The Salem Reporter staff in the office. From left: Rachel Alexander, Jake Thomas, Saphara Harrell and Troy Brynelson. (Claire Withycombe/Oregon Capital Bureau)

It’s been too long since the Salem Reporter crew took a break from the newsroom to talk with our readers and the community. On Friday, we held a meet-and-greet at Ike Box to answer questions, listen to story ideas and share a bit about ourselves with about 30 people who crowded into the top floor of the former funeral home.

We’re so grateful people took the time to come out, and that they stuck with us as we did our best to float between people and make sure everyone got a chance to speak to our crew.

Events like this are essential to how we approach journalism. We are part of the Salem community, and we want to be known that way, not just as faceless bylines. We do our best work when we’re out of the office, hearing about the issues and ideas that matter to readers.

Allow us to share what each of us took away from Friday’s somewhat chaotic gathering.

Jake Thomas, state government reporter:

I worry that too often the public has an incomplete or flawed understanding of what reporters do. Some seem to think that each news outlet is an All-Seeing Eye. Events like the one on Friday show the people of Salem that reporters frequently learn about what’s going on in their communities by talking with people. I was a little surprised to see every seat taken at the coffee event for readers Friday but was glad so many people cared enough to show up. 

That’s why I enjoy events where we can pull back the curtain and show readers that we’re just people who go to work each day and do our best to piece together the most complete version of the truth with our limited time, resources and knowledge. 

At the event, I connected with a legislative candidate who highlighted the importance of tracking what happens to the $2 billion the Legislature committed to schools with the landmark Student Success Act. I also spoke with a current legislator about how some more over-looked legislative committees are examining critical functions of state government. 

Rachel Alexander, education and nonprofits reporter:

Salem Reporter held a few coffee dates in our early months as we were getting to know Salem, but we’ve been so busy reporting over the past six or so months that they’d fallen by the wayside. When I walked into Ike Box Friday and found people already waiting to talk to us, I knew I’d made a mistake booking a smaller room.

I was touched (and a bit entertained) by one reader who asked if the reporting crew was full-time, and was excited to learn that not only are we all paid staff, but we also have health insurance! I was also excited to learn some community members were planning to take my colleague, Jake, out to harvest persimmons for a story. (Look for that one closer to Christmas.)

Several conversations renewed my interest in stories that have been on the backburner for a while, including looking into donor fatigue and the sheer number of nonprofit organizations trying to complete capital projects in Salem right now. One reader shared his thoughts on how best to keep an eye on Salem-Keizer construction projects.

A number of people came from outside Salem, including Independence, other parts of Polk County, and Silverton. It’s heartening to see regional interest in the work we do, and to hear comments that people want the sort of news coverage we’ve brought to Salem expanded to their communities. I wish we had three more reporters to chase down everything newsworthy happening in the region, but until we do, we welcome tips and ideas for coverage in the greater mid-Willamette area, especially if there’s regional impact or a tie to Salem life.

Troy Byrnelson, local government and business reporter:

Friday’s coffee was the third time Salem Reporter has hosted a meet-and-greet with reporters, but it was far and away the best.

It was great to see a few dozen people ready to talk with us by 4 p.m., right when myself and one of the other reporters stepped in. The evening started with a roundtable discussion that I think went really well, thanks to some moderating by Rachel Alexander.

I’d like to say thank you to the handful of people who approached me later to provide their insights, ideas and criticisms. All are welcome at Salem Reporter. Most everyone had an idea, and many offered words of advice and encouragement to keep digging.

We’re barely a year old, but it’s good to see folks are feeling like we’re getting a foothold. Thank you to everyone who took the time.

Saphara Harrell, breaking news and events reporter:

Friday was my first meet and greet event, so I didn’t know what to expect. When I walked into a crowded room on the top floor of IKE Box, I was surprised. There was barely enough space to find a seat.

It was nice to be able to hear what was on readers’ minds, because it helps me focus my reporting. I want to know what’s important to people in the community. I had multiple people talk to me about traffic safety. The recent pedestrian death on Front Street was on people’s minds and it got me thinking. What are the most dangerous intersections in Salem and why? I’m hoping to find out.

I also got lots of ideas for ways to expand the arts and entertainment coverage. I’m looking forward to adding more musical events in the future.

Too often, conversations take place online and miss that face-to-face connection you get when you’re simply having a conversation with someone. I enjoyed saying hello to the people who attended the event and hearing what they had to say. Some came ready with topics, while others were content to chat. Not only did I leave with story ideas, but also band recommendations. I left feeling excited for the future of the Salem Reporter and I hope readers did too.

Do you have a suggestion on where our next gathering should be? Are you interested in hosting the conversation at your location? Send a note to [email protected]