Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Not getting it

I've never been much of a jumper. I find my expertise is in making my way through large crowds. I'm thin, pushy and assertive, but not very springy. When I'm in a good mood, I feel I can jump higher. When I'm alone and stressed, my viscosity lowers and my ability to traverse large crowds is increased. I would consider these two attributes of equal importance.

The University of Illinois is a big place. Its sprawling campus is home to more worker-bee students than, I would think, any other university in the state. There are loads of crowds here. As a journalism major, I work in a competitive field. You can't just "take one for the team" and become a sports journalist. You have to work your ass off relative to everyone else working their ass off. You have to be a talented writer, you have to wisely discern turning points in games and know what questions to ask without making the rest of the lodge brothers look bad.

I first picked up the Daily Illini during a visit in my senior year of high school. I looked at the sports section (such was habit with newspapers since childhood) and read a column on Steve Nash. I liked it, but thought of some things that I would have done differently, which I thought were better. And I thought it'd be really cool to write for the paper. If I could get in to U of I, man, it'd be fun to see my face in print. Turns out I could get into U of I. It'd be fun to see my face in print.

Fast forward to freshman year, and I find the Daily Illini is actually quite an accessible organization. They take me in; my editor, Alex Iniguez, seems pretty nice. I get assigned a club sports beat and wait for further direction. I end up waiting quite a while, until October, when Alex floats me and the other two club sports writers a story idea with the plea "Please somebody do this story." I grabbed it, because it was underwater hockey, and I held my breath and dove in. I remember frequently corresponding with Alex, checking all my steps. Interviews? Practices? Length? Story tone? Whatever. Pictures? Pictures? Pictures? (I finally took the pictures.) And I came in with a story that I heard was hyperbolically called "the best first story ever." Which I basically still pride myself on today, sadly enough.

Alex worked with me to try and get me to a more prominent beat as club sports continued to dawdle. He was going to put me on hockey, then opted out of an additional hockey writer. He offered me women's gymnastics, and I opted for a column, showing this blog to him as a testament to my rambling abilities.

But I wanted to do more, and about this time last year, Alex and I talked and he convinced me to apply for assistant sports editor. Seeing as how I was the only willing applicant, I got the position and got myself in the newsroom. They convinced Jeff Kirshman, a sophomore, to take on the position as well. Assistant editors typically go on to become desk editors. The task was incredibly daunting at the time, but I knew there was a year before I'd have to be ready.

Amazingly, that year has come and gone. I've worked five days a week during the school year at the DI, critiquing stories, improving them, learning A.P. style, mingling with Jeff and the features desk, taking pointers from current editor Kevin Kaplan, seeing really good stories, seeing really bad stories. I've learned a lot. I've grown a lot.

At a certain point, you rise to the surface, or you make a leap to it. Or you sink. The more I filled in for Kaplan whenever he'd sparingly miss days, I grew in my confidence. If I could become sports editor my junior year, my senior year I'd have my pick of the litter. Jeff had told me with confidence that he didn't want to apply for sports editor. He had had enough of living at the DI and wanted to report again. After all, reporting is better for a resume.

I began using the words "heir apparent." They fit me.

Jeff and I's last day as true peers — before the word came down and the "apparent" half of the phrase could be dropped — we worked as well with each other as we had over the past year. Kaplan missed due to potential pink eye, and we ran the ship like two competent assistants would. The internet going down for two hours didn't stop us. We accessed facts that our reporters failed to find. We made sure everything was handed to the design desk on time. We had gone to news conference together, figured out what to play up through discourse, we stayed late, we watched the end of the NBA All-Star game, we finished the day together. I was exhausted. Too drained for drinks that night. Maybe another time, Jeff. It wouldn't be weird to ask. We had become friends through this job we loved and maligned.

The position of sports editor is a high-up one on the paper. The highest I care to go, really. I was coming into it like I had come into assistant editor, floating up through the mass of more qualified people per pointers from those I respect. Fifteen hours before the application deadline, Jeff had let me know he had a 180 degree shift of mind and was applying for sports editor.

Admitting you're flustered is rare — typically by the time you realize you were flustered, the damage has already been done. But Jeff's decision to apply flustered me, in an utterly fair way. I thought back to my application, which I had filled out in a more casual state of mind. I thought of new questions I'd have to answer, questions I hadn't been thinking of answers to for weeks. I went from needing an inductive appeal to needing to elicit deductive favor. My "good enough" wouldn't allow me a chance. I had seen a crack, and tried to fit through it. But no, this wasn't going to work that way. The bar had been raised, and now I had to leap.

Jeff had said earlier in the year, in a matter-of-fact way, "If I apply, they'll pick me over you." Fair, I thought. He has a year on me, a year which he used to cover varsity sports, and other than that Jeff and I were utterly equal in the eyes of superiors.  Things had changed now, though. I had impressed people. I had stepped up in times of need, and I had showed confidence. I was heir apparent, and no one shuddered at that.

Getting off the elevator on the third floor of the Illini Media building (the newsroom) for my interview, I was met, as the doors slid open, by Jeff. Damn it, he had worn a tie. I high-fived him/shook his hand. "Tag out," I joked, with a hint of nerve. I asked Jeff if he wanted to have a few drinks later. It would be a night for celebration — one of us was going to be editor, and the other would no longer have to be assistant. He accepted. The interview itself went well. Everyone in the room knew I could do the job. They asked me questions, and I answered some better than others. Nothing to do now but work and wait.

Nathaniel Lash, newly anointed managing editor, was the one who called me with the verdict. I was walking home, and had taken a detour so that I'd get the call outside, by myself. He apologized for an awkward miscommunication from earlier, and I could tell by his tone of voice there were more apologies to come. I understood immediately their decision to go with Jeff. That night had reassured me that either of us could do it, and it was cool having a chance to work with Jeff for a night in what was essentially a co-editing role, no assistance necessary. Nathaniel kept spoon-feeding me compliments after he told me the decision, and I kept chewing and swallowing them, because it seemed like a practical thing to do. When the conversation had lasted long enough, Nathaniel offered a final thanks, apology and compliment, and I hung up. I let the moment hang in the cool night air for a bit before putting my headphones back on. My iPod had kept me good company throughout the process.

For me, deferment means a new era and a new field. After spring break, I will begin reporting on the school's baseball team. I'm still planning on spending the summer here in Champaign, and hell, living with Jeff if possible. It's something that leaves plenty of room for opportunity, and brings about a little less stress to boot. I don't know for sure what I want to do next year, but I have a few ideas. And though I really, truly saw myself in that newsroom, working under Sammie, alongside Nathaniel and Taylor, with Jeff coming into me for edits and not the other way around, my time as sports editor will have to wait. And if I spend my time working out my reporting muscles, I'll be ready to jump when the time comes around again.

For now, I'll have to pocket my editor jokes, my meeting ideas, my editor fantasies, and my ideas for beat assignments for another year. It's a disappointing feeling. I lost, when I really thought I wasn't going to have to compete. I'm happy for Jeff, though. It's a challenge to me — earn my chops reporting, then I get another crack at the editor's chair.

It's important not to let go of failures like these — it's important to take them with you. I applied myself, and someone else applied themselves more successfully. And while it's hard to remember that you're not supposed to let your head hang, it's easy to remember that you're supposed to pick your head back up, look forward, and go somewhere.

Jeff, I'm happy for you. I think you made the right decision, potentially for both of us.

--Eliot Sill



  2. Please bear with me here, Eliot. How good to have lost something you deserved this early in your career, and to a worthy competitor at that. We learn more from losses than we do from wins.
    And I'm sorry to sound so mom-like, but whatever, that's who I am. Look forward and go somewhere.

  3. Now I know why you haven't called lately for casual chatter. I feel foolish for leaving advice about deadlines to one who I see now knows them much more intimately than his middle-aged father. You will grow forward from this. This leap simply hit the bar, your next happy leap will clear it.