Tuesday, February 26, 2013

In the Shadow of Giants (News Anchors)

Today, The Mercury's community engagement editor, Diane Hoffman, and I attended a career fair at Perkiomen Valley High School.

After being invited to participate a few weeks ago, a press release sent our way indicated that most of the school's 1800 students would be attending.

Initially, I agreed to do it just for the hell of it. Why not?

This morning, I had some clear reasons "why not" running through my head as I drove in.

First, it was early. Crack of dawn early. Do you know how red the sun looks when it's coming up over the horizon? I sure as hell had forgotten, if I've ever seen that before.

Second, as Diane and I joked (but not really) last week, we doubted anyone would talk to us. I was fully ready to stand there, twiddling my thumbs, invoking memories of how my middle school dances would have turned out if I'd actually gone.

Third, what do I say to someone about the newspaper business? It's not exactly on solid ground these days and I'm definitely not in this for the tremendous paychecks (Hahahahahahaha! Laugh to keep from crying, right?)

Once Diane and I met up in the high school's gym, we realized that we hadn't put nearly enough thought into how we should present ourselves or set up the folding table assigned to us.

Others around us had nice signs or banners. The Army recruiters had a cardboard cutout of a GI. I quipped that we forgot to bring our cutout of Don Seeley.

Some of those who were more ready-er.
To our credit, we weren't wholly unprepared. The night before, I snagged a pile of newspapers from the entire week to display. I also brought a box of canvas tote bags from the advertising department to give out. So we had some swag for those that sought it.
Still, I was a little nervous at just standing at an empty table and looking, generally, like an idiot. 
Luckily, some real reporter work popped up. In quick succession, I found out about two crashes and made calls on it, firing off emails to editors with the info I was getting. Although trying to squeeze information out of emergency workers early into crash investigations is difficult and somewhat stressful, the familiarity of it actually calmed me down a little.
Shortly after I finished making my calls, two things happened: a tall dark-haired man arrived at the vacant table next to Diane and me and the first round of students, sophomores, arrived in the gym. 

Each table was only issued one orange or brown (Perkiomen Valley's colors) folding chair. With two of us there and the event about to begin, I had snagged the brown chair from the vacant table next to us several minutes before the man arrived.

When the tall guy showed up next to us, he had to go find another chair. I felt slightly bad but, at the same time, he didn't have to go far for it. As such, I didn't linger on that feeling. Plus, I was still checking for updates on the crashes I made calls on. My mind was elsewhere.

When the students came in, The Mercury collective nor the man next to us had any students stop near us. While I waited, I wondered who the man might have been and who or what he represented. He had no sign or any material to give out. 

It was kind of nice that he was less prepared than us.

Around the time we got the first students interested in us at The Mercury is when the guy next to us got his first students, too. Quickly, it became clear that the guy next to me might have been a big deal.

Turns out it was Matt O'Donnell, one of the main anchors from 6 ABC.
This guy.
It didn't take long for a crowd of starstruck (or lovestruck) high school girls to line up at his table. The line soon wrapped around the edge of O'Donnell's table. They were two or three deep in some areas.
The Mercury's table stood in his shadow.
Some teachers and those representing businesses couldn't resist and ended up coming over to say "hi" and take a picture with him.
Diane and I quickly decided we could not have had a funnier spot in the room. 
A similar pattern developed regarding O'Donnell. As each wave came in, O'Donnell would start without anyone at his table, like us. Then a few boys would come over and ask him who he was and the crowd grew from there as more and more recognized him. That crowd would eventually be made up almost exclusively of teenage girls.
I will say, as I Tweeted shortly after the event ended, O'Donnell was a pretty cool guy with a strong handshake. We talked a little bit between the wave of sophomores and seniors about the business and shared some stories about issues with our technology. He was easily one of the friendliest TV people I've met.

But he made for a great few laughs between Diane and I about his popularity in relation to ours. While standing at the table we tried to come up with questions to ask him, gems such as "Do you know Jim Gardner?" and "Can you sing the Action News theme song?"
We did actually end up getting quite a few students who approached us interested in, if not journalism, then writing in general. It was especially nice to actually give useful (I hope) advice to those that had some specific questions.

Among those that came up, there were a few that I could tell would actually make good journalists. They shared characteristics that some of my reporter friends have, asking good questions, displaying some drive and desire. It really made me wish we had a formal intern program at The Mercury so we could help develop some of them (and then eventually watch as they become better at this job than me).
There were a few moments that stuck out.
When a student told me she wrote a few articles for her journalism class, I asked her which was her favorite, expecting a reply like many earlier, who detailed working on entertainment or school issues.
"Probably the one I did about high schoolers and drug use," she replied. "There are stats with it, too."
My eyes wide, I instantly asked if we could steal her stats for an article series we have coming up.

One girl asked me, point-blank, (and rightly so for someone thinking of making this her career), "Can you make a living doing this?"

"Barely," I replied.

Perhaps my favorite came toward the end when a shorter girl wearing glasses walked up to our table and smiled.

"I love your newspaper!" she said.

Not used to hearing someone say that to me, I replied, without thinking, "Really?"

Diane asked if she read the actual paper copy or online.

The girl smiled sheepishly.

"Actually, I really only read it at my grandparents' house," she said.

The newspaper business, ladies and gentlemen.
In all seriousness, I was very impressed with all of the Perkiomen Valley students I talked to. Even those that really didn't have much interest in being a journalist had good questions and were very polite. I don't know exactly what I was expecting, but they were great. 
Seeing the academic side of PV at the career fair to go along with the athletic side I saw last fall covering a football game, I'd say parents and staff in the district have a lot to be proud of.

Coming into today with the lowest expectations, I'm looking forward to the possibility of doing it again next year.

See? Look how happy I am.

Thanks to Jessica Lester and Patricia Colucci for inviting and hosting Diane and I today.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Very Superstitious

It's been another drought from posting but things have been busy and, let's be honest, you haven't exactly been clamoring for a new post from me anyway.

With a new reporter, Caroline Sweeney, in the fold who started in January, I had to do my best at getting her up to speed on how we go about business here at The Mercury, much like Brandie Kessler did for me when I started.

In doing so, I started thinking about some of the things I do here, especially, the little ticks I have during my work day.

Maybe they're superstition, maybe they're rituals, maybe they're another manifestation of my obsessive compulsive disorder, but they've become an irrevocable part of my job and I figured I could share a few with you.

(This also has the added benefit of explaining to my co-workers some of the stuff they may see me doing day after day.)

- One thing that I have done ever since I started writing articles in college is very simple but pretty integral to my process: after writing out the dateline of my article, I'll type a single, lower-case "d" where the first word of the article will start.

It started by accident in the 6-credit exhaustive class we all called "journalism boot camp" at the University of Wisconsin.

One particular day, I was assigned an article but had no clue how I wanted to start it. After setting up everything, including the dateline, I didn't know what to do, so I stared at the screen for five minutes. Realizing I wasn't getting anywhere, I decided to just listen to a Spring Training baseball game until I got an idea.

Before clicking out of the window with my article, I wanted to keep my place, so I spiked my finger down randomly on the keyboard.

And a "d" showed up on the page.

For whatever reason, every time after that, I've used a lower-case "d" to keep my place.

- The next is another one that I've done for a while.

I've always been tall and, in middle school, I fell into the habit of reaching up and touching the top of the metal threshold of the door leading out of my school's B wing every time I went through. Lots of the other kids had to jump up or get on their tiptoes to reach.

I just reached up.

It became a good luck charm and carried over to high school when I would tap my metal locker every time I left it.

Now, I tap the metal frame of the newsroom door every time I leave.

It's for good luck, especially when I'm heading out to spot news, and I've had a couple times where I'll actually start down the steps out of the newsroom, realize I forgot to tap the frame, then run back up to hit it.

Typing that out, maybe this is obsessive compulsive.

- This may not be a ritual or a standard practice, but it still happens every day and our newly-minted sports editor, Austin Hertzog, noticed it the other day.

Every time I touch my desk chair, I get shocked by static electricity. Loudly.

Obviously, it's not something I try to do, but it happens 90 percent of the time, so much that I actually brace myself without realizing it every time I walk up to my chair.

- We don't have a tremendous amount of competition at our paper for most stories.

However, when I scoop what competition we do have, as a reporter, there aren't too many better feelings. There are few things that make you feel like the master of your domain more than filing a big story no one else has.

Being that I listen to music almost all day, whether at work or not, getting a scoop generally calls for a celebratory song.

That song, as a rule, has been "Get Like Me" by Childish Gambino.

Essentially, it's a message to the people I scooped.

The last time I played this was after covering a high-profile crime. I stood out in below-freezing temperatures in just a windbreaker for three and a half hours before finally getting back to the newsroom and filing the full article (with video) at 2 a.m.

Before I left the empty newsroom, I made sure to crank that shit.