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Performing on deadline

Sam Gans | Monday, August 19, 2013

TOLEDO, Ohio – It’s not comfortable to ask someone about her nephew who was shot and killed nine hours earlier.

That may seem obvious, but you find out the hard way when you actually have to do it.

“Have you heard about any possible leads? Do you know who he was with at the time? Was he in a gang?”

It was near the beginning of a 10-week internship with The Toledo Blade when I received that assignment. The crime reporter emailed me that she had a tip and told me to go to West Toledo to get information from her source about the shooting. I couldn’t locate that source in the throng of people, but I was directed toward the victim’s aunt, who was shockingly gracious in fielding my questions – much more than the police were, anyway.

Every summer, The Blade hires an intern from Notre Dame to write for the paper’s city desk. For some reason, this year The Blade selected a guy with virtually no news writing experience. As I enter my senior year writing for The Observer, I’ve reported nearly exclusively on sports. The most uncomfortable I’ve been while covering sports is asking Irish hockey coach Jeff Jackson what went wrong in a blowout loss – not exactly comparable to talking with a person about a loved one who was just murdered.

To be a very good sports reporter is difficult. Asking relevant questions of substance and crafting a great recap or preview of a game is not easy, but I do think nearly anyone can at least be adequate at it. As a sports journalist, you’re spoon-fed information.

I don’t think just anyone can be an adequate, let alone a great, news journalist. The topics you’re reporting on are not played out in front of an 80,000-seat stadium and millions of television viewers. You have to dig for information through police reports, court records or newspaper articles written before your parents were born. You have to squeeze information out of people, even when they don’t want to share much. You’re sometimes told “no, thanks” when you ask to interview someone. It’s almost like being a detective.

After my experience, I think every sports writer should spend a little time covering news. The journalist would hone skills that are much more difficult to develop on the sports desk and also would gain a knack for being persistent. I’m twice the sports reporter I was because of my time with The Blade, and the only “sports” story I covered this summer was a boat race on Lake Erie.

Transitioning from sports to news writing wasn’t the only adjustment I made at The Blade. Reporting for a 651,429-person metro area is much more chaotic than covering two campuses with a combined enrollment of less than 15,000. The most hectic day of my internship was when section 3 of DOMA was ruled unconstitutional. I scrambled to compile reactions from Ohio’s senators, the Toledo-area Congressional representatives, the Catholic Diocese of Toledo and constitutional law professors from the University of Toledo. Together, another intern and I co-wrote a 1,400-word story that was on the front page of the next day’s Blade.

This summer, I reported on local stories that made national headlines, like a giant sinkhole that swallowed a car, things that make you say, “Seriously? This is news?” and everything in between. The editors didn’t micromanage. They told me what to cover, but then I got to choose how to retrieve information and write the story. That made me a much better journalist.

I won’t rule anything completely out, but I don’t see myself working as a news writer in the future. Many of my friends love what they’re doing this summer; I’d be lying if I said the same. With the modest pay and often unorthodox hours that come with being a news reporter, you had better be completely in love with what you’re doing.

Of course, that’s even if you can find a job in the field.  There are two sections of The Blade newsroom. One is very full, but the other, which I was told used to also be full of writers, is nearly completely vacant. It’s not exactly a secret that the print industry’s struggling.

For those reasons, I doubt I’ll choose news writing as a career. Perhaps I’ll enter sports journalism, which is one of my biggest passions, although it’s not immune to newspaper cutbacks. Maybe I’ll do public relations. Or maybe my career will be completely unrelated to journalism or the media.

Regardless what I do, my time at The Blade was invaluable. The pressure of performing on deadline for “One of America’s Great Newspapers”, going out of my comfort zone and scratching and clawing to do my job to the best of my ability, accepting being told “no” and adjusting to still accomplish my work … these all taught me lessons relevant to my future career, no matter what it is, and life in general.

The Blade internship provided lots of thrills and real-world experience, but also many stressful days and inconsistent hours doing something – news writing – I don’t think I ever want to do again.

I couldn’t be more thankful for it.

Contact Sam Gans at [email protected]