Hayward Field lights shut off one by one, and darkness envelops the stadium. The sound of cheers and starter gun shots is replaced by cricket chirps and typing. A single light shines from the top of the stadium, where a row of MacBooks illuminates the faces of chilly UO School of Journalism and Communication students. Wrapped in jackets and fingerless gloves, their media credentials still hanging from their necks, the students focus on turning the statistics and interviews they’ve gathered throughout the day into short narratives. Once they turn in their copy, they will wait patiently for SOJC Instructor Lori Shontz to edit their work.
Last spring, Shontz accompanied 14 students enrolled in the SOJC’s Sports Bureau — affectionately known as “track class” — as they covered Eugene’s biggest track and field events, including the Twilight Meet, Prefontaine Classic, PAC-12 Championship, Eugene Marathon and NCAA Championship. The class is immensely popular, and students have to submit written explanations of why they are interested in taking the course.
“I applied for the class because I was intrigued about the structure and how Lori taught it,” journalism student Linden Moore said. “The prospect of reporting at track meets in Eugene and as an aspiring sports journalist was music to my ears.”
Shontz started her students off small by having them attend TrackTown Tuesdays, a monthly community event where the press interviews athletes in front of an audience of interested townspeople, and cover a South Eugene High School meet. Meanwhile, the class tackled assigned readings about Steve Prefontaine and the Boston Marathon and engaged with guest speakers at Tuesday evening classes.
Soon, it was time to throw the students into the deep end. Shontz equipped each with media credentials that gained them access to Hayward Field’s press area, sitting shoulder to shoulder with professional journalists. She assigned each student to an event and asked most to focus on first- and second-place winners, unless there was a special story that needed to be covered.
One of Moore’s favorite memories was covering a feature story at the Prefontaine Classic. “This is one of the meets we prepared all term for, and to experience the press conference and telling English runner Mo Farah’s story before his last time on the track in America was pretty cool,” Moore said.
As a sports writer herself, Shontz is able to share practical tips of the trade with her students. She slowly increased the number of rules to follow for writing great articles, such as doing research on a topic before entering the stadium and reading an article backwards to catch spelling and grammatical errors. She provided lists of banned clichés and items they should always carry.
“Make sure you always bring extra socks, gloves, food and water to the meets,” Moore said. “You will literally be the last ones there. The one time I didn’t have those was at PAC-12, when it was pouring. Lesson learned.”
Shontz worked with every student one-on-one, even if it meant keeping students until midnight, which was common. She recognized that every student had their personal strengths and weaknesses. Her style of teaching was hands-on and full of tough love. She didn’t let students off the hook, and they quickly learned to appreciate it.
“She treated us how a boss treats her employees, which is what we need as students for real-world journalism experience,” said Maggie Vanoni, a journalism student who took Track Class spring term.
The extra work paid off. Shontz’s students published 120 stories last spring. Over her four terms teaching this class, her students published 443 stories, 31 of which appeared in professional news outlets thanks to Shontz’s connections with Associated Press sports editors. Many of those outlets are located on the East Coast and are eager to get stories of hometown athletes but unable to send their own reporters to Eugene. Twenty-seven of the outlets paid the students as freelancers.
“That’s a lot of out-of-classroom, experiential learning,” Shontz said. “It is learning, not just a freelance gig. The students do extensive research and a variety of metacognitive assignments to put what they are doing into a bigger perspective.”
Vanoni considers freelancing for Tennessee’s “Knoxville News Sentinel“ one of her favorite moments of the class because she learned so much.
“At the NCAA, when we all got freelance work, was super cool because it was awesome practical experience,” Vanoni said. “We all had really tight deadlines.”
Shontz is looking forward to teaching the class again next spring. If the program keeps running, they will cover the US Track & Field Olympic Trials in 2020 and the World Championships at Hayward Field in 2021.
“I hope to keep this going through what will surely be one of the biggest athletic events to happen not only on our campus, but in the state,” Shontz said. “It will also be the first time Outdoor Worlds have been held in the United States.”
Becky Hoag is a junior double-majoring in journalism and marine biology, with an environmental studies minor. This is her second term interning for the SOJC Communications Office. She is the editor-in-chief of UO’s environmental publication, Envision Magazine, and the president of UO’s Society of Professional Journalists chapter. She is interested in being a research scientist and freelance environmental and scientific journalist. You can view her work at beckyhoag.com.