Thursday, December 27, 2012

No. 525 – Deep in the Motherlode

Performer: Genesis
Songwriter: Mike Rutherford
Original Release: …And Then There Were Three…
Year: 1978
Definitive Version: Knebworth 78, 1978

At Medill, Intro to Journalism, aka Boot Camp, consisted of two parts. The first part I’ve mentioned—essentially it was classroom practice. The second part consisted of sending everyone out into the real world.

The assignment was simple: You were given a beat somewhere in the suburbs, and you covered it like you would if you worked at a daily paper. Four out of the five days, you were expected to file at least one story by a particular deadline—usually 4 p.m., if I recall correctly.

Beats were assigned based on how you did in first half to a certain extent but also on your mode of transportation. I had a car, so I was assigned Deerfield, an upper-middle-class suburb fairly far to the northwest of Evanston.

But I wasn’t assigned to cover all of Deerfield. Instead, I got Deerfield police, fire and parks. The reason why this was a problem quickly became apparent: It was November, so there wasn’t much activity with the parks. There hadn’t been a fire in a decade. And police? Crime in Deerfield consisted almost entirely of car burglaries—not car theft, but breaking into cars and stealing radar detectors.

How the heck do you craft a story out of that on a daily basis? That became my challenge and one I grew to quickly hate as my struggles to make something out of nothing and get it past my gatekeeper rapidly mounted.

Not only did we get new beats in the second half of Boot Camp at Northwestern, but we also got new instructors. Time has lost the name of my instructor—I remember what she looked like—but what’s important to know is that she hated me. Well, OK, that’s a bit strong. It probably is more accurate to say she hated my work. I could tell that from my daily grades.

In Boot Camp, we didn’t get letter grades. It was a check plus-minus system. If you had a check or a check-plus, you were good. A check-minus or, worse, just plain minus meant you had to rewrite and perhaps rereport your story, due the next day along with whatever else was due.

I had a few rewrites in the first half of Boot Camp, but the second half was a river of rewrites. I rewrote my stuff almost every day. Rare was the day when I’d turn something in, and I’d get even a check-minus, let alone a check. But what could I do? There was nothing going on worth writing about.

One night, I got the keen idea to go out on runs with the guy who was the media-relations guy at the fire department. There was one run: it was to a home where they smelled smoke, but it was just something that got stuck in the ductwork.

Otherwise, all he did was tell interesting stories about the “big ones.” He said the two biggest fires he encountered on the job was when the DC-10 lost its engine and crashed at O’Hare and when Arlington Park burned to the ground. He didn’t work either fire; Deerfield just had to cover the other communities called to the scene.

The story I generated from that night required two attempts to pass through the gate.

I suppose in retrospect, the fault of the rewrites was mine. I had no experience in news gathering and just flat didn’t know how to do it, or, really, how to do it to the instructor’s expectations. At the time, I was convinced that something more was going on, because I sure didn’t have as much trouble in the first half of the class.

I kept trying, driving out to Deerfield almost every day to call on my sources and see whether anything was happening. Fortunately, Scott had sent me a care package that consisted of a tape of a new bootleg he bought—Knebworth.

I wasn’t real familiar with mid-Seventies Genesis, so I listened to that tape all the time as I’d head out on the Edens Expressway, heading North to Lake-Cook Road in hopes of finding something, anything, to write about that day.

No comments:

Post a Comment