Saturday, December 7, 2013

My First Assignment.

Gazeta Lubuska newsroom, Pawel Janczaruk. (Wiki.)

by Ian Cooper

My first assignment as sports editor of a community newspaper, a weekly, was to cover a high school wrestling tournament.

It was first thing Monday morning and it was already happening. Mark slapped me on the arm and pointed at the door!

I drove twenty miles to the village of Langton, Ontario, parked in front of the high school, and went looking for the gym. I had a pen, and my trusty steno pad in my pocket and a 35-mm camera hanging around my neck. I had spare film and all the accessories. I was a little nervous.

The editor, Mark, had given me the name of the coach, and the tournament would be going on all day. A couple of students in the hall pointed me in the right direction and I was in like Flynn.

I shot three rolls of 36 frames. I filled my steno pad with the names of the two guys wrestling in each shot, the name of the ref, the name of their schools, their coaches’ names…I watched for quite a while. I didn’t really know exactly how much effort that first story justified. But I had it all. It took an hour and a half.

The story wasn’t all that big. There were other sports going on; on a weekly basis, and the sports section varied in size based on ad sales. I was lucky to get anywhere from two to four pages a week. It took a while to learn just how the job should be done, or even how hard to work at it. And after a while, two or three months, I started to get a few compliments, the odd pat on the back.

One of my stories was nominated for the Ontario something something community journalism awards, although I didn’t win. I think Mark, the editor, was just applying a kind of very good psychology.

Everything was manual back then: typewriters, type-setting, proof-reading, and you sure didn’t want to cross old Ethel, our proof lady. She was pretty formidable. She knew her stuff, too. She was not shy about telling you when you screwed up.

The paper’s pages were laid out on blank, blue-ruled sheets and on Wednesday the ad guys would bring in the paste-up ads and stick them on there. That’s when we knew how much room for news we had. The paper was maybe thirty percent ads and the rest was allotted to various forms of news and community coverage. So many ads equals so many pages. I’m getting off track here.

But, it was my first day on the job and obviously, I didn’t want to screw it up.

One of the wrestling shots made front page, including a quick little blurb, and there was another good picture in the sports section, with a full write-up and the results. The front page shot was Mark’s decision. He liked my pictures.

(I almost cried when I wrote that, ladies and gentlemen.)

That was my first ‘pro’ story. The job paid $190.00 a week. Some of us self-published authors can only dream of that kind of money these days!

Later of course, it became a lot easier. I knew I could rely on the Pentax K-1000, a very simple camera. I knew how to bracket the shots, when and how to use the flash, taking lots of good notes and essentially how to tell a nice little story.

As sports editor, my beat included any kind of sport, plus the Ministry of Natural Resources, the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, the archery clubs, of which there were several in town, darts, auto racing, the swim teams, and people engaged in the martial arts. I photographed mayors and council members, Members of Parliament and the Ontario Legislature, and one or two cabinet ministers, as I recall. 

But then, I photographed everybody. If you’re there long enough, in a small town, sooner or later you will photograph, or write about everybody…and I do mean everybody, ladies and gentlemen.

I also covered town and township councils, the Long Point Region Conservation authority, and, I soon learned how to do spot news. That’s when someone phones in a tip, sometimes in the middle of the night, and you go zooming off to get a picture of a house fire or an auto accident, whatever it is that’s going on.

After a month or two I began to learn how to lay out my pages. After a while people didn’t call the front desk. They knew my name from the paper, some of them had my number and they could just call me. They became my sources, and I became their buddy at the paper.

But the greatest benefit that job gave me was from the face-to-face interviews. I had to go and talk to people. I had to learn about farming, and town council, and local industry. I had to learn about all the local personalities. I had to go a little outside of my comfort zone. I was a very shy young man. I had to ask a lot of questions, and yeah; sometimes I had to call back later with more dumb questions when I missed something.

I had to learn how to talk to all sorts of people, and listen to their stories, and then write them up and put them in the paper.

There were other benefits, not least was the pursuit of my dream.

But more than anything, that job got me out of my own little home town.

A home town where the thing to do was to keep putting your name in to the plants. Where the best careers were in the petro-chemical industry. It’s unionized. It’s not that they don’t train you, but it’s not the same as a career, which to some extent can be at your own direction. It’s not exactly defined as a calling, a vocation. It’s just a good job, no matter how highly-paid, and for most people, it seems to work. For some reason it just wasn’t for me.

That’s because I had that dream. I had the dream, ladies and gentlemen. I also acted upon that dream.

I gave up a lot to pursue that dream, including the big bucks in the petro-chemical industry. I was making pretty good money as a carpenter when I decided to go back to school. I was making a living at it. Over time I would have become very good at it, and I liked the work and everything.

But of course there was that dream…

I went back to college as a ‘mature student’ after dropping out of high school and working at many different and all equally-crappy minimum-wage jobs. I studied Radio, Television and Journalism Arts. I wanted someone to teach me how to write, ladies and gentlemen.

Some of the courses were writing for the news, writing ads, writing for radio commercials. We studied photography, radio and sound board operations, we ran TV cameras, and we studied political science and graphic arts. We studied marketing and we studied a few other things as well.

That was more than thirty years ago.

I have no regrets. None.

In fact, I would highly recommend a similar course of action to young people today, no matter what your dream might be.

Otherwise, you will never know, will you?

I just had to know. And now I do know.

If I had the chance to do it again, I might make better decisions along the way, but yes—I would do it all again.

Maybe the next time around I would do it a little better, (or start ten years sooner) but you really don’t get too many second chances at life and I guess we’ll never know how that might have gone, eh?