April 10, 2010

Crossed Over, V

They were going in a different direction, they said, which meant that I was going in a different direction, too: China.

The freelancing started with a pair of small weeklies between Lawrence and Kansas City – the De Soto Explorer and Eudora News. They were owned by the same company, put together at the same little office and run by the same editors. I got that gig the same way I thought I was going to get the Lawrence job – by contacting the editors and asking for the chance to write.

I first met the sports editor and head editor before covering a high school soccer game. They had told me to stop by so we could meet and talk about what exactly they expected of me. The head editor, a nice guy, probably about 55-60, was named Elvyn. He had a husky build and a throwback mustache that was so full and thick that it looked like a comb could get stuck in it. He was the one who had first corresponded with me about helping out at the papers, talking to me on the phone in his slow, rich Kansas drawl. His voice had an easy way of rolling off his tongue, and his sentences were occasionally punctuated with a gravelly “ggh” – like, “Well-ggh, we’d love for you to-ggh freelance for us.” He talked like he was transported to 2008 from a different century. I liked him before I met him.

The sports editor, Jeff, was in many ways the antithesis of Elvyn. He was about the same age as me, fresh out of KU, with scraggly facial hair and a young voice. He was nice enough, and he said numerous times that he really appreciated having another writer to help out. The appreciation, I assured him, was mutual.

When we met before that soccer game, Jeff and Elvyn explained that I’d get $30 per story and $0.00 per gallon for gas, which was a bitch because, if you remember, the fall of 2008 was when gas was hovering at around $3.50-$4.00 per gallon. And these papers were only “close” in the relative sense; it still took about 30 minutes to get to the offices. Our meeting ended about 45 minutes before the soccer game was set to kick off, so I killed a few minutes reading that week’s paper, copies of which were scattered about the office. I flipped to the sports section to get a sense of what they expected. There were two stories of the front page. These were the two leads, which ran side-by-side:

It took about 30 minutes for De Soto to utilize its team speed to score a goal Tuesday night.


It took five weeks but De Soto finally got its first win of the year Friday night at Paola.

It took about five minutes to get to the high school where the soccer game was being played. I covered it dutifully, with as much zest as anyone could possibly summon for 5-0 blowout on a dreary mid-October day. In fact, I was full-bore about everything I covered for Jeff. Again, I viewed the De Soto Explorer and Eudora News as stepping stones, pit stops on my way to bigger and better. I took them seriously because I thought that they could very well lead to job – be it through connections or good clips or chance encounters. Whatever ended up happening, I was sure that in a few months I’d look back on those soccer games that I was covering for $30 and think, “Man, that’s funny.”

About a month later, I also started freelancing for the Kansas City Star. I was covering a volleyball tournament for the News/Explorer, and there were going to be some Kansas City-area teams there. So I contacted the Star, told them I was going to be at the tourney and asked if they wanted a few inches of copy. They did, they liked what I wrote (all 200 words) and they asked me to cover a few more things. Then a few more. Eventually, by late November, I found myself covering a University of Missouri-Kansas City basketball game. (Yeah, that’s Division I, baby!) I became a regular contributor to the Star and continued writing for the Explorer/News combo; I freelanced a bit for the Independence (Mo.) Examiner; I became a featured (although unpaid) columnist for Lindy’s Sports Magazine’s Web site. My path toward getting a full-time job had been stalled, but I felt that I was at least still on the path.

The Explorer/News thing came to an exasperating end – a conclusion that, in hindsight, speaks to my exasperating journalistic endeavors as a whole. As much as this may sound like bitter bitching, there is a point to the next few hundred words. Promise.

Like I said, I was looking at these papers as stepping stones, as a chance to get better, maybe get a few clips, maybe get called up to another paper within the company. As much of a drag as it was at times to cover high school soccer, I always kept my ears open for that feature story down the road. And one time, I heard some parents opining about the team’s soft schedule: they were frustrated that De Soto’s team always did really well in the regular season and always floundered early in the postseason. The culprit, they said, was a cushy schedule.

On cue, De Soto, which was 13-2, lost to St. James Academy, which was 4-11, in its first postseason game. St. James may have been but 4-11, but the record lied: it had played a murderous schedule. So when I was tasked with writing a season recap after a heartbreaking first-round playoff exit, I asked the De Soto coach about that schedule.

The soft schedule, he said, really bothered him too. In fact, he had pressured administrators from high schools around the league to change the format of the regular season so that, like St. James, his team could schedule tougher teams. Thinking this was pretty interesting – at least interesting on the small-town-soccer scale – I kept digging. I talked with St. James’ coach, with De Soto’s activities director, with another area coach whose team always had bad regular seasons and great postseasons. I triangulated my sources, had a solid angle and produced a nice, clean story, even uncovering an interesting bit about some league-wide scheduling rule changes that were spearheaded by the De Soto coach. Keep in mind I was getting $30 per story.

Losing now to win later

With eye to postseason, De Soto will take advantage of rule change and beef up regular season schedule

De Soto soccer coach Darren Erpelding likes winning, but not like this.

After posting a school-record 13 regular season wins and claiming De Soto’s first Frontier League title, Erpelding is going out of his way to make sure that the wins don’t come so easily next season.

Ironically, the fourth-year head coach wouldn’t mind seeing a few more losses.

“We could only have 10 wins in the regular season next year, but we’ll be a completely better team than we were this year,” Erpelding said.

Erpelding’s contentment with fewer wins in 2009 stems from his team’s postseason flame-out in 2008. After running away with the Frontier League championship – the Wildcats outscored their league competition by a combined 47-9 – Erpelding’s team hit an unlikely road block in first round of the playoffs: St. James Academy, which entered the game with a measly 4-11 record.

But the regular season records proved irrelevant. St. James beat De Soto 1-0 in an apparent upset – the four-win team downing the 13-win team.

The wins and losses, however, don’t tell the whole story. St. James played a murderous regular season schedule, including 6A powers Blue Valley North and Blue Valley West, as well as five-time defending Kansas 5A state champ St. Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas blasted St. James 6-0, but St. James head coach Rick Enna hailed the game as a success.

“They (Aquinas) were a big help to us,” Enna said. “They were the first game of the year and they crushed us. But they helped us.”

Enna chalked up his team’s postseason success to its regular season trials.

“It’s good for the boys, not necessarily their record, but it’s good for them to see the standard of play that they need to aspire to,” Enna said. “I think if you get a taste of that standard of play...you’re much more prepared when the postseason arrives.”

“When your job is to put together your best team in 10 weeks,” Enna added, “ I think what you want to do is try to put together the best game plan to prepare for postseason. And if you can give them that look at a higher level opponent early on, it’s a big benefit.”

St. James’ fourth-place finish at state – despite their pedestrian regular season record – inspired Erpelding to propose changes to the Frontier League schedule at the league’s postseason coaches’ meeting last month.

Traditionally, each Frontier League team played every league opponent twice – once at home, once of the road. With eight teams in the league, the home-and-away format accounted for 14 games. Most teams, including De Soto, play a 15- or 16-game season, meaning close to 90 percent of a team’s competition came from within the league.

This was a problem for Erpelding because some Frontier League teams provided little resistance last season, which allowed De Soto to breeze by without having to play quality soccer.

Eudora, for example, went 0-15 last season; De Soto won each of their meetings with the Cardinals 5-0. And Eudora wasn’t the only doormat. De Soto plastered 3-12-1 Spring Hill by a combined 12-0 and bullied 5-10 Baldwin 2-0 and 4-0.

“There were eight games on the schedule that I knew we were going to win,” Erpelding said. “When you know that you are by far better than your opponent, it’s hard for you to get excited for that game and to work on getting better. This isn’t a knock on Eudora or Baldwin, but it’s just not the same...

“There were a lot of times playing some of those league games where the kids were literally going through the motions. And I don’t like coaching those games. Those six or seven to nothing blowouts may look good, but they don’t necessarily prepare you for the playoffs.”

So on the heels of Erpelding’s proposal, Frontier League coaches and administrators approved a big change: league teams will only play each other once in 2009. In addition, there will be a single-elimination league tournament at the beginning of the season.

With those tweaks to the schedule, each squad will have about six games against opponents of their choosing instead of just two. De Soto activities director Steve Deghand was one of the administrators who endorsed changing the scheduling policies.

“I think the more often you play the better competition, the better you can become,” Deghand said. “So I think it’s a great opportunity to go up against other good schools.

“I think that everybody likes to win, but you also want to do good in the postseason. And if you think you need some stiffer competition in the regular season to do better in postseason then that’s fine.”

Erpelding plans on taking full advantage of the open dates. Perennial 4A power Kansas City Christian – winner of four of the last seven state titles – will be on the slate. Erpelding is also looking to add 5A Lansing as well as 6A Lawrence Free State, Lawrence and Olathe Northwest.

KC Christian does not belong to a league, which allows them to play an array of different opponents. And instead of packing their schedule with cupcakes, coach Joe Hirleman said that it is their policy to schedule the best teams around.

“We’ve been pretty intentional in trying to track the bigger schools to play,” Hirleman said. “For us, and I think most coaches would agree, your record doesn’t really matter when you head into the playoffs. Generally, if you get through the first couple games you’re going to see one of the better teams anyway, so seeds don’t really matter.”

De Soto is evidence of the irrelevance of seeding. Their No. 1 seed in regionals earned them the right to play St. James, a team whose record belied their potential.

Next season, Erpelding will gladly trade some lumps in the regular season for wins in the postseason. After all, he got to see up close how well it worked for St. James.

Pretty good, right? Well, Jeff didn’t see it that way. And when my story was published, all but the De Soto coach’s quotes were removed. The story went from about 950 words to about 400. Now, you might be thinking, “Well of course the story didn’t run as it was – it was way too long.” Fair enough, but this is the kicker: that same week, Jeff published a story that was 950 words long himself. And here’s the double-kicker: 660 of those 950 words – well over two-thirds – were simply quotes. And here’s the part that makes me want to vomit like that little girl in class: of those 660 quoted words, there was only ONE source. At one points in Jeff’s story, there is a 276-word segment of which 238 words are quotes.

I was despondent – a quality clip and about 10 hours had been stolen from me. But I was still unfazed. I took a part-time job at a local library and continued to freelance for anyone who would let me. I knew I was a writer, and I knew if I simply kept writing then I’d get my break.

But by February, 2009, I was beginning to break. There was simply nowhere for me to go. No one was hiring. I was working part-time at a library. I was living at home, fielding questions like, “Have you thought of maybe trying to do something else?” with increasing frequency.

It was around this time that I sat down for coffee with one of the Star’s Kansas City Chiefs beat writers, Adam Teicher. We met up at a coffee joint not far from where he had just dropped his daughter off for some sort of sports practice – fencing, if memory serves. He was sitting lazily against at a table when I arrived, wearing a hooded sweatshirt, one hand on his cup of joe, the other resting in his lap. Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I remember him sporting a look of contentment, enjoying some coffee and avoiding the cold in what seemed like total comfort. Of course the Chiefs beat writer is happy, I thought. Why wouldn’t he be – he’s got it made.

I ordered some coffee myself and joined him. He had told me to bring some clips and a résumé; his interest in me didn’t seem feigned as I laid my things in front of him. He scanned quickly but knowingly and made a few comments about my résumé (there probably was no point in listing my high school newspaper, he said). He set my things down, grabbed his coffee and leaned back.

“Man, I just don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “With these clips and your experience – if this were 10 years ago you’d have a job by now. How long until you need to move out of your parents’ house?”

“Four months ago,” I replied, inducing a chuckle.

“I would say to just keep doing what you’re doing, keep freelancing and making contacts, but I just don’t know. I mean, I could lose my job next week. I wish I could be more optimistic. I don’t want to sound so negative, but there just isn’t a lot to be optimistic about right now. The newspaper industry is just so bad.”

There was tangible support for that claim. The flames engulfing the newspaper world, a world that I was hell-bent on joining, were burning stronger than ever. In March, the high school sports editor who gave me my first chance at the Star – a genuinely nice guy who had been there for ages – was let go amid yet another round of staff cuts. He was one of a few editors who got axed, along with some writers. More: the Chronicle and Rocky Mountain News shut their doors, and an Associated Press writer who I met at a CU basketball game told me in an email that the AP would be cutting 10 percent of its writers within the year.

Bottom line: there were fewer jobs available, and – per the layoffs – more qualified unemployed writers out there than at any point in recent history. The math wasn’t working in my favor. I applied for and didn’t get about 638 more jobs, and realized that I was approaching the one-year anniversary of my graduation and still wasn’t gainfully employed.

Just in case you’re wondering, I wasn’t too naïve or too principled to try my hand at the online journalism world. I contacted countless Web-based media outlets couldn’t get even a nibble. They weren’t immune to the economic meltdown, either, and if they weren’t shedding people, they at least weren’t bringing any on – at least not me. Plus, take a look at online-only sportswriters, and see where they got their starts. It’s newspapers. Sites like Yahoo! Sports and ESPN.com and SI.com do indeed have a bevy of writers, but almost without exception those writers cut their teeth at newspapers. An insightful (albeit depressing) article in Business Week felt all too biographical:

Bright, eager—and unwanted. While unemployment is ravaging just about every part of the global workforce, the most enduring harm is being done to young people who can't grab onto the first rung of the career ladder….

For people just starting their careers, the damage may be deep and long-lasting, potentially creating a kind of “lost generation.” Studies suggest that an extended period of youthful joblessness can significantly depress lifetime income as people get stuck in jobs that are beneath their capabilities, or come to be seen by employers as damaged goods.

I started having nightmares about the term “hiring freeze” and eventually became resigned to the fact that my first job after college – save part-time librarian – would be as an English teacher in China. The hiring process was brow-furrowingly easy; from the time I applied to the time I got hired was maybe two weeks. But even after I decided that having a job I didn’t like in China would be better (or at least more interesting) than having a job I didn’t like in Kansas City, I couldn’t in good conscience stop trying for the journalism biz. I figured until I bought a plane ticket, I could still renege on the commitment to China. So I kept up with the same old routine: writing a ton, sending out clips and résumés, hoping.

I thought I caught my break in early June with the Idaho State Journal, in Pocatello, Idaho, which is home to Idaho State University. I asked the sports editor at the Star if she had any ideas, and a few days later she wrote back that she was privy to an opening at the State Journal. So I sent them my things and dropped that Star editor’s name. About a week later I heard back that I was a candidate for the job, and that they wanted to have a phone interview. This was euphoric news.

I had a good, long interview with the State Journal sports editor, pacing around my bedroom for the entirety of our 60-minute chat. Even though my optimism had long since eroded, I couldn’t help but think that things were fortuitously arranged: The writer who had the job for which I was interviewing was from Kansas City. There would be some outdoor coverage involved and, hey, I wrote for an outdoor sports magazine. The sports editor wasn’t turned off by my philosophy degree because he was an English major and hailed the value of a liberal arts education. He said that the piece about the player-turned-assistant was one of the better things he had read from any applicant. I got an email a few days later saying that I was a finalist – a finalist!!! – for the job. I hadn’t bought that Chinese plane ticket yet, and it looked like I might not have to.

The final step was to interview one of the sports writers over the phone and write a story about him on a two-hour deadline. Having reread it a million times, I have no regrets about what I wrote. I researched the person who I was going to interview, read his bio on the paper’s Web site, peeked at his Facebook page and had an angle before the interview even started. I pursued that angle with my questions and churned out a totally serviceable story for the two hours which I was given.

A week later, that Pocatello area code popped up on my phone. They were going in a different direction, they said, which meant that I was going in a different direction, too: China.

(Dastardly, salt-in-the-wound footnotes: The writer whose job I thought I’d get in Pocatello was later hired by the Star to cover the Kansas State University beat. Also, the Star also recently promoted a former Journal-World writer as a lead columnist. Kill me.)

1 comment:

  1. Damn man. The plot thickens. Onto the next one. You need to get a twitter handle and tweet these links after picking up some followers.