I was a high school senior when Trayvon Martin was shot and killed.
The site of his death was less than 30 minutes away from my home in a smaller Florida town.
I don’t remember much from the day he died. According to my Facebook posts from that night I was sitting at home, watching the Oscars.
I do remember the next days though. We sat in AP English whispering about it in our corner of the classroom. The class was predominantly white, upper middle-class teenagers who at the time were deciding which colleges to attend. There were vaguely racist comments. There were other students shutting them down.
I remember sitting there silently. Even then I knew to just listen and observe. I remember one person turning to me.
“You think this whole thing will get blown up like Casey Anthony did?”
“I don’t know. This is different.”
When Caylee Anthony was kidnapped and murdered, Orlando became a nightmare. The death of a child turned into a soap opera. While many people recall watching the OJ Simpson trial, I remember watching Central Florida implode during Casey Anthony’s. A little girl’s death turned into a soap opera, and my hometown followed every second of it.
Facebook was a mess. Supermarket aisles were places to chat about the death of a toddler. It was impossible to escape.
The coverage of Trayvon Martin’s death was far more nuanced. Orlando learned so much from their mistakes during their last major media scandal. For the world, Trayvon Martin’s death was the start of a movement.
It was also about my home. It was confirmation that I lived in an area that had casual racism. It taught me to look past emotion, and focus on facts. It taught me ethics. It taught me humanity.
It made me want to dive into communities, and tell their stories.
I’m the only person in my high school graduating class of 480 who became a journalist. I’ve told plenty of stories about how the death of a 17 year old boy changed millions of lives around the country and sparked a new kind of civil rights movement.
Trayvon Martin didn’t make it to adulthood. Thousands of kids throughout the country won’t for the same reason.
I covered the death of Robert Dentmond, a teenage boy in Gainesville who died after threatening to shoot neighbors with an assault rifle. Multiple law enforcement officers shot him. Turns out, the gun was a replica covered in tape. We later found out that Robert Dentmond was suicidal.
I held a teenager’s hand that week as I asked questions about her friend during a town hall meeting. She cried, and I squeezed tighter.
James Means, a teenager in Charleston, was allegedly shot and killed by a 62-year-old white man. He was unarmed. The man admitted to shooting him. “The way I look at it, that’s another piece of trash off the street,” he told police officers.
I didn’t cover the immediate details of his death (I typically cover a suburban county just west of Charleston.) Weeks later, I covered a memorial service for him that doubled as an informational session for programs for inner city children. James Means’s friends and cousin sat with me that night. An 11-year-old began to sob on my shoulder while telling me about her friend.
I told them that night about a boy who died a few towns over when I was 17.
They knew his name. They knew his story.They knew Trayvon Martin.
Five years ago, Trayvon Martin was another kid who died a few towns over. Now, he’s a symbol for so much more.
Want to read some great coverage looking back at the trial? Here’s the Orlando Sentinel’s piece today.
Also from the Sentinel, In The Shadow Of Race, a series about racial and cultural division in Central Florida.
I don’t talk about this often to anyone, but driving is my therapy.
Some people meditate. Some vent. Some cry. I turn on my car, and drive to a destination for no reason.
It started when I was 18. I had my first job that paid well enough for me to survive. After my classes in Daytona, I’d drive to various beaches. It didn’t matter what I was wearing. I remember one night walking on the beach in a semi-formal dress after a gala, heels in hand.
In college I’d visit small towns surrounding Gainesville, until my poor Forrest Gump (my first car, now owned by my brother) started failing on me. After that I’d jump on the bus and people watch.
I rarely have a passenger. If I do, it’s an honor.
The soundtracks vary - Monday’s was Paul Simon’s Graceland. A few weeks ago it was just a playlist of four Michelle Branch songs on repeat (so not proud of this fact, by the way). On the worst days, it’s silence.
Sometimes late at night I plan the routes. At other times it’s completely unplanned.
That’s how I ended up on the top of a mountain at 10:30 at night after my first day at Gazette-Mail. There were no streetlights and no homes. Even worse, there was no cell service. I drove around that mountain for about 30 minutes straight on the verge of tears. When I finally got cell service, I called a friend.
“I’m stuck on the side of a mountain right now and Google Maps is confused and why did I move to West Virginia and I hate mountains,” I muttered, then began nearly weeping.
“So your first day went well?” he said.
It was pretty condescending. I deserved it. You know why? Because driving throughout Appalachia isn’t necessarily rational. It’s not cost-effective either.
But there’s something about being behind the wheel in an unfamiliar place, and discovering new landmarks. Without these trips I would have never discovered some of my favorite restaurants or spots to hike. I’ve seen a lot of sunsets I never thought I’d get the chance to see.
I don’t know where I’ll be in a few years. I could stay here, but I could be across the country. To be honest, I could even be in an area where cars are useless.
I’ll always remember the feeling of finding the perfect milkshake in a small town, or getting my boot stuck while hiking through a trail I accidentally ended up dead-ending into.
Tomorrow I think I’m going to take my first trip to Ohio.
When this photo was taken, I had just gotten off a plane from Atlanta to Phoenix. I had spent 10 days prior in Alabama, having the greatest reporting trip of my life. While my teammates (understandably) took naps, I changed out of my airport sweats and slipped on a dress.
I had never felt so inspired in my life. As I ran to the newsroom in the 110 degree heat I couldn’t stop thinking of the days prior - sipping sweet tea in Selma, staring down the halls of the state capitol, and sitting quietly in Tuskegee’s city hall.
I still remember everything about that day - eating leftover donuts, gushing to friends about the trip, our newsroom debating over who would be named “newsroom president” (I never said News21 was filled with normal, boring young journalists), and going to a friend’s 21st birthday party that night in my pajamas.
I can tell you what was written on that board - notes from the overview team, phone numbers for Cronkite News, a bell curve, our newsroom “person of the day,” and a quote from The Bee Movie (see last parenthetical note).
However I don’t remember who captured this moment, so forgive me for the lack of photo credit.
At this moment, I felt like I was on top of the world. The next day I sat on the light rail with friends on the way to Tempe, and I felt like I was actually shining for the first time in about a year.
After that things got a little messier. Life got a little tougher. To sum it up, life got complicated.
I wish I could go back and tell myself a few things -
If you’re reading this you might be going through the same thing. You might have just come back from the opportunity of a lifetime, and feel like you’ve been changed forever. Maybe it’s an internship, a study abroad trip, even a volunteer mission. We used to call it a “camp high” when I was a kid.
You might not ever be the same. When you talk to your college friends about it, they might not get it. Your family might shrug it off.
There are different ways you can commemorate the trip. I have friends who got tattoos in foreign countries, or piercings with their friends from internships. I brought back a pile of notes, maps of Phoenix and Alabama, and a “tan.”
Either way, keep that glow. Keep that shine.
You won’t realize how much you’ll miss it until it’s gone.
If you told me a year ago that I’d be working for a newspaper in West Virginia, I probably would have cackled. Last year I was on the track to work in broadcast journalism as a producer or a radio reporter. I already had casual job offers at a few TV stations throughout Florida.
When I graduated college I had no idea what I was going to do. The answer I gave people changed often - public radio producing, digital reporting and producing for TV stations, MMJ-ing for newspapers, or even just pursuing a career in social media. I said I’d decide after News21. By then I’d know what I wanted to do, right?
Wrong. After 10 weeks in Phoenix, I was more confused about my future than ever. More opportunities were in front of me than ever. I applied for almost 200 jobs, and waited. I interviewed with some of them. After years of people telling me I was talented, people were telling me that I just wasn’t ready. In their defense, I wasn’t ready for a lot of the jobs I interviewed for. Don’t ask me why they even called me. The word potential was thrown around a lot. So was the phrase “call us in a year or two.”
By the end of September, I was slowly losing my mind. I was a finalist for a lot of killer positions, but then I’d lose out on them to more experienced reporters or Ivy League grads.
I won’t go to in depth into my interviewing process with the Gazette-Mail, but for the first time I felt almost confident. I was passionate about the stories they were doing, and interested in the changing nature of West Virginia. A good friend had also recently accepted a job there, so that was another plus.
But there were also negatives. Would I be able to handle life in West Virginia? How would I adjust to going back into the newspaper industry after being gone for almost 3 years? Would the staff take a 22-year-old Floridian with a broadcast journalism degree seriously?
When I was offered the job, I quickly accepted and hoped for the best. I bought a new car, started looking for apartments and sweaters, and did a lot of panicking
The transition has gone far better than expected. Yes, I check my AP Stylebook more than I should (it’s been a while, y’all.) I’m still writing notes during interviews slower than I expected. I’m adjusting to this whole “inches” thing, too.
A couple of my stories gained a lot of traction this week, as a lot of you may know. I’m not addressing it much further - if you want to read them, I have the first linked here. The interview requests poured in, as did congratulations from the same recruiters who rejected me from jobs a few weeks prior. Calls and emails came in from all over the world. It was my 7th day at the paper, and I was just as shocked as you might expect.
For the first time in a while, I can say that I really believe good things are ahead. West Virginia as a whole has been so kind, loving, and accepting. I’ve hugged way more people than I ever expected, and most of you know I’m not a big hugger. I’m starting to get the hang of things.
Will I still freak out during my first snowy winter? Probably, and I accept the fact that all of my editors will tease me mercilessly during it. Will I still occasionally look dumbfounded when someone asks me if I know my way to an assignment? Yes, and I know Google Maps will be my friend for a while. Will I eventually know all the words to Take Me Home, Country Roads? I have the first verse and the chorus down at least.
How long will I stay here? Will I continue to work in print? When will I finally get to eat a chicken tender Pub Sub again? I can’t answer those questions yet. But I’ll let you know when I can.
My name is Ali Schmitz, and I’m a multi-skilled journalist available for hire. I’m passionate about breaking news, investigative reporting, and politics.
I’m a proud graduate of the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications, where I was awarded the Doris Bardon Award for Broadcast News. Go Gators!
I was last seen at Carnegie-Knight’s News21 investigating voter disenfranchisement and access issues, and being the newsroom’s resident #FloridaWoman. My stories mainly focused on Shelby County v. Holder, Voter ID laws, and African-American voting rights. Our website is launching August 20, and we’re so excited to share our work with you. Until then, you can see some our work here.
Before that, I was a producer, reporter, and anchor at WUFT News in Gainesville. I worked on all platforms in the newsroom: radio, web, and television. I started off by helping launch the newsroom’s social media strategy, and ended my time there managing radio producers and reporters, anchoring local segments of NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and reporting for all platforms. During my time at WUFT I was one of NPR’s youngest contributors, and lead statewide coverage for local NBC and CNN affiliates for breaking news stories based in North Central Florida.
If you want to know a little bit more about what I’ve done, my LinkedIn is here.
When I’m not in a newsroom (which is rare), I’m probably exploring new places, or at home reading and (let’s be honest) watching videos of dogs.