my hand, plus transferring my words from paper to screen is a built-in editing step for me.”

As someone that has worked at two major alt-weeklies in Virginia, what’s your take on the future of them? Do you think they occupy a unique demographic and are immune to the symptoms that plague other print news like dailies and monthly magazine?

People ask me this fairly often, and I’m never sure how to respond. Am I actively looking for a job outside of journalism? Absolutely not. Am I optimistic that I’ll still be in this field 10 years from now? Absolutely. We all know that papers across the country are cutting back on staff, and I would certainly never assume that alt-weeklies are immune to the current realities of print journalism. The challenges facing newspapers and the people who write them aren’t new, and they aren’t likely going away — so for now I’m just incredibly grateful to have the position that I do.

On a lighter note, this McSweeney’s post on alt-weeklies makes me laugh-cry every time.

What is one story in Richmond right now that you believe will continue to be a major issue for the city?

Public housing. I started at Style during that vicious January cold snap, when dozens of public housing residents were living without heat. The Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority director resigned shortly after the heat issues surfaced, and advocates say that the relationship between the RRHA and its residents has been tense and complicated for years. The organization is in the process of hiring a permanent director, and we’ll continue to follow along.

Favorite authors, or journalists: Dorothy Parker, Bill Bryson, Laurie Notaro, Dahlia Lithwick, Andy Borowitz

One writer from the past (living or dead) you would like to share a meal with: Dorothy Parker. It would probably be a deeply depressing encounter, given her tragic life and the context of nearly everything she wrote. But if she was as witty, thought-provoking, and hilarious in person as she was on paper, I would have loved the opportunity to buy her a drink. Or two. The woman loved her whiskey sours.

One piece of writing advice you always go by: In my early days at C-VILLE, the editor would remind me to ask myself a question during the writing process: “So what?” There were times when I’d turn in a draft and he’d read it, hand it back to me with no notes, and just say “So what?” It drove me absolutely nuts, but it also forced me to consider why I was writing the story and how to make it useful to a reader. To this day, whether I’m working on a 3,000-word cover story or a quick blurb about a restaurant opening, I try to keep that question in the back of my head. I also pass it along to my freelancers now, and I’m hoping they find it as helpful (and maybe as annoying) as I did.