Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Back at it

The last time I posted was sometime just before I went to France. There I studied for 26 days and wrote two 5-page papers on my remarkable experience. Since returning, life has settled into a comfortable groove.

But I've only touched WetSocks once since January. That's pretty indicative of the lifestyle I've adopted since junior year started, really. Often times I'm too busy to write. Other times, owing to the accumulation of small tasks, I'm too distracted. The last year I've done much more editing and critiquing than writing. But it's time to get back to writing more regularly. I often write these days just on word processor, even if I'm not posting stories or thoughts all the time. I'm writing. And I'm always reading.

For those who haven't heard, being sports editor at the Daily my junior year was a tremendous experience. I went through the summer with two reporters I knew and who had experience, so I just took that time to adjust to the job. In the fall we expanded to five sports reporters, one intern and one administrative reporter. I set out interviewing applicants and assembling my desk. After hiring, I had two reporters with any experience (about two semesters cumulatively) and five "rookies." Now, calling them rookies isn't quite fair, because all had a passion for sports and knew a thing or two about journalism or had even done some writing elsewhere. But none yet knew the daily grind of working at a newspaper as a beat reporter.

I'll spare the details of the next nine months, but by the end of my term I had: cultivated a winning atmosphere, supported a handful of rising journalists with not much less experience than myself, won consecutive "best desk" titles, groomed a successor (who is kicking ass, by all accounts), won a semester scholarship, picked up a broader perspective on the relative importance of sports in society, and sports journalism in sports culture and rediscovered my passion for leading and building something from the ground up.

Most of those rising journalists were underclassmen, so I laid the foundation for sports desk to keep rocking for at least the next few semesters. It goes without saying that I can't take credit for all of it. I was incredibly lucky to hire a desk as full of ambition as I did. I took a culture in a newsroom that can easily be soiled by criticism and turned criticism into our strongest weapon. It's not easy to do, but I wouldn't have stood a chance without the quality desk of people and journalists I had working under me.When I shut out self-deprecating humor, I can be pretty good at bragging about things I've accomplished or what great people I got to work with. But I'll spare further indulgence on those fronts.

Forget the distinctions. Forget the awards.

What was really significant about my time as sports editor went beyond the Xs and Os of grammar and sports editing. How do I edit this story so that readers get the most out of it?  That's a daily battle.

How do I take this young journalist with a clear passion and limited direction and get him or her to produce consistent quality content? That's a long-term approach.

That's the stuff I live for.

Put more metaphorically: How do I direct this ship with a strong motor and no rudder? Learning to lead is learning to guide. And then having the self-awareness to step back when you're no longer needed.

Once the training wheels were off the sports desk at the dawn of spring semester, it was a lot of fun for a while. Operating a well-oiled machine in which I was a once-critical now-superfluous leader and editor was truly fun. But it got old. Tasks grew monotonous. Everyday chores like editing small stories of little consequence became mundane. My reporters still had room to grow, but they all had solid foundations and were doing well discovering sports journalism on their own. I still took pride in helping them improve with weekly critiques and phone sessions to hash out problems, but the puzzles weren't new anymore. Solving equations to which you already have the answer is easy. It's cookie-cutter stuff. And that's cool for a while. But I don't spend time solving Rubik's cubes anymore. Just like you wouldn't redo a crossword, word search or su do ku. There's not as much of a charge as solving it the first time.

It was realizing this passion that in part led me to a new business idea--one I plan to launch in September. It's a sports writing tutoring service. I think of it like music lessons for journalists. In my time as editor, I had to turn down dozens of applicants because they just weren't qualified for the job, for one reason or another. And that sucks--it's like telling a kid he's been cut from a sports team. Some don't care that much, but others do. For others it stings. Not making the team can be damaging for a young sports writer. Worse yet, it's a vicious cycle: the student newspaper can't hire you because you don't have experience, you can't get experience because you don't have a job, and you get the same story next go-round in future job applications.

I also perceive a shortage of solid journalists in the market. That could be way off base; that's just my perception. It could likely be that it's daunting breaking into an industry in which you know you won't make any money, much less one that you can't guarantee will be around in 10 years. Well I'll tell you things: I guarantee sports journalism will be around in 10 years; and I also guarantee it will be different than it is now. So anyway, where is the disconnect? Why are there fewer journalists competing for entry-level jobs now? And how come the training institution can't efficiently recruit and build up green journalists?

Take those questions at face value because it's certainly not to insult the Minnesota Daily or the J-school at the University of Minnesota. I couldn't imagine a better combination for learning to be a sports journalist. Both have provided amazing opportunities and experiences and taught me invaluable lessons. But I started to sense that I'm one of the exceptions. Not that there's anything exceptional about me or the other reporters on staff, but rather that not everyone gets as lucky as I did when I first applied.

I got the job as Daily sports reporter one month after starting WetSocks. That was my only writing experience aside from some hack scribbles in word processors, never printed or shared.

I've turned down people with much more experience than that. And it sucks.

So why did I get lucky to land that awesome job? And why did I get to spend a semester or year, or college career building experience and an impressive resume when others just as capable couldn't break into the field? Is it fair for happenstance to play such a large role? These are existential questions that I won't bother to answer.

But it did lead me to the leap of thought that sparked the business idea. Without divulging too much of my plan, I'd like to take rookies in the field and build their abilities, confidence and clips portfolio to the point where they can get an entry-level job and start amassing their own experience. Once they get the job, what they do with it is on them. My goal is to get them there. I'd be happy to stick around as their tutor or mentor once they land the job, but I would imagine most won't need me anymore and I'll again become superfluous.

And that's OK, because then I'll take on a fresh batch of puzzles, ready to be solved, the following semester.

1 comment:

  1. You'll likely see some of their writing appear on this blog. Critiques, positive or negative, are always welcome. Part of being a journalist is having thick skin, and if you're not born with it, you don't develop think skin by avoiding criticism.