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Grading on a (Bowerman) Curve

Interviewing athletes in the dark
The UO's NCAA championship clinching 4x400 relay team is interviewed in near darkness after the media tent's power went out during a thunderstorm

At the conclusion of the 2017 NCAA outdoor track and field championships, the sky darkened and the heavens above Eugene opened. Fans celebrating the UO's historic triple crown were asked to seek shelter as the thunder roared and the rain beat down on the masses running for cover.

Behind the west grandstand, UO head coach Robert Johnson and the members of his championship clinching 4x400 relay team headed to the safety of the media tent to dry off and face the assembled journalists—a crowd that included students from journalism professor Lori Shontz's track and field writing class.

As the Ducks—and the championship trophy—entered the tent, the lights flickered and then went out, plunging everyone into darkness. But while Mother Nature got the better of the electrical system she couldn't get the better of the media—the press conference went ahead, lit by the small lights on the TV cameras.

Count that among the many lessons Shontz's students learned this spring: do what you have to do to get the story.

Established at the UO only three years ago, the track and field writing class has developed into a dynamic and competitive course that gives students a realistic picture of professional life in sports journalism. Linden Moore, a former student of Shontz's, explains, “I think what makes this class so effective and successful is that she pushes us beyond our comfort zone and is always encouraging us to be the best we can be.”

Shontz, who has covered four Olympics as a sportswriter, traces her interest in sports journalism and love for reporting on track and field back to her years as a senior editor at the Penn Stater alumni magazine and adjunct lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications. During her time there, she traveled to Dublin, Ireland, to get more hands-on experience, and while in Dublin was inspired to create the course.

“This class is about covering sports, obviously, but it’s really a lot more than that," Shontz said. "It’s about covering a beat. That means understanding the community we cover, which is everything from going to events like Tracktown Tuesday so you can pick the brains of the fans who have been following the sport for years, to reading history of the sport and the town."

The class takes advantage of Eugene's packed running calendar, with students covering track meets at Hayward Field and the Eugene Marathon near Autzen Stadium. They learn which questions to ask and which to avoid, and also experience a sports journalist's schedule, which isn’t the typical nine-to-five job. Unlike classroom due dates that allow for extensions or exemptions contingent upon extenuating circumstances, the deadlines the students from the School of Journalism and Communication track and field writing class must manage are dictated by the media outlets they may be writing for. The students covering the NCAA track and field championships, for example, couldn't ask for extensions on their stories—there were sports departments around the country waiting for their copy to arrive so it could be included in the following day's sports sections.

After the meets, the class regroups and Shontz asks the students to peer-review and self-reflect on their work. Shontz refers to this teaching style as metacognitive, as it instills self-awareness and better understanding of one’s own thought process and tactics in the students. Sophomore Shawn Medow, who is currently enrolled in the class, couldn’t agree more with Shontz’s teaching style and explained, “With Lori as the professor, we have a top sports journalism veteran editing and providing feedback on our work, which is unbelievably helpful.”  

Experts in the field are invited into the classroom by Shontz, so that the students can gain a greater understanding of the sport itself. Students can meet professionals such as Heike McNeil, who studies the science of training cycles, and journalists, such as Chris Hansen of the Register-Guard and Ken Goe from the Oregonian. Medow explained, “Not only am I learning from Lori, but I am also learning from other journalists and professionals who have covered the sport for most of their adult lives. Seeing how they conduct interviews, take notes, and write stories provides insight into the daily grind of a professional sports journalist.”

Shawn Medow conducts an interview
Medow and Shontz interview Harvard sprinter Gabby Thomas during the NCAA Division I track and field championships at Hayward Field

The students must go to great lengths to qualify and solidify their title as UO sports journalists. Not only must they be approved by people at all levels—including the NCAA, organizers of the Prefontaine Classic, and members of Track Town USA—they must attend seminars and meet with athletes, coaches, and physical trainers.

Moreover, because of the competitive nature of the course as well as its limited capacity, Shontz performs the student course entry interviews herself.  She feels she can best assess whether or not the students are motivated and reliable enough to be in the class, as it requires a large time commitment and extensive dedication. Through this technique, she has found that her students go on to be incredibly successful alumni in the field of sports journalism.

Many of her students go on to work for professional publications and organizations. One became the digital sports editor for Lee Newspapers; another is now a sports anchor and reporter for the Iowa Tribune, while four others have taken internships with Major League Baseball.

Shontz addresses how many people have questioned why she doesn’t expand the class to football or soccer, and her answer is simply, “The beauty of track is that there are 30 different events. There is no single story.” Furthermore, Eugene is "Track Town, USA," and Shontz explained, “It’s not just about writing who won and by how much time. It’s about understanding and covering something that matters to the people who live here.” The students learn how intertwined the history of track is with the history of Eugene.

Medow said, “Lori's class has created the ultimate learning environment for anyone looking to venture into the field of sports journalism. I write for the Daily Emerald and broadcast for KWVA, but Lori's class has given me the chance to focus in on one particular sport that has a worldwide audience. Track and field offers compelling stories of athletes that cannot be found in most other sports, such as football and basketball, because of their constant spotlight in sports media.

“The hands-on experience that this class creates is one-of-a-kind, and it's an opportunity to learn skills that are unteachable in a traditional classroom setting. This, by far, has been the best class I have taken in my lifetime—even if I spend 20 hours on a single weekend at Hayward Field!”

- UO student Naomi Arthur