ACP Story of the Year Spotlight Series: Erin Edinger-Turoff, Chief Copy Editor, Temple News, Temple University

By Karen Funaro, Garrett Miley & Leigh Anne TiffanyCMM correspondents

This past March, Temple News staffer Erin Edinger-Turoff tackled the “stripper persona,” profiling female Temple University students working as strippers in the Philadelphia area atop their classwork and other extracurriculars.

Her aim with the story was to explore “the emotional and financial impact of the controversial job,” breaking down the benefits, stigmas, stresses and surprises student performers face on a nightly basis — both at work and on campus.

As Edinger-Turoff, 20, a junior journalism major, writes, “Multiple students said working as a stripper is beneficial to their lifestyle due to the flexibility of the hours and the income. Despite sometimes working until 5 a.m., students agree the main challenge of stripping isn’t balancing the work with course loads, but confronting the negative connotations tied to the controversial occupation.”

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The piece — headlined “Stripping Down Stereotypes” — has been named the fourth-place winner of the 2014 ACP Feature Story of the Year award. The ACP awards, informally known as the student press Pulitzers, are among the most prestigious honors bestowed upon college journalists and their media outlets. Like an Oscar nomination, simply attaining finalist status is a mark of distinction student journos can humble-brag about on resumés and in job interviews for their entire post-grad careers.

While not affiliated in any way with the ACP awards, this CMM special series aims to tell the stories behind some of the year’s most impacting college media work — in the words of the students who created them.

In that spirit, in the exclusive Q&A below, Edinger-Turoff, currently serving as chief copy editor for The Temple News, talks about the surprises and challenges she came across in the midst of her reporting. She also offers advice to student journalists interested in uncovering and fleshing out similarly significant stories.

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Erin Edinger-Turoff, a native of Madison, Wisc., is chief copy editor at The Temple News at Temple University in Philadelphia.

What compelled you to study journalism?

I always loved writing. It was always something that was really important for me and to who I am as a person. I wrote a lot of creative pieces when I was younger, like short stories, and I was always deeply involved in writing. In high school, I started thinking about how I could potentially create a career for myself from my love of writing. … Journalism began to feel like the natural next step because it would keep me involved with other people — being able to share in people’s ideas, successes and struggles. And being able to have not only a writing-intensive [career], but also a very socially aware one — very involved in the community, wherever that is.

What drew you to Temple University to pursue your journalism passion?

It’s funny you asked that because I actually grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, which obviously is pretty far away [from Philadelphia]. I just was always very determined to move to the East Coast and live in a big, metropolitan city. I thought that was the perfect environment for a budding writer of any kind. So Philadelphia became really attractive to me. I applied to a couple schools in the city and then found out Temple had a really world-renowned journalism program. It’s very well-acclaimed and has had a lot of success stories [for] journalism students, so I was really attracted to that. Temple also offered me a partial academic scholarship, which made it more possible for me to become an out-of-state student.

Where did the idea for “Stripping Down Stereotypes” come from?

I always wondered about young women my age, also in college, who are working as strippers. I think there’s a very particular way that the media [portray them] and stereotypes that exist about young women who are strippers. It’s usually that they need to strip because they need the money — they need to somehow pay their bills or pay their tuition — and it’s almost a desperate choice they have to make, and they’re usually sad characters. So thinking about that stereotype, and then knowing that I go to … this urban university, there are plenty of opportunities for young women who might want to strip. There are many ways they could do it. I just started thinking about it and thinking about what an interesting story that might be.

How did you locate the individuals featured in the story?

As it’s noted in the article, Ashleigh chose to use her real name. It was actually pretty funny how I found her. I won’t name the guy in question, in case that’s out of his comfort level, but [there is] a professor, a really popular professor at Temple, and I confided in him that I was working on this story. I hadn’t told many people about [the article] because I knew it was sensitive material and I just wanted to be careful in the way that I approached it, but I trust this professor a lot. … He actually had had Ashleigh in a class, and I’m not sure how to be honest, but somehow he knew she worked as a stripper and he got me in contact with her. So that was pretty completely by chance. …

[Another person featured in the piece] was a dorm acquaintance who a friend who actually works at The Temple News helped me get in contact with. And then talking to her helped me get in touch with the other student, the third one. … It took one to get the other, in a way. It was very lucky these young women were willing to talk me. I feel very lucky they were interested and they wanted to share their story. It absolutely couldn’t have happened without them.

How did you choose the layout and photos displaying and accompanying the main story?

The photos are the work of my friend Abi Reimold. She graduated from Temple [last] spring as a photojournalism major, and she worked for The Temple News also — she was the photo editor. I love her work. I think she’s immensely talented. And she does a fantastic job at capturing people. And this was a really special case because we were protecting the identity of these young women who didn’t want their real names used, so taking pictures of them was going to be very tricky and require a lot of skill. So I picked Abi for that task, and she was up to the challenge. …

Last year, my designer was also a Temple student, Katie Kalupson. She was my designer for the lifestyle section and created sort of the artistic way it’s put together. But it was really a group effort. We worked together, and I knew I wanted a very gritty, real approach to how it looked. I wanted it to be really attention-grabbing, but I wanted it to be representative of what the subject matter was. I was really careful about doing that.

“If something is interesting to a writer, you should pull out all the stops. You don’t get to really thought-provoking and captivating stories by letting them come to you. If something stands out to you as a story that should be told, you have to pursue it. That’s how some of the best stories are written, and that’s certainly what I tried to do with this article.”

What led to your decision to not use some individuals’ real names in the piece?

I think it’s really the subject’s choice to decide whether they want to provide this very personal information in the first place. And [it was out of] respect to the fact that these are young women who are in college, getting a degree. They don’t consider themselves professional strippers. They consider themselves full-time students … [and] want to be professionals in their various fields. I think we can all agree society tends to be very critical of women who take advantage of their own sexuality and use their sexuality to make money. I spoke in a lot of detail with my editor-in-chief at the time about it. We agreed that if the subjects I interviewed were not comfortable using their real names, then we would respect that because, like I said, this is the type of thing that can follow you for the rest of your life. I would hate to negatively impact someone’s future because of that.

As part of your reporting and research, did you visit any of the clubs mentioned in the piece?

I did not, because I didn’t want to focus so much on the act of stripping itself as much as I wanted to focus on the mindsets these women had. I really wanted to showcase who these women were. I wanted to represent them as people, not as strippers. I wanted it to be very, very focused on their insights and how they perceive themselves, perceive other strippers and perceive societal misconceptions and reactions to what they do. So I really wanted to keep it very centered on those three subjects who ended up being included.

Did you interview any male strippers for the story?

It was actually a careful choice to only interview women. I think an article about male strippers is an entirely different story. I wanted this to be very focused on the female strippers. I didn’t even look for men, to be honest, and I have no idea how difficult that would be. I think that would be an absolutely fascinating story. I hope it gets done. I would even be interested in it myself. But I think this story offered so much focus and so much discussion of gender roles and expectations of women in society. So it was a careful choice to only interview women for this article.

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I was really surprised by some of the personal stories my subjects had. There was one story about a man who came in and just wanted a hug, and I thought that was really surprising. It’s not something most of us associate with going to a strip club. It’s, simply speaking, companionship. It’s really interesting to consider all of the social pressures and the societal aspects that factor in. I like that some of the stories I included force people to reconsider what they think they know about strip clubs and people who work as strippers and things like that. That’s definitely something that surprised me.

How long did it take to report and produce the piece?

It took probably four months from when I actually reached out to people, but it’s not like I was writing that entire time. I think once I got the three interviews and had done some following-up based on what I found in those three interviews, it took probably about a month of hard reporting and interviewing and writing to get to the final product. I’m also the type of person who will sit down to write and will write all day if I’m inspired, so there were some days like that with this piece when I just didn’t stop.

What were some of the ethical and practical reporting challenges you faced?

Absolutely the primary concern [was] how I was going to protect [the featured sources’] anonymity — and offer them anonymity while still creating a really reputable piece of journalism. I wanted the article to be respected, and I knew I would need to adhere to journalistic standards in order for that to be the case. So that was the number-one hurdle. I also think especially dealing with subject matter like this, you have to be a journalist primarily and focus on your reporting, but it is so absolutely essential to remember your humanity and remember to be sensitive to subjects’ feelings, to memories that are triggered. You never know what type of really sensitive material you’ll encounter working on a story like this, and it’s so, so important to consider the feelings of other people involved. I really wanted to make my subjects feel comfortable, feel like they can share things with me. I think it’s such an absolute privilege to be in a journalistic position where people will share intimate stories with you.

What is a standout memory from your reporting or writing?

[Note: The lede for the piece declares, “Anna is several inches shorter than the average woman — but what she lacks in height, she makes up for in 9-inch platform heels.”]

The day I wrote the majority of the story, I woke up early in the morning, although I was on Spring Break. I sort of [was] startled awake because an idea for a lede came to me — and it came to me because I am pretty tall. I’m a pretty tall woman, and in interviewing the first subject mentioned [in the article], it was obviously very clear to me how much smaller she was since I’m above-average height and she’s below average. It kind of stuck out in my mind, and that lede with the “9-inch platform heels” kind of sprung into my mind. And from there I just wrote all day. I didn’t stop to eat or shower or go outside. I was really kind of crazed in my writing frenzy. But it was fantastic, sitting down and finally piecing it all together. And by the end of that day — it literally took me all day — I felt like I had the beginnings of a first full draft.

What was your reaction upon learning you were an ACP Story of the Year finalist?

I was shocked and thrilled. I couldn’t believe it, honestly. To be up for that award is so, so flattering. Whether or not I win, I’m incredibly honored to even be considered. As an aspiring journalist, there’s no better feeling than having something you’ve written be successful, [and] having people tell you it’s interesting and valuable.

What advice would you offer student journalists looking to tackle a similar topic or simply aiming to produce a quality feature package?

I think you just need to go all in. You need to really pursue your passion. It’s going to mean some late nights and it might mean feeling like you’re doing more than is possible. But then there are moments when it all pays off. … One last thing I would add is that if something is interesting to a writer, you should pull out all the stops. You don’t get to really thought-provoking and captivating stories by letting them come to you. If something stands out to you as a story that should be told, you have to pursue it. That’s how some of the best stories are written, and that’s certainly what I tried to do with this article. I’m just beyond happy so many other people have found it captivating. It’s really an honor.

 

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