Tuesday, December 10, 2013

From World to Another

Friday nights this Fall consisted of covering high school football at the smallest level of TSSAA-sanctioned competition.

Covering class 1A Greenback took me to towns like Loudon, Coalfield, Oneida, Sunbright, Rockwood and Decatur - all places I never would have seen if not for the game of football.

After filing my story around 11 p.m. and returning home about midnight, I'd unwind, hit the sack and then head to a different world centered around the same sport on Saturday.

Covering SEC football is like the political equivalent of covering Congress. Well, maybe not that extreme. It's definitely less important, but it's also something that people in East Tennessee probably care about more than they care about what's going on in Congress.

So just hours after covering a game between two tiny high schools in a town that might not even be on the map, I found myself dressed professionally, taking chauffeured elevator rides and eating catered meals in gargantuan stadiums filled with 10 times more people than even inhabit the county I covered the same sport in the night before.

It's quite the transition. For starters, when covering 1A football - or any regular season high school football - no press pass is required. If the gatekeeper ever gives me trouble, I'll pull out my UT football practice pass and they immediately yield, spellbound by the glossy Power T and laminated explanation of my validity as a reporter.

During a high school game, seats aren't even guaranteed in the press box, although one kind fellow at Rockwood High School told me, "here, have a seat, if it wasn't for the press we wouldn't have a box."

After keeping stats with pen and paper like a caveman and channeling 21st century technology only briefly to tweet scores and type a few paragraphs at halftime, I head down to the field for post-game interviews*

*Sometimes I'm on the field the whole game if no seat is available upstairs.

Rather than being ushered around by a media coordinator and conducting formal interviews, my initiation of a discussion with a coach usually goes like this.

Me: Hey Jason, got a minute?
Coach: Yeah, man. How you doin'?
Me: Alright, heck of a drive out here.
Coach: You're telling me.
Me: Haha, well anyway, what were ya'll doing to them defensively in the second half?
......rest of the interview.

After I get my quotes and abduct more accurately kept stats from a radio guy or dedicated statistician, I head off to the nearest McDonald's to write up my story, format my box score and send it in.

This routine on Saturday's could not be more different.

Just counting writers, the number of people covering the game goes from 1-3 to 40 or more for UT football games. The wi-fi trumps what McDonalds offers and it's available in the press box, which offers reserved seating.

Unlike Friday's, technology is crucial on Saturday's. It's a race to see who can tweet the important stats the fastest, and everyone is playing with the same numbers thanks to the instantly-updated utstats.com.

Following the game, interviews are conducted with the head coach and players selected by the SID staff in a markedly formal setting. Rather than a casual encounter on the field like the night before, interviews are formal press conferences conducted in front of a room 100 or more reporters and onlookers.

Obviously, there are innumerable differences between high school football and UT football, but to experience them so close together - from one day to the next - as a reporter is a fascinating transition.

The game feels more pure at the high school level. You feel like your reporting really, truly matters. Though covering major college football is a fantastic experience, it's easy to get lost in the shuffle of a media madhouse.

One is not better than the other, in my opinion. However, the experiences could not be more different.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Next Step

Three hundred and forty bylines for two newspapers over two and a half years.

When I say it like that I realize just how much time has flown, and also just how much I've maximized my current position in peon journalism.

I've been unbelievably fortunate to cover UT athletics in some way during my first five semesters at UT either for The Daily Beacon, The Daily Times or both.

While those two opportunities have provided me with fantastic experience and more payment than I ever thought I'd receive while simply obtaining experience in college, at some point in the last few months, "what's next?" started crossing my mind.

Certainly, I'm happy with what I'm doing. I love it, actually. I also love the people I work with and the connections I've made, the places I've seen, etc.

However, when Chattanooga's Times Free Press came calling in November, I knew right away they were providing the answer to my "what's next?" question.

Though I've yet to sign on the dotted line and have my leave of absence request approved by UT, I'm just a couple of formalities away from officially accepting a full-time internship on the news desk on TFP that will last from January to June. And yes, that means I'll live in Chattanooga for six months.

While sports journalism is my passion, news is also in my repertoire, and if I turned down an opportunity to experience life at a metro paper, I'd be a hypocrite to claim journalism as my career pursuit.

Is it easy to leave behind credentials to cover every UT athletic event?

Well, no. But the bottom line is that the TFP is a paper with a circulation more than three times larger than the biggest paper I've ever worked as a stringer for, and for some reason the folks there want to bring me on as a full-time employee for six months. I'm grateful for that opportunity.

I'm hopeful that - assuming I pass a drug/tobacco test - working at TFP will transform me into a drastically better writer and better journalist.

If nothing else, it will provide my career with a needed splash of diversity that will add major appeal to my resume.

Since I'm a semester ahead in school, interning in Chattanooga and missing a semester of school will actually just push my expected graduation date back to May 2015, which is when I was originally supposed to graduate.

Another perk is that my only time commitment is working 40 hours a week. What in the world will I do with all of that free time? For fear of the results, I don't currently keep track of how many hours I week each week between Beacon/Daily Times, but I think it's usually somewhere between 35-50 hours. Throw in a full-time course load and I barely have time to brush my teeth, let alone play nine holes of golf.

Perhaps on top of a great career experience in a new city, the first half of 2014 can also bring a little time to breathe. I might actually have time to play golf or pick-up basketball, to get involved at a church or help coach a youth baseball team. Or maybe I'll just watch Netflix and read when I'm not working. The possibilities are endless.

So with the academic situation lined up, the career perks obvious, let's just hope that cigar I smoked last month doesn't come back to bite me on that tobacco test.

Here's to the next step.