ACP Story of the Year Spotlight Series: Wyatt Stayner & Elora Overbey, Flux Magazine, University of Oregon

By Lauren Carroll, Kristin DeCarlo & Matthew HaubensteinCMM correspondents

Earlier this year, University of Oregon senior journalism major Wyatt Stayner put together a detailed feature for Flux magazine that, in his words, “follows a family on their journey from homelessness to a new house.”

Through the spotlight on a single family’s challenges and triumphs while struggling with poverty — also shown in stark relief through photos captured by UO senior Elora Overbey — Stayner confirms a simple fact: “being poor in America is a complicated equation.”

As he writes in the story about Wayne Johnson, Johnson’s partner and his partner’s son, “Families like Johnson’s are caught in a catch-22. Once someone is no longer under the poverty line, they’re at risk of losing benefits like food stamps and welfare payments, even when they still may need the assistance. ‘It’s like, boom!’ Johnson says, slapping his hand hard against a table. ‘You took a step up. We’re going to cut this off from you.’ Well, wait. I needed that. I’m not rich yet.”

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The piece — headlined “The Long Way Home” — has been named the first-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, Stayner and Overbey discuss the challenges of reporting on individuals in a vulnerable state and the lasting relationships they formed with their featured family. They also offer advice to student journalists interested in uncovering and fleshing out similarly significant stories.

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Wyatt Stayner, 23, a native of Birmingham, Ala., is a senior journalism major at the University of Oregon.

What were some of the ethical and practical reporting challenges you faced while working on the story?

Stayner: The main challenge was finding the family. That took a while. I think it took us eight weeks to find the family that is in the story. Ethically, it’s a little bit of a tough thing because you are writing about them and their homelessness and that is a very vulnerable situation, so you just have to tread carefully. You just want to be respectful of the situation. …

There are not a lot of people who want to talk to you about their struggle with poverty. I pitched the story in early January and I did a bunch of secondary source interviews with organizations dealing with poverty, homelessness and things like that. I would generally ask at the end if there was someone they could put me in contact with or if they knew anyone I could talk to. A lot of them said, “Well, we just deal with legislation. We do not really deal with the people who are in poverty that much.”

We then had to go to local shelters and ask around. We secured a family, I want to say, five weeks into our reporting and sat down with them and talked a little bit. They felt comfortable being interviewed, but they did not really want to be observed. I knew I wanted to follow the family around. I didn’t want to just interview them. So, we had to find the right family. Eventually we found the shelter [the family featured in the final story] were at. I interviewed them and asked if they would be comfortable with us coming to their shelter where they stayed, and they were. I knew they were the right one.

How did the observations work?

Stayner: The first interview was an hour and a half. After that, I called them and asked if I could come by their night shelter one night to see what it was like and talk to them. They said that would be fine. I called them the next week and was planning on going the following day and they said, “No, this is our last night in the shelter.” I knew I needed to be there for that. I got Elora, the photographer, and we went in and just were there with them for that night. Then they moved into housing the next day. We were there for that too. We were in the shelter for four hours that night and then the next day we were probably there with them for five hours or something like that. I kind of stuck around a little bit when they went to get furniture later in the week, and then stayed in contact … but basically those two days are the story.

Do any standout memories come to mind related to your reporting or time with the family?

Stayner: There were some interesting moments between Wayne and Mykeal. I think Mykeal got in trouble one night in the shelter for horsing around. I remember Wayne took him upstairs to their room — they had a really small room they had to sleep in and shared it with another family — and he took him in there to give him a father-son talk. I remember being slightly uncomfortable following Wayne in there for that. I thought it was a private thing, but he left the door open so I took that as a sign that it was OK. I went in and observed. I think Elora might have come in toward the end and taken a couple of photos. That scene did not make the story, but that was interesting.

How do you pick what makes it into a final story draft and what gets left out? For example, the father-son talk you just mentioned sounds very memorable. Why didn’t it make the cut?

Stayner: Yeah, that was in the first draft. But the first draft was extremely long, 6,400 words I think, and Lisa, the Flux adviser labeled it a “garbage draft.” [Laughs] It was just kind of putting everything out there. She talked to us more about it and I think I cut 4,000 words and ended somewhere in the 2,900 range. We just tried to focus on what is important because, as I said, the narrative is showing all the scenes that are serving memories from the shelter to housing. Any information or exposition is going to be the statistics on poverty and things like that. That was a neat father-son moment, but it didn’t completely serve the poverty angle, even though I could have spun it and said they are having this moment every father and son has, and they are having to do it in a shelter. But it would have probably taken us over the word count a little bit — so we decided to go a different direction.

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What compelled you to tackle the story’s visual component?

Overbey: This is a story that just really benefitted from having a visual component, being able to see and connect to Mykeal and the family. For me, it was so much about who they are and that personal human connection you need to majorly understand … the emotional process of going through all those transitions.

How did you decide on the use of black and white for the photos in the print edition of the magazine?

Overbey: The choice for putting them in black and white was that it fit with the general concept of the story. It is a more serious issue. Aesthetically, sometimes doing stories in color can be a show and tell and this is more of a reflective piece that black and white seemed to fit. We ran, I did all of the photos, a full spread in color and a full spread in black and white and worked with the editorial team on it and we decided that black and white was the more pleasing for the set of photos.

“I would say in any situation, to be a good journalist, you need to be curious and empathetic. If you are those two things and you are sincere in where you are coming from, you will have a good shot of getting anyone to open up.”  – Wyatt Stayner

What was it like learning about each individual? Did it enable you to understand more about poverty or the situation they were in?

Stayner: Yes. I think another important part of the story is explaining how they are where they are. And that was tough because I had to ask Wayne about how he had gotten arrested. Those are difficult questions. However, it is important to get their personal aspects and who they are for the story because people want to read and get attached to the characters in a story. If not, they are not really going to care or grasp as much of the message.

What satisfied you the most about the final published piece?

Stayner: That it was well received by them [the featured family]. … I don’t know if I would always care if a story was well received by a source because sometimes you have to write really difficult stories about controversial things. In this situation, I think it was important because, like I said, they are not out of poverty. In a way, they gave us a lot and I hope they can get a lot out of it [the story] as well. It all depended on how it was received by them. And since they did like it a lot, I am hopeful they got something out of the process.

Have you kept in touch with the family since writing the story?

Stayner: I kept in touch just because it is important with a story like this especially because what we did was like invading their life for a couple weeks. We made them talk about vulnerable things and discuss difficult stuff. We were there in private moments and I think the wrong thing to do would be to just leave.

It is difficult to think about, but the story does not take them out of poverty or take anyone out of poverty. Hopefully, it will enlighten some people, and hopefully for them it was cool because they got a very huge moment of their life recorded. I think they read the story before bedtime for a few weeks [laughs] because they love the story. That is really cool, but like I said, it didn’t solve the situation — so I think the least we can do is stay in touch and keep the relationship strong.

How have they been doing?

Stayner: It was Mykeal’s birthday [the day before this interview earlier this month] and Elora went and took some pictures of that and it looks like he has a pretty good group of friends. Wayne has a job, which is nice. They’re still in that homey apartment and Elora says they have gotten to fix it up and make more of a home. It doesn’t happen overnight, but they are in a better position I think.

Do you see a possible follow-up story in the future?

Overbey: I have been thinking about that a lot lately. I was talking to Tara about … [a night earlier this month] being a new chapter for them in a way by being able to celebrate Mykeal’s birthday in the new house for the first time. I would like to be around for those new chapters and kind of continue the story — because the journey does not stop once you move into the new place. It is a whole other set of things to accomplish after that. I plan on staying in contact with them, but there are no immediate plans to publish something. Seeing where it goes.

What did you learn about yourself by reporting on this story?

Stayner: America is such a powerful, rich country, but it has so many patches of neglect. That is pessimistic, but [the story] reinforces that view. I also learned their story is pretty amazing, if you think about it. They have been together for five years now, I think, maybe a little bit more, and I can’t imagine keeping your family together through homelessness. That is pretty difficult. I think there is a scene when Wayne is smoking a cigarette with his friend Josh and it illustrates the transient nature of their lives. They are moving from shelter to shelter. It is very difficult. They have this young kid who is a cool kid, but he is young so he’s going to have his fits and things and they have to stick together in that weird and difficult environment. They have done it now for five years and that is a testament to them.

What is your advice for student journalists interested in tackling a similar story?

Stayner: I would say in any situation, to be a good journalist, you need to be curious and empathetic. If you are those two things and you are sincere in where you are coming from, you will have a good shot of getting anyone to open up.

Overbey: Homelessness is an incredibly important issue to have a dialogue about, especially in Oregon where there are 23 percent of children living in poverty. Why is that happening? I see these stories as a way of starting a dialogue about that. As far as how to approach the subject of homelessness and have it not be a sensitive issue, when you meet people just explain to them why you want to tell their story and what the greater impact of that is. Once you are genuine and empathetic with someone, I think that opens up a lot of doors.

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