Q&A: Lisa Vernon Sparks, Daily Press

By |2019-05-16T19:04:47+00:00May 16th, 2019|

This week we had the pleasure of talking with Daily Press reporter Lisa Vernon Sparks. Vernon Sparks discusses the importance of telling good stories as a counter narrative to inherently negative ones, what elements she looks for when writing stories, the parallels between her former professional career as a ballerina and reporting and more. 

Please introduce yourself.

I have been a print journalist since 2001, previously working in New Jersey at the Star-Ledger newspaper and the Home News Tribune (Gannett) and at the Providence Journal in Rhode Island. I worked in television in New York as an associate producer for a while too.

I was born and bred in New York and I am an alumna from Columbia University in New York and Northeastern University in Boston. I’m also a single mom with a son in college.

Fast forward to today, I now work as a senior reporter for the Daily Press. I cover the city of Hampton and the Fort Monroe Authority.

While covering local government is great, I really enjoy writing about people, telling their stories and the quirkier the better. My favorite stories are news features and profiles, but I also like writing about history and business.

I really enjoy Hampton because there are great opportunities to tell stories about the African-American community, experience and existence, which adds balance to the usual narrative of more negative stories reported.

Little known fact about me: I used to be a professional ballerina and it was my passion from youth.

At one time, more than two decades ago and still working as a ballerina, I had a roommate who worked in PR and she hung out with journalists, both print and TV.

What fascinated me about them was that they always seemed to know what was happening — everything, from crime to politics to quirky things people did.  I was always, “How do you know about that?” to which they responded, “It’s our job!”

I’m really interested in what you said about balancing the narrative for reporting in Hampton. Do you see this as part of the job? Reporting the bad when you have to, but also reporting on the good when you find it?

I believe it’s crucial to our jobs as journalists to present a full picture of a community and to tell those stories that aren’t often shared.  It is to present a balance, not just the triumphs or the tragedies, but of every-day living in the African-American community to give a complete picture — stories that aren’t told by the news media because itdoesn’t believe they are sexy, or headline grabbing.  I had an editor once tell me — find something interesting and different.

There is always good in any community. It’s not hard to find, but it’s more a willingness to want to tell that story.  Frankly, there are a lot of stories about black crime and victimization.  Stories about those trying to live ordinary lives in extraordinary situations are compelling to write as well. But stories of achievement —  like an African-American woman and one of five with a Ph.D. in theoretical physics who started a STEM camp, or the first female senior pastor in a Baptist Church (rarity), or a fifth generation funeral home business —  all in the black community, those stories are important to tell.

“I love being the fly on the wall, watching all the drama unfold. I love the adrenaline rush I get when I’m crafting a good story.  I love the satisfaction of telling the story. The independence.  There’s nothing like working in a newspaper newsroom.”

What’s one story you’ve written for the Daily Press about about an ordinary life in an extraordinary situation?

I haven’t written one like that for the Daily Press, yet, but I am always searching for those stories that show how people are “affected” by circumstances beyond their control and how they live, and survive to tell those stories.  I think it’s important to witness these stories as they evolve — it’s a challenge, but rewarding to find those stories and be able to track them.

A similar concept is a story I did about an adult day care coming to a church in a middle- class neighborhood. 

Also, this one about a girl with cancer.

When you’re writing and reporting what moves you about a specific story or character in a story? What elements does it have to have for you to know that you’ve got something really unique and special?

An editor once told me to be like a shark and just devour whatever looks interesting on my beat, whatever crosses my path.  One of the best pieces of advice I ever received. As far as elements a story needs to be unique, sometimes it’s the details and conflict, sometimes it needs whimsy.  I like to look for irony or something or a person that shows change and growth.  Sometimes it’s stories that will help people. I think the best stories have multiple voices and sources.

What excites you about working in newspapers after spending almost two decades in them?

I love the opportunity to interact with people from all walks of life, all the time, which being a reporter has afforded me to do.  Working for a newspaper is the ultimate in a flexible work schedule. The freedom to move around (I hate to be confined) the access to information, even if I have to FOIA for it.  I love being the fly on the wall, watching all the drama unfold. I love the adrenaline rush I get when I’m crafting a good story.  I love the satisfaction of telling the story. The independence.  There’s nothing like working in a newspaper newsroom. It’s common, folksy, real, raw, blunt, oddball, funky, humorous, sophisticated, brilliant and genius, all at once.

Have you found any interesting parallels between being a newspaper reporter and a working ballerina? Are there any traits that you think you must have to do both well? 

Both require a passion and hunger for excellence and tons of discipline. Both require being a quick study, having strong attention to detail, mentally fearless and flexible. Both are non-verbal types of communications that can convey the strongest messages. Both require honesty, a willingness to learn, curiosity and little artistic flair.

What do you like to do outside of reporting?

I really enjoy working out. I like yoga classes and lately I’ve gotten into the “body sculpting” type classes where you lift dumbbells and weights. If there were a decent adult ballet class in this area, I would take class.  Some nights, just cooking a fun meal with friends/family is very relaxing and as nerdy as it sounds, I like museums and books stores (and I may even buy a few).