Annie Burris describes herself as “nosy” — a perfect trait for any journalist.
“I want to know what’s going on before anyone else,” she says.
Burris is finally in the position where she can make a living being nosy and knowing what’s going on — but for this 22-year-old Biola alumna, it didn’t come easily.
Journalism first interested Burris in high school, when she read a series of books about a news correspondent in World War II. The adventures he had, the pressures he faced and the successes he found struck a chord with Burris. When it came time to choose a college, she enrolled at Biola — where both her parents, two of her grandparents and her older brother had also gone to school — and started in on journalism classes. She also became an editor for the school’s weekly newspaper, The Chimes.
“Student media gives you the best real-life experience that's available in an academic setting,” Burris said. “Stuff that I learned at The Chimes, like layout, design and organization of multiple people and articles, I'm still using today.”
Burris also took part in the Summer Institute of Journalism, a program in Washington, D.C. in which she gained the benefit of critiques from New York Times writers.
“The D.C. program threw me out of my comfort nest and made me begin to flap my wings,” says Burris. She cites the program as the most challenging part of her academic career, and vividly recalls being forced to abandon any timidity and do whatever it took to get the story.
“Before I went to Washington, I was very hestitant to cold-call newspapers and ask if I could freelance. But the program gave me the courage and background to start freelancing,” she said.
By Burris’ sophomore year, she applied to the Orange County Register to work as an intern, but was rejected.
“I told myself, ‘They don’t know what they’re missing!’” she says.
But if the Register wouldn’t let her work, she reasoned, another paper would. She began to freelance for small community papers, many of which were owned by the Register.
Two years later, Burris applied again, and this time, she got the position.
As an intern for the Register, Burris covered the city of Orange, especially the Orange Unified School District. Burris worked hard to make herself indispensible to the Register. She would do all the things the staff reporters didn’t want to do, such as going to school board meetings. After several months, a reporter position opened up in the Huntington Beach area. Burris applied and was accepted.
Working at the Register has already been a success story for Burris. Last spring, she teamed up with Pulitzer-prize nominee Keith Sharon to write a four-part narrative that landed her name on the front cover of the Register.
“Narrative journalism isn’t the most popular thing in any newsroom. And the Register never does series, ever. So to do a four-part narrative was almost unheard-of,” she says.
Putting the story together was no small feat; Burris remembers interviewing her main source a total of six times, with around two hours spent in each interview.
But getting the information was only part of the challenge.
“Writing features is much harder for me than hard news,” admits Burris. “And Keith set the bar so high up for the writing standard of the story. He pushed me. He never let up. He'd say, ‘Be more fun.’
“Keith is known around newsroom for being a brilliant narrative writer, and he made me catch the vision of narrative journalism. He would not let me write it how journalists would write it — which was really good. I feel like I grew in leaps and bounds.”
After successfully wrestling with feature writing, Burris wants to tackle still more areas of journalism.
“I admire law enforcement reporters,” she said. “They are what you think of when you think of reporters. They are the guys on the phone asking where the dead body is, finding out what started the fire.”
It’s another challenge for her to confront, but Burris is well acquainted with the effort it takes to get to that next level. Far from letting the challenges daunt her, she’s made a practice to meet them head on — and she’ll go on the record to say that they’ve all been worth it.