Assignment: Reporter

My time as a reporter was as brief as a rookie reporter’s first article: it lasted only a summer, somewhere in the middle of my college years.

I was actually considering changing my major to journalism, which is what led to the internship.  But there was one problem:  the newspaper in my hometown area where I was spending my summer only accepted two interns each summer– and they already had their two students. They were paid internships, and they were filled by students from Ivy League universities who had accepted the positions. How in the world my local hometown paper was a lucrative summer opportunity, I still am not sure, but it was.

I, however, offered to work for free. Well, it took them by surprise, and somehow, those in charge agreed to let me work for free. I was just thankful they agreed. It was the first time they had three summer interns. They were gracious to allow me the opportunity.

And boy, did I work. I worked hard. I read, wrote, reported, re-wrote, and worked my tail off that summer.

When I wasn’t working, I was taking a TV Reporting class at the local college. Between the two, I was immersed in the world of news reporting.

I covered all manner of stories for the newspaper: from the mundane, like barbecue recipes… “Don’t rake yourself over the coals for a barbecue recipe this summer…” to a local lady who won a Mercedes in Las Vegas – but had to return it because she couldn’t afford the taxes, to a local Blueberry Festival, to gas stations going out of business, to uncovering a secret room in a comic book shop that sold illicit comic books.

Oh, that comic book story! It created a bit of a stir with my editor. While visiting the store, one of the employees let the secret slip about the “back room”. Well, you don’t let something like that slip out in front of a newspaper reporter, without being asked to see such a room, right? Usually, a photographer accompanied a reporter, so I had a photographer present. Turns out the back room contained (apparently) pornographic comic books.

I am thankful to this day that I never saw any covers with images, or that I opened a single comic book. I’m extremely thankful for that. (I thank God for protecting me during that particular assignment!) I knew that it was inappropriate– and eventually my editor ended up going and seeing for himself.

One of the employees in the store, instead of getting paid in money, was paid in comic books. We visited him at his home one day to ask him, to verify that story. Putting that story together took several visits. I didn’t understand it fully at the time, but I realize now, years later, that young man likely had an addiction, such that he was paid via comic books vs. actually monetary reimbursement. Sad.

I distinctly remember my editor’s words: our job as reporters isn’t to do police work. He said once the story was published, if the police wanted to follow-up on it, they would. The story was published in a special weekend insert, and I don’t know eventually what happened. I know that store is not there anymore, but that assignment was over 25 years ago, and many stores aren’t there anymore. It caused quite a stir back then, even among us reporters; I wonder if anyone would even care today about such a store with that kind of materials.

Some days, the news assignments were slow. I had a particularly short assignment once, about a Boy Scout conference. Well, I turned that little obscure announcement that was hidden somewhere in the depths of the newspaper in an eloquent paragraph, determined to make it the best little announcement I could, using up all the space I was allotted. I thought nothing of it, until one day I was told I had a visitor. Turns out one of the Boy Scout leaders read my little paragraph, and wanted to meet me and thank me personally for it.

I loved the work and I learned a great deal that summer– there is nothing like on-the-job training. I learned how to write an article, how to find contacts, make cold calls, ask people questions I had never met, and so much more. You can’t learn all of that in a textbook: you have to learn by doing.  The writing process was time-consuming: drafting, organizing, editing, writing, editing, proofreading, etc., but it was highly rewarding to see a finished story, in print, written and edited well.

I also learned that someone is always watching and paying attention, so do your best no matter what.

One of the other interns there was a  DC gal, a journalism major, who was attending Brown University.  I remember how she described my town as “rural”. It struck me because I did not realize my area was rural until she said that. It was eye-opening. I thought rural meant “country”- with farms, horses, and cattle, and with homes few and far between. I didn’t live in an area like that, yet she saw my hometown as rural. Of course, from her vantage point of growing up in the DC area, and attending Brown, it must have seemed so. I can see that now, but it sent shock waves through me then.

We hung out that summer a little bit; I invited her to my house, to the movies, to go to church with me. She was legally blind, and couldn’t drive, and seemed to appreciate the opportunity to get out. She came – she didn’t say no to any of it. I realized how different our worldviews were one day after we were discussing a movie we had just seen. It was Batman, as I recall, an older version, with Michael Keaton. I thought it was a fairly good movie, but it was clear afterwards that she interpreted the movie quite differently from me. She offered a complex analysis of feminist innuendo,  inequality, and other subliminal and subconscious components that completely missed me. In fact, I was incredulous to the point I think I even asked if we had seen the same movie?

That was another eye-opening moment. I realized her perspective was related to the teaching at the university she was attending. Otherwise, how could someone find so much innuendo “hidden ” in that movie? It was lost on me. But maybe I was not as educated, or as informed? Or perhaps, she was receiving some sort of other indoctrination? Anyway, it was good to have another comrade to talk to who worked in the same newsroom.

I did figure out sometime during the summer that I was not going to pursue TV reporting. I preferred print journalism.

Though I preferred print journalism over TV journalism, however, I did not enjoy the newsroom atmosphere.

The newsroom was a smoky, vulgar, unusual place. There were some interesting personality types, but honestly, I can say, everywhere I’ve been since then, and as many years have passed, I’ve met all types of people. So perhaps it wasn’t that unusual.

Except… it was.

I would say it was a depressing place. People cursed, talked about leaving, talked behind each other’s backs. It wasn’t a positive, friendly environment, people seemed angry, brooding, and some hated their jobs. It also felt a little like “each man for himself” at times. I learned how to work and talk … without getting involved in what was going on around me. Maybe it was just that particular place? 

There were some nice people, but there was also enough there to make me reconsider journalism. I knew each newsroom would be different, but I realized this was not the place for me, and I had other interests I knew I had to explore before dismissing those entirely. Sometimes, you have to try something to know it needs to be ruled out. Know what I mean?

The next summer, the newspaper called and asked if I’d like to return to work–  this time with pay. I was being offered a summer internship… with the chance also of full-time employment after graduation.

It was a very flattering and humbling offer. I had worked extremely hard, my work was good, and they liked it. I was thankful to have had the opportunity to work there, I had proven myself, and furthermore, they had noticed my work and recognized it. It was rewarding.

I had to turn it down, however, and tell them I had decided to pursue a different major and was going a different direction.

That was a crossroads moment. It was an intense summer, with highly enjoyable and rewarding work, and a high level of learning. I’m very grateful to have had that opportunity, and to have learned valuable practical and life skills.

*********

I am writing this blog article today as an exercise: I am reading a book about writing, and one of the assignments is to reflect and write about memories of my writing life. I haven’t thought about this summer in years; I certainly don’t give it much thought at all. Yet, it is helpful to look back and see these bits and pieces of my “writing life”,  to reflect, and learn lessons from those days that are pertinent now. 

 

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