I was at my desk, working on a sports feature, when the scanner silence broke.
A worker was trapped in a ditch.
There were only two of us in the office, and at a small weekly newspaper, beats don’t really matter that much.
As we headed out the door, I agreed to take the pictures, and my co-worker would do the reporting.
The picture I captured that day resulted in my first award: an honorable mention for the best spot news photo in a statewide contest. I realized it wasn’t a Pulitzer. But heck, I wasn’t even a photographer. It still felt pretty damn good.
If only I would have listened to those judges, I could have realized my passion five years earlier than I actually did.
You see, I never really wanted to be a journalist. My plan as a freshman in college was to breeze through telecommunications classes, become a play-by-play man and call NFL games for FOX or CBS.
But finding room in classes at my alma mater proved to be challenging. Besides, I didn’t even like the few broadcasting classes I had taken. So, I decided on the next best thing to stay close to sports – journalism.
After all, I knew I had the face for radio, but I had the voice for newspapers.
So, off I went with my new plan: Breeze through journalism school and become an NFL beat writer for a major metropolitan daily newspaper within a year or two.
Unrealistic? Of course. But that’s what college dreams are all about.
By the time I was a senior, I had learned the harsh lesson that the NFL gig would probably take some time. So, I changed my focus a bit and decided a small, community newspaper would be a great place to get lots of experience. It was also a job I knew I could actually get. At this point, my No. 1 goal was staying out of my parents’ house.
And because Mom had already “reorganized” my bedroom, I took the first offer that came along.
I was hired to paginate several weeklies and occasionally work on the company’s daily paper. I had taken a few design classes in college, but more importantly, I knew the software.
Not what I dreamed, but I was living on my own.
I eventually moved to a writing position, but it wasn’t sports. I covered local schools, government, features, etc. If it happened in my area, I covered it. I even took all the photographs.
My break into sports finally came when the company purchased a couple of weekly newspapers near my hometown. So, I accepted the longer commute and took the job of covering sports. The downside was I also had to design pages two days a week.
I have to admit, my sportswriting was common. Most within the company didn’t recognize me for my stories, but for that award-winning photo and my ability to design compelling pages on a tight deadline.
Nonetheless, sports is what I wanted to do.
I eventually took the leap to a daily newspaper near my hometown. There, I helped put together the best sports section in our class in Indiana. But not as a writer. I was the section’s copy editor and page designer. Later, with a family to feed, I left sports to lead the copy desk. While there, we won several more awards, including one for Page 1 makeup.
After about five years in journalism, I had been involved with several award-winning pieces. But I still considered them temporary gigs until I found a good fit as a sportswriter.
My break finally came when the biggest daily paper in our company offered me a sportswriting job. My dream was about to come true. Well, it wasn’t a major metropolitan daily, but that was OK by me. I had since grown to love community newspapers.
I was even given the NFL beat, along with local sports and the occasional NBA game.
Shortly into my new gig, I knew I would never win an award as a sportswriter. Heck, I knew I wouldn’t even like it for that long.
Over time, talking to people such as Peyton Manning and doing one-on-one interviews with coaches and players became a drag. I was still a sports fan, but I couldn’t scream from the press box, and having a beer was off limits. Being there was fun, but the job wasn’t.
While sitting in the press box writing my stories, I was more concerned with how the sports pages would look. Would they use the right action photo from the game? Would the page have balance with sizzling headlines?
Just like in college, my idea of a dream job wasn’t reality. What I really enjoyed was the visual side of the job.
Luckily, an opportunity to design pages at the paper came up. I later learned that one of my editors brought me there in hopes I would some day move back to design. They just put up with my writing.
I produced all the weekend section fronts and A1 every day. I created graphics and photo illustrations. For the first time in my career, I threw myself into my job because I knew it wasn’t temporary.
Before long, I was recognized in more contests for headline writing, graphics and best sections.
As a writer, I was just a small piece of the newsroom. As a designer, I was a leader. Editors and my publisher would seek out my opinion and ask me to head up special projects.
I blossomed as a journalist. I became a respected figure in the newsroom. And I know now that never could have happened for me as a sportswriter.
I spent five years chasing a dream that I really didn’t want.
And the judges knew it all along.
Joe Skeel is editor of Quill. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (317) 927-8000, ext. 214.