For the first time in its nearly 40-year history, the World Athletics Championships are taking place on U.S. soil. Nearly 2,000 athletes from 200 nations have converged at Hayward Field at the University of Oregon for track and field competitions. It’s also an opportunity for students from the University of Oregon’s journalism school to get invaluable experience filing daily articles and photographing elite athletes as they sprint, jump and throw their way to victory. Lori Shontz is a professor of practice and the founder of the track bureau at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Elias Esquivel is a senior in the journalism school and one of the students in the Track Bureau who is covering events such as the 100-meters finals at the World Athletics Championships.
Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud, I’m Dave Miller. As we talked about recently, the World Athletics Championships are taking place on US soil right now, for the first time in their nearly 40 year history. So, about 2,000 track and field athletes from 200 countries have converged at Hayward Field at the University of Oregon. It is an opportunity for Oregonians to see the fastest runners, highest jumpers, and furthest throwers in the world. It’s also a chance for students from the University of Oregon’s journalism school to cover these athletes. Lori Shontz is a professor of practice, and the founder of the Track Bureau at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. Elias Esquivel is a senior at the U of O, and he is one of the students on this Track Bureau. They both join me now. It’s good to have both of you on the show.
Lori Shontz: Thanks so much for having us Dave.
Miller: Lori first, where did the idea come from to start a track bureau?
Shontz: Well first of all, I always try to teach the classes that I wanted to take. And having the opportunity to really be a full time professional style journalist as a student is something I was always looking for.
In addition, you cannot understand Eugene unless you understand track and field. And I believe very firmly that journalism needs to reflect the communities that it’s a part of. So it was a natural connection to speak with TrackTown USA, to speak with the Prefontaine Classic, to speak with USA Track and Field, and see what we can do. And we’ve had tons of support since 2015.
Miller: Elias, can you explain just how it works from a student perspective? If you’re talking to a classmate who says “wait, you’re on the track bureau, what is that?”, what do you say?
Elias Esquivel: I say that it’s an experience that you might wanna rethink.
I say that jokingly. It’s just so immersive, and it demands so much out of us. If you want to be part of the Track Bureau, you can expect to be sitting in Hayward Field until midnight with all the lights shut off, editing, trying to finish up your story. I think it just takes commitment, and it takes being uncomfortable, allowing yourself to be uncomfortable. Really just diving in and learning as we go.
Miller: Why did you want to be a part of this?
Esquivel: That’s a great question. I want to be a sportswriter, and I want to be a really, really good sportswriter. A well rounded one. So essentially, I want to be able, when I’m out in the field, to have my editor send me to any sporting event, whether it’s rodeo, track, basketball, softball, whatever it is, and know that I’m going to do a good job, know that I’m capable. So track and field was just another beat that I had to learn. And I knew that Lori was offering it, and I had a relationship with Lori from previous classes. So it was a pretty simple decision, really.
Miller: How much did you know about track and field before you joined this bureau?
Esquivel: Not a whole lot. I did track and field in high school, but in terms of writing about it and knowing the sport on the professional level, the collegiate level, I was pretty lost. So I was in an uncomfortable situation. I really just had to learn as much as I could as time went on.
Miller: Lori, It seems like that’s part of the plan here, right? If a student says I was uncomfortable, I had to learn a lot and it takes a lot of commitment, I imagine that is exactly what you want to hear your students saying.
Shontz: My heart is singing right now. That is the whole reason why I do this.
Miller: To be clear, he was joking. But Elias, it also seems like you were saying if a classmate said “what do you think about this?”, the first answer was, “I’m not sure if you want to do this because it seems really hard.”
Shontz: It is hard. You have to love this work to be able to do it, and I really spend most of the class helping students be confident. Track and field is the absolute best sport, and really best thing to cover that I’ve found works with students. There’s 40 events in a track meet, there’s no competition. At a basketball game, there’s one story, and maybe there’s one separate sidebar on the star player or a specific play. And in this, you have to know a little bit of everything. You could be covering shot put, you could be covering the 1,500, you could be covering a jump. And so we go pretty deep into all of these, and it does make them uncomfortable. I want them to know that they have the tools to be able to get themselves out of it.
Part of the other reason that it works is because there are so many meets at Hayward field. We were literally at a track meet the first week of class. We meet Tuesdays and Fridays, and Friday night, we were at the Hayward Premiere in the first week of April, and they knew almost nothing. And they turned around stories that day, and they wrote them. And then what they do is they write me a reflection. They say “this is what I did well”, they say “this is what I want to do better the next time”, and then they say “this is what help I need from you, Lori.” And that combination helps me to gear the class to their needs every week.
And it’s a really special experience. As the meets get bigger, they get better, and they could not be more prepared for what they’re doing right now.
Miller: I didn’t look into numbers for this, but it would not surprise me if more people are covering, and more money is spent on coverage for any one single NFL team than for the entirety of track and field in the entire world. What’s the business model for track and field journalism right now?
Shontz: Well, this is gonna sound really odd, but in some ways, the fact that it is difficult to cover track and field, that it’s difficult to travel, especially in a pandemic right now, that gives opportunities to our students. One of the ways I’ve pitched this class from the beginning is that maybe you’re not gonna be able to get out here for the NCAA championships, but maybe the best athlete in your little town or in your city is going to compete here, and they’re going to finish in 11th place, or 14th place, or 3rd, or they’re going to win it. And we’re going to give you a story on that that you can put into your publication, and you’re going to get it done. That gives us a chance to focus on local athletes that are important to other communities. And then we also get the chance to say “hey, here’s the biggest event of the NCAA championships, here’s the World Championship 100m final. We’re going to cover that too.”
There are fewer journalists at Hayward Field most of the time. The journalists who are there are wonderful and supportive for the class, they give them tips, they share, they help. And part of the way the students learn is by watching what professionals do, and they can compare what they’re doing. That’s part of our reflective process as well. It’s really important to make this an educational experience and not just a freelance opportunity. They see what needs to be done, and then they figure out how to do it. And then they build on that.
Miller: And so your hope is that the lessons your students are picking up from track and field in particular are going to be generally applicable to other venues of sports journalism?
Shontz: Other venues of any journalism, Dave. I have that on my syllabus, that this class will number one, prepare you to be a professional sports media member, whether that’s as a journalist or public relations or anything else.
And the second thing it will do is that it’s really a class in advanced beat reporting, and in identifying what the needs are in a community, what the coverage needs are for a community. And you can do that with city council, you can do it with the education beat, I think you can do it with the White House, I think you can do it with anything. And it’s literally on my syllabus.
Miller: Elias, you covered the men’s 110m hurdle event, which seemed pretty dramatic in the end. Can you tell us what happened?
Esquivel: Yeah. So essentially, I thought I had an idea of what the story was going to be. And as track and field does sometimes, it went a complete 180, and I was left scrambling. Essentially what happened was Devon Allen, he has had a remarkable season this year, a historical season. He clocked in as the third fastest man ever in the event, and he’s a former Duck. So he’s in Hayward, he’s in front of his home crowd, he’s ready to go. And besides Allen, there were three Americans who were very talented and looked like they were gonna sweep the event. And moments before the race, as the gun’s getting ready to go off, they call a false start on Allen. And you can imagine the boos raining down from the stands from Hayward Field.
And it was just one of those moments where the unexpected happened, and we had to adjust. I had to adjust my story. I had to run down to the mix zone, this international mix zone with dozens of reporters, just kind of just trying to find a spot on the rail so that I can get quotes from Allen as he walks through and talks about this disappointing moment. And it was just one of those moments where, like Lori said, track and field in the community of Eugene, you could just feel the community just really feel bad for Allen. He had a remarkable season. His father passed away recently. He’s a local. And for him to go out that way, and see the shift in the energy in the stadium and in the reporting was really fascinating.
Miller: What have you been learning about deadlines through this class/job?
Esquivel: That they’re hard to meet. They really are. I had never been on deadline before. Since the classes started, I’ve had 21 deadline stories. And it’s almost thrilling in a way, because there’s something about gathering the same information as everyone else, gathering the same quotes, same details of what happened, and it being a scrum to see who can get the story out quickest, best. It’s satisfying knowing that the work and the background research I do into the events, it’s satisfying when then that can translate into a quickly turned around article that meets deadline in time.
Miller: What are you covering today?
Esquivel: Today, I’ll be covering Yulimar Rojas. She is Venezuelan, and she’s actually the world record holder in the triple jump. I’ll be covering her for DyeStat, which is a running publication in the United States. And it’s really cool because I’m Latino, I can speak Spanish, and I always look forward to anytime I can really utilize that skill and speak to the athletes in their language. I feel like it makes them more comfortable. It allows me to connect with them in a way that most reporters can’t.
Miller: You mentioned that she’s a triple jumper, which whenever I’ve watched it once every four years in the Olympics, I always find slightly confusing. How do you get up to speed to actually understand, not the basics of the rules, but what they’re really doing, and why any particular athlete is going to excel, or not quite do their best? How do you learn this quickly?
Esquivel: I think part of what helped me learn so quickly was reading other people’s work. Triple jump, it can be a complicated event to cover. But everything stays the same in terms of the craft, right? It’s what we do. So just reading other people’s pieces on triple jump, reading how it’s covered, listening in on interviews, other similar questions that are being asked in the mix zone. It’s really just learning by watching and adjusting with it.
And it’s tough. I tried triple jump in high school, and like you said, it’s very confusing. I didn’t last very long doing it. But I think I’m much better writing about. It’s really just kind of just diving in and just rolling with the punches, really.
Miller: I understand you’re also going to be writing a story on the team put together of refugees from around the world. What can you tell us about that team?
Esquivel: It’s remarkable. It’s amazing how these athletes who go through these unthinkable situations can still compete at a world class level. It’s understated how hard and difficult their journeys are. And being able to cover them and talk with them after the races, whether they ran well or they ran poorly, and understanding the amount of work it took for them to get to the spot that they’re in. It’s really humbling in a way.
And it reminds me of why I wanted to be a sports journalist in the first place. Everyone can cover you know a game or cover breaking news. But it’s that storytelling, telling their story in an appropriate way that’s deserving of it. That’s really fulfilling.
Miller: You’re gonna be graduating this fall. What are your plans for five months from now?
Esquivel: That’s a great question. What are my plans five months from now? In a perfect world, I would have a job somewhere covering a beat, preferably sports. I really can’t tell you what the next five months are gonna look like. I don’t know where I’m gonna be, but I know I’m gonna be writing, and that’s something I know that I’ll be doing for many, many years to come. Whether it’s about sports, whether it’s about education, really anything. As long as I’m around, I’ll be writing.
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