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Stott: Yellowed business card brings back memories

Published: Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

The other day I came across a business card I had been given years ago. The edges are worn and slightly darkened and a tiny Altgeld Hall logo in the corner indicates the card belonged to someone working for Northern Illinois University.

When I started as a reporter at NIU’s student newspaper, the Northern Star, I was proud to be asked to interview people who had their own business cards. I was barely 18 when I started there; and although I had gotten great experience as a high school editor, being a freshman in college put me at the bottom of the totem pole for story assignments.

Whenever I was asked to write a story that involved more than students’ opinions on midterm exams or dorm food, I felt important and nervous.

This particular card was from one of those stories. Someone who knew something about money, the card indicated.

I kept those business cards indicating my newly forged contacts taped to the wooden part of an old brown clipboard. On top of the cards I would clip other materials for story development, such as notes or background information.

That is where I found this particular business card last week, still taped to the edge of a board I used as a college freshman to stay organized.

When the time came for 18-year-old me to attempt an interview, I would gather my questions, find a vacant newsroom workstation and prepare to make the call. 

I didn’t particularly like telephone interviews, and I have grown to really despise having to decipher a person’s attitude without the aid of body language or facial cues. I would much rather visit their office, associate a face with a name and utilize whatever charisma I may possess to develop a working relationship with someone.

But people who have their own business cards tend to be very busy, and a quick phone call was usually the only way to reach them.

So I made do with clumsily managed phone interviews, supplemented with information found on the Internet and in old stories to fill out most of my articles. I wasn’t a great reporter, but I was learning, often from those I interviewed.

I learned that respect for someone’s time and area of expertise can go a long way.

I learned how a reporter can turn an interview subject into a repeat source, a go-to information provider for the future.

Every time I did an interview, I was putting my trust in that person to give me the right information so readers weren’t misled.

Fact-checking is an important part of good journalism, but it only goes so far. We are taken the rest of the way by interviews with people who are considered credible sources. Every time I did an interview that semester I was putting my trust in someone I didn’t know very well and hoping they were doing their jobs as well as I was trying to do mine.

The business card I found last week, attached to my old clipboard with yellowed tape, belonged to Robert Albanese, NIU’s former associate vice president of finance and facilities. Albanese worked at NIU from the late 1980s until July and has been a source in hundreds of news stories published about NIU. He answered questions and provided information on a number of NIU issues. Albanese knew a lot about the university.

Albanese resigned July 31, and faces charges of theft and official misconduct in connection with the investigation of the NIU “coffee fund,” a bank account where NIU employees allegedly deposited proceeds from selling scrap metal owned by the university. Officials say the fund, used for office parties and other expenses, was active for years.

Albanese turned himself in to NIU police this month and was released after posting bond. Like anyone charged with a crime, he is presumed innocent. The coffee fund investigation is ongoing.

Seeing his business card reminded me of my first semester as a reporter, learning not only how to conduct interviews, but about the delicate balance between reporters and sources.

It reminded me that no matter how helpful a source may be, sometimes the real challenge is discovering what they aren’t saying.

Most importantly it reminded me how important it is that the search for truth always remain the driving force of the news media.  

• Lauren Stott is a Maple Park native and a graduate student at Northern Illinois University in the master of public administration program. She can be reached at lauren_stott@yahoo.com.

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