Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Competition: The - or at least my - driving force

A competitive spirit is probably the reason behind why I'm trying to make journalism a career. Competition is what drives me. And I believe competition is or should be a huge part of journalism (until it drives outlets to cross ethical barriers). The competition is part of the reason why I love it. And it doesn't just have to be competition between outlets, either.

If you knew me growing up, you know that when competing in athletics, I was intense - even to a fault. I can proudly say I was never ejected from a baseball or basketball game, but I'm also a little embarrassed to look back at the way I behaved at times during my middle school/high school years when I played for a homeschool organization in Memphis that played any TSSAA school that would schedule us.

I've never been a big guy, and I suffer from short man syndrome, meaning I'm inclined to over-assert myself in the arena of play to atone for my physical discrepancies. Combine that with an ever-present chip on the shoulder that came with playing for "the homeschool team" or being "the homeschool kid" and it provided me with a seemingly permanent role of being the underdog.

If I had to perform a psychiatric evaluation of myself, I would probably say that contributes to why I've chosen to stick with sports-oriented journalism as a legitimate career pursuit. Aside from its blend with one of my passions (sports) and my lone academic strong-suit (writing), it's an incredibly competitive profession.

It gives me that chip on my shoulder that I so often wore on the court or the diamond in high school.

"Oh, you're majoring in journalism?" ... Yeah! I'm majoring in journalism. And I actually want to be good at it too.

 If I didn't think I had a shot at it becoming my profession, I would quit, just like I quit varsity basketball after my sophomore year of high school when I realized I was too old for JV and probably going to sit the bench for two years as exclusively a varsity player.

It wasn't worth the physical, emotional and financial investment to ride the pine for two years. What if I had gone all-in with basketball and practiced 40 hours a week, completed multiple workout regimens and still didn't crack the rotation? Would that have been a waste? The relationships would have been there with teammates and coaches, but a "winning return" would not have come with that investment.

I wasn't investing my passion at the risk of being the kid who goes in to hit a 3-pointer at the end of a blowout. (Worth noting: 5 of the top 6 varsity players from my freshman year went on to play college ball at some level).

I still look back - haunted by the two losing seasons of varsity baseball that I played instead - and wonder how fulfilling it would have been if I had indeed stuck with basketball and perhaps did crack the rotation. Maybe I could have helped my team knock off some of stout prep basketball teams in the Memphis-area and make a run at a homeschool national title (something I would equate to D2-AA high school ball in Tenn., but that's another story).

But I didn't. I'll never know how that would have worked out. My basketball career fell to playing rec basketball in a big church league where me and a good friend teamed up to go 19-3 over a 2-year span. I averaged like 16 ppg because of how acclimated I was to playing against good competition. It was a comfortable transition back to the league I played in as a kid.

Now, I return to journalism and that skeptical critic - the one who says, "journalism, eh? Don't you know newspapers are dying?"

Yeah, I know they are, but I also knew my sophomore year of high school that scrawny, 5-foot-6 white-boy guards were a long-dead breed, even on the homeschool team.

I made a logistically sound, comfortable decision then and chose to play baseball because I could walk in and start. We had some fun, but I'll always wonder if I could have contributed to the basketball team if I had truly worked at it.

I'm not letting that scenario happen again with journalism. I know there are better prospective career choices out there that are more comfortable or easy, but I'm not settling for that. I don't what to be given some job - like I was with baseball -  and be in a mundane 9-5 work environment, constantly refreshing my Twitter feed to look for the articles I know I could be writing.

Instead, I'm all in this time.

And if I don't make it and end up doing something unrelated? Well, who knows what will happen if I don't make it. That's what drives me, and every once in a while I see a mile marker telling me I'm on the right path

I saw one of those markers recently in reporting on the controversy between the UT band and the athletic department.

I'll preface it by saying this: My competitive nature manifests itself through journalism in a variety of ways, including the competition against myself to produce clip-worthy articles and create something I can proudly tweet a link to.

Another way it comes out is in how I compete against my fellow j-school students, knowing in the back of my mind I'm separating myself from the competition for area jobs every day when I'm working on a story and they are not.

But when I most actively feel that competitive energy is when I get the chance to compete with other media. And I'm not talking about who can refresh utsports.com the fastest and tweet the football depth chart changes first each week. I'm talking about legitimate stories that go beyond simple press releases and the increased uniformity spouted to the media by any entity at UT.

When I compared my article that appeared in the Beacon on Oct. 10 regarding the band issue with the one that appeared in the Knoxville News Sentinel on the same day, I was pleased with the comparison. I must admit, if it was a competition and I was an unbiased judge, I would have needed some time to decide on a winner.

KNS is an incredible newspaper with fantastic employees and an established local presence, and in spite of that, it could be argued that my article had a more direct impact on our joint readership because of the way it circulated Twitter and the online message boards where UT fans lurk, thirsty for a view that I had because of a lengthy 1-on-1 with Gary Sousa.

*(It should be noted that KNS has adopted an online paywall, which restricts most stories to subscribers. The Beacon, of course, is a free student paper, which is likely why it was circulated and cited more online)*

Again, in no way am I taking a shot at KNS. I read the Sentinel everyday. I've been receiving home delivery since January and doing so has helped me develop as a writer and as a purveyor of journalism. The 20-30 minutes a day I spend reading that paper each day might be the most crucial each day to my development as a journalist, especially when I can compare my coverage to something they did.

That's why I'm pleased I was able to write a competitive story in comparison with theirs. Whether the Beacon "won" or not is up to interpretation, and in the grand scheme of things, I'm the only one who viewed it as a competition.

But because of that competitive drive, I was able to inform people on something they cared about to an extent they were not getting elsewhere, and that's a milestone that I'm proud of because of the work I put in to make it happen.

FYI: KNS stomped my follow-up reporting to the ground Monday by obtaining e-mails between Sousa and UT and quoting them in a story/posting them online. Gah. They're so good at what they do.

But I can't wait for the opportunity to compete again. - David

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