Former sports editor recalls days at paper
The editor met me at a brew pub for the first interview near The University of Oregon a few months before my graduation.
For the second interview, the editor, the publisher and myself played a round of golf, followed by lunch at The Apple Peddler.
It was casual, but professional and respectful, and a few days later I was offered the job as the sports editor of the Central Oregonian.
Almost immediately, I knew where I would shine and where I would struggle.
I had a gift for words and for interviewing and knew I could balance the regular sports stories with some in-depth features.
But I had almost no photography experience and had little knowledge of newspaper design.
Luckily, editor Bill Sheehy was gifted in both, and I made sure I learned as much from him as possible.
It was a year or two shy of the digital era, so we were still pasting up pages and rolling our own film.
With little school sports going on, I made it through the first summer by writing those feature stories.
I went to senior fishing derbies and to rodeos. I wrote articles on horse jumping and hunting and trips abroad for local football players. I covered the Splash-n-Dash.
When late summer and fall rolled around, I was in heaven.
I was at nearly every home game for every sport, taking photos, interviewing athletes and coaches and talking with parents.
A small-town sports editor's best friends are usually parents and residents with high-tech camera equipment. Rick Steber and Fred Houston Jr. were Godsends during that time.
They also gave me crucial historical knowledge of the town and its sports teams.
As the fall went on, it was clear the boys soccer team was having a special year.
Head coach Charlie Berman asked if I would write feature stories on his seniors to help generate more team interest in the community. He also said he was hesitant to ask because he didn't want to feel like he was favoring his team over any other.
I agreed and told him, "I'd do the same for them."
One other team or squad took me up on that, the cheerleaders.
I was approached by the captain during a game if I would interview them the way I was doing for the soccer team.
"C'mon on down to the office," I told them.
One day as I was working at my desk, a half a dozen cheerleaders, complete in uniform, came in asking for me.
Sheehy came out of his office mumbling something like, "What in the world is Richards up to?"
For me, it was simply a way of instilling pride in the community for our sports teams, all of them.
After a few years, Sheehy retired, and Vance Tong took over.
Just as I did with my previous boss, I learned from my new boss.
Well into the digital era at this point, Tong gave me more news duties in addition to sports, and I was also co-writing movie reviews, which I loved.
One day, during the Sheehy/Tong transition, one of them asked me to take photos at an elementary school carnival.
I tried hard to find the best shot, but was struggling. I then noticed there were games on the upper lever of the gym as well, including the one where you knock down a pyramid of milk bottles.
I saw a young student getting ready to play. As I looked at the stacked bottles, I noticed the center of the stack made a diamond-shaped space. I told the kid to pull his arm back with the ball but not to throw, and I zipped around into position behind the bottles. It worked like a charm.
The entire photo was the shadows of three stacked large milk bottles, while the center was the image of the boy ready to hurl a ball down in hopes of winning a prize.
It was staged, but effective.
Sheehy and Tong put it on the front page, and months later the photo earned me my first journalism award.
One of the great things about small-town newspapers is that management will let you try different things.
One out-of-the-box idea I had was to cover the Winter Olympics planned for Salt Lake City.
My aunt lived there, so I knew costs would be minimal. The biggest hurdle was landing a United States Olympic press credential.
My bosses gave me the green light, and I quickly knew what I was up against.
My first request for a credential was denied on the basis there were none available and that they didn't award them to non-daily papers or to papers not covering an athlete from their area.
I wrote back asking if I could send a monthly e-mail to see if the status had changed.
They told me I could.
So for months, I wrote my e-mails. I rarely got a reply and when I did it was a sort of "thanks, but no thanks."
But shortly before the opening ceremony, I received a phone call letting me know a credential had come available and asking if I wanted it.
I probably danced on the newsroom floor.
For a little more than a week, I covered the Olympics with amazing press access, the hockey games, the figure skating, the medal ceremonies. I interviewed athletes and their coaches and wrote columns for my readers back home.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, just as my time was with the Central Oregonian.
Did I make mistakes? Absolutely. During my first Splash-n-Dash, I reported that the wrong guy got hit by a car.
But I also received the kind of real-world experience you can't learn from a classroom or read in a book.
That role as sports editor served me well as I became the managing editor of three different papers after that, including a daily.
In 2010, I made the transition from newspapers to healthcare, using my communications skills in new and different ways, while living in Minnesota.
The end result has been the same though, just as it was when I took the job at the CO, both exciting and scary.
My plan now is just as it was then:
Focus on the skills I have, while learning daily from a Bill Sheehy or a Vance Tong for the ones I don't.
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