Reporter Kia Gregory didn’t know that a story on animal sacrifice would lead her to a whimsical Santeria Shop. She didn’t know that, in a story about military heroes, the real hero would turn out to be a friendly bartender. She shared these experiences with a Penn Introduction to Journalism class, helping the students understand that you never know where you may find the real story.
For Gregory, who worked for Philadelphia Weekly for five years and now works at the Philadelphia Inquirer, the investigative process didn’t come easy. She told the students that for a while, she feared approaching people. “I was scared shitless,” she remembers.
But she wouldn’t let these fears stand in the way of her passion for reporting. She shared stories and techniques on using this passion to give her stories lives of their own:
1. Keep an open mind
Gregory allowed her stories to morph into something different than she expected. She entered a Port Richmond bar hoping to profile the lives of the military heroes whose signed pictures adorned the wall. But when she discovered that these men only pop in once in a while, she quickly realized that it was the bartender’s pride for these pictures that mattered most.
Then there was the Santeria Shop, a shop that Gregory stumbled upon when investigating a story on animal sacrifice. The shop’s unique remedies and extravagant decor captivated Gregory so much that it ended up with a story of its own.
2. Establish rapport
People don’t simply open up. Gregory stressed this point over and over. For each story, she attempted to create relationships with the people she was writing about. Whether it meant returning to see them multiple times or communicating her immense enthusiasm, Gregory was sure to be sincere in her interest. She didn’t just leave her business card with the on-duty bartender in Port Richmond that day. She stayed. She chatted with him. She invited him to show off the bar’s regalia. She became memorable, and the employee told his boss to call her right away.
3. Be patient
Gregory knew the rewards of patience long before her successful reporting career. She worked as an accountant for eight years before realizing that journalism was her true passion. She attended night school and took on internships at an age when most people were already mid-career. But Gregory knew what she wanted, and she continued to work until she got there. She uses this ethic to write her stories.
For three hours, Gregory sat crammed in a corner of the Santeria shop, observing its owner, talking to customers, and absorbing as much atmospheric detail as possible. “You can talk to someone for a half hour and they say nothing,” she admits, “and then in the last ten minutes they open up.” Waiting is part of the job.
And you never know where waiting will take you. For Gregory, the three hours observing in the Santeria shop earned her a field trip to one of the owner’s religious rituals.
Standing in a stranger’s basement and surrounded by a ring of fire, Kia Gregory never thought that her open mind, magnetic personality, and patience would lead her so far from accounting and so deep into the business of living.