In the time she has been at St. Louis Public Radio, Rachel Lippmann has covered everything from state and local elections, to crime and homelessness, to fairs and festivals.
Her longtime colleague Maria Altman says, "Rachel likely has the fastest thumbs of any St. Louis reporter. When she covers a Board of Aldermen meeting, her stream of tweets is pretty amazing. She's told me it's how she takes notes."
However she gathers her information, Rachel is a busy and prolific reporter, but she took some time this month to tell us about how she approaches her work and what she is currently working on.
What does it mean to be a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio? How broad is your focus?
I joke that I cover the “nothing ever happens,” beats, which is completely not true. I cover city politics, courts, and public safety, and the ways that all of those intertwine.
There must dozens of stories you could tell each day, how do you choose/prioritize? I am thinking specifically of “crime” - we don’t tend to cover the immediate crimes that happen on a daily basis, but the overarching issues at the root of those crimes.
We don’t have the resources, nor the inclination, to “chase the scanner,” and that’s one of the reasons I like working in public radio.
Sometimes, we know what the “story of the day” is -- the police chief is giving a crime briefing, the Board of Aldermen is meeting, the mayor is signing a piece of legislation, there’s a really important court hearing in a big case. I try to keep my editor up-to-date on those things, and she’s the one that has the final say on whether we cover that particular event. It’s from covering those daily things, and listening to and talking to the people involved, that I get the ideas for the longer, more in-depth stories. And that’s where my editor comes back in, helping me really “see” the story before I go out and report, so I’m working “smart” if you will.
Once you have chosen a story, what is the process for developing it?
The turnaround time for stories varies. Those daily events? Your goal is to have something ASAP for newscasts, which start at 3:00 p.m. Sometimes that means you’ve got a few hours to write, sometimes that means you have to turn something in 15 minutes. I’ve taken to using the voice memo on my phone to dictate a story outline as I’m driving back, which makes writing take a lot less time.
Those longer stories, what we call “features,” can take anywhere from a day to a week to report. That’s where the editor is key -- she’s helping me make sure that I’m working on finding the right people. We get those sources from a variety of places. It can be people you already know, people that other reporters know, “friends of friends,” experts at universities, or from our Public Insight Network (PIN).
What does an average day look like for you? Is there an average day?
There isn’t really an average day, though I’m generally here by about 8:30, which gives me some time to get through email. I try to leave around 5:30, but that doesn’t always happen. Thankfully, my dad works close by and can walk the dog if I get stuck.
What’s the one thing you can’t work without?
The various guides to just about everything I have taped/pinned all over my cubicle.
Let's talk favorites!
- Favorite lunch spot in the office - Favorite by far is the patio. Most common is my desk.
- Favorite person/entity to follow on social media - The characters from the West Wing. Not the cast, but the actual characters.
- Favorite NPR reporter - Three-way tie between Tamara Keith, David Greene and Kelly McEvers. They are all amazing storytellers and really nice people to boot.
- Favorite radio program - Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me.
- Favorite STLPR story/feature/article (e.g. What’s YOUR Driveway Moment?) -
Veronique’s non-narrated piece of 9/11 first responders that she produced for the 10th anniversary.
Tell me about your path to St. Louis Public Radio. Why did you choose to work here?
St. Louis is my hometown, and as a result I grew up listening to some of the programs on this station. I knew pretty early on that I wanted to do journalism as a career, and it didn’t take me long to realize that television just wasn’t right for me for a number of reasons. Public radio combines the challenge of writing for broadcast with the ability to go in-depth that print allows.
I spent two years in Michigan before coming to work here. I wasn’t really looking for a new job when I applied -- I did so out of respect for the person who asked me to. I didn’t put two and two together until later that they wanted me to apply because that’s how they could offer me the job. And then I basically figured well, you don’t turn down the chance to get to a top-30 media market at 25. That was in 2008.
What's the hardest you’ve ever laughed at STLPR - I don’t remember the context, but it involved a giant breadstick.
Is there a story or two that you are particularly proud of or enjoyed reporting?
I’m still ridiculously proud of the work the entire newsroom did around Ferguson. It was without a doubt a defining story that proved the mettle of the newsroom, although I think I speak for many that we could do without EVER experiencing something like that again.
When you're not working on a story, what are you doing?
- How do you take your coffee - Two cream, two sweeteners.
- Book you’ve read most recently - Report From Engine Company 82, an autobiography of an NYFD firefighter in the 1960s. Came recommended by a St. Louis Public Radio listener.
- What (if any) musical instrument(s) do you play? - I can pick my way through a piece on the piano but haven’t played regularly in years.
- Last movie you watched: Sing!
What is your favorite thing about working for St. Louis Public Radio?
The people. Everyone is talented, and generous with that talent and expertise. And I genuinely consider many of them friends.
What are your biggest challenges?
I’m one person, and the beats I cover are huge. A lot of it is making sure that I don’t get so far down into the weeds on stuff that I miss the bigger picture.
If a student who is now in high school aspires to your position, how would you advise them to prepare in terms of important experiences/education?
Study what interests you. Be curious. Go outside of your bubble, in friendships and in the media you consume. Read a newspaper -- it can be online. LEARN TO WRITE WELL.
What’s next? What can members look forward to hearing from you in the coming months?
Well, we’ve got an election on April 4, and the way things work in the region, it’s our second Election Day in a month.
Most of my attention right now, though, is on this massive project looking at the legacy of Mayor Francis Slay. He’s not running again after 16 years in office, and everyone agreed that we needed to look at his legacy. I was the one who opened my mouth and suggested a limited-run podcast that uses six key days to probe a variety of different issues. Well, that meant I had volun-told myself into taking one of the leading roles on this podcast, though we’ve got a whole team working on it.
It’s called “Millennium Mayor -- An exploration of Francis Slay’s Legacy in St. Louis.” It’ll launch April 10, you can subscribe through iTunes. We basically used archive audio from the last 16 years, interspersed with interviews from elected officials and regular people to explore how the city has changed in the areas of race, education, crime, social issues and development. There will also be an amazing digital build-out of what we’re calling “liner notes,” where you can really dig into the data and the history.
It’s an absolutely massive project, and when I say we've got a whole team on it I mean half the newsroom is involved. Shula Neuman, Brit Hanson, and Stephanie Lecci are working on the editing side of things, and Stephanie and I are also writing episodes; Jo Mannies, Camille Phillips, Nancy Fowler, Jenny Simone and Maria Altman have contributed episodes; and Brent Jones, David Kovaluk and Kimberly Springer are all playing major roles as well. There’s a lot of nerves about it, but that’s something I really like about St. Louis Public Radio -- we’re given the space and the supports to do something like this.