By Jacqui BanaszynskiIt was a favorite diversion of mine, when I was teaching at the Missouri School of Journalism, to wander down the hall from my office to the newsroom of the Columbia Missourian. I would plug into the low-level thrum of tension, and thrill as it ramped up towards deadline. I would eavesdrop on the banter between a student staffer and faculty editor, and marvel at the learning contained in that banter. I would stop at random desks and ask my go-to newsroom question: What you working on?
One of my regular stops was at the sports desk. There was always something to watch on the TV that hung from a pillar there. There were always guys slouched in broken chairs, their legs stretched out on their desks. (The number of women in sports has grown through the years, thank the goddess. Most figured out how to be one of the guys by out-guying the guys, although they seldom slouched.)
Despite languid poses and deep friendships at the sports desk, there was a palpable sense of competition in the chatter: As hungry as any talented college athlete was to make it to the pros, these guys were hungry to make it to the majors of sports journalism.
Over the years, more and more of the sports reporters found their way into my advanced writing class. Many were the best students I worked with, perhaps because covering sports lent itself to writing narrative: Games have a natural narrative structure; action and tension are ever-present; there are always winners and losers, and often key turning points; personality profiles are standard fare. I had done enough sports coverage in my own career to have some cred with the guys. I could stand my ground in their smack-talk. And perhaps because of their competitive hunger, I could push them. The bigger their talent — and ego — the harder I pushed.
One day, as I leaned against the TV pillar to chat, a big-talent, big-ego, big-charm sports reporter lobbed a question my way. He may have been trying to impress his colleagues with his cheek while scoring a few points by stroking my own ego. But what he pitched was a slow, fat softball: Hey Jacqui, what’s the secret to winning a Pulitzer?
I could, and maybe should, have gone into a serious monologue about subject and timing and ethics and quality of craft and yes, serendipity. One year’s Pulitzer can be eclipsed the next year by hot-topic news events. Stellar projects can be a step behind, making them feel derivative, or a step ahead, making them feel too risky for that moment in journalism.
Working the dream
But I loved this kid, and truly wanted him to learn. To that end, I wanted him to realize his raw talent and personal charm weren’t enough; he had to bear down and do the work. Day in and day out, game in and game out, season in and season out, he had to do the work. So here’s what I swung back at him:
I’ll tell you the secret, but you’re not going to like it.
I paused there. Now I had his attention, and that of everyone else nearby. Because who isn’t a sucker for a secret — especially one that comes with a warning? They all leaned forward, the TV forgotten.
Well, he said, impatient now. What?
I leveled my gaze at him: You win a Pulitzer one story at a time. One idea, one source, one interview at a time. One paragraph, one sentence, one word at a time. And you make damn sure that the story in front of you today is more important that the story you won an award for yesterday or the one you might do tomorrow.
I went back to my office. The kid went on to do wonderful stories for a few years, not in sports but through human interest profiles and features. He wrote first for a small-but-great newspaper then a big-but-great newspaper. He won some awards. It grieved me when he became one of the too many young talents let go in the gutting of newsrooms. It broke my heart when he decided to give up the chase through our pot-holed profession and move back home. It restored my heart when he said, calmly and confidently, that family was important to him and he wanted to do what it took to be near them and take care of themd.
I think of him often, and now look back at the advice I lobbed his way. It seems he’s found his own wise way to live it.