OneontaLink: Our Experience Shadowing a Newspaperman

November 12, 2009

By Alicia Walstad '10

"Have fun! Ask lots of questions!" Career Advisor Lara Sanford encouraged each departing student as the van door slammed shut.

We jounce our way along Main Street. On this chilly Friday in November I am taking part in Oneonta/CooperstownLink, which is a one-day job- shadow program offered through the Career Development and Education Office. I think about the 30-second commercial I practiced before MetroLink last February. Career Advisor Melissa Marietta always emphasizes how important it is to "talk about who you are succinctly." I look around at the six other students in the van and wonder if anyone else is practicing his or her own commercial.

During MetroLink, I spent a week shadowing a reporter at The Boston Herald and a blogger in New York City. I watched an interview in action, talked to editors from Seventeen and O, and learned all about The Daily Green. My MetroLink experiences helped me decide to add a major in Web Journalism.

As we turn onto Chestnut Street, I remember my first shadow experience. I went on BinghamtonLink during J Term of my freshman year. I shadowed the vice president of an advertising agency. By the end of the afternoon, I was absolutely positive I was not cut out for a future in advertising. I make a mental note to go to sign up for the program again.

Hartwick students have gone all over the area for OneontaLink, to places such as Bassett Healthcare, Valleyview Elementary School, The National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Wilber Bank.

The van pulls into the parking lot. Although I must have walked past The Daily Star office a hundred times in the past three years, I've never been inside. I imagine what it might be like. My usual image of a newspaper office emerges: framed copies of award-winning articles on the walls, buzzing fluorescent lights, and a massive coffee machine.

Fortunately, I am not alone in my adventure. Reggie Brown '10 and I are shadowing a reporter named Mark Boshnack. Reggie is a senior too, and he looks far less nervous about this than I feel. We wave goodbye to Lara and walk through the doors.

After checking in, Reggie and I settle into surprisingly comfortable black office chairs. The décor makes me think of caffeine-chocolate desks and coffee-creamer walls. I hear a radio play in the background over the sound of riffling pages.

As is my habit, I spend the next few minutes people watching. I used to think I was nosy until I found out writers are supposed to be preoccupied with the lives of their fellow human beings. A man wearing dark glasses comes in to fill out a job application. A woman in a blue and white parka stops by to purchase ad space. A bowl of Tootsie Rolls tempts me from the edge of the classified counter.

Several minutes later, a staff member informs us that Boshnack is driving back from an interview in Morris. I wonder what kind of story he's writing. As we wait, I look over my list of questions again. Before long, Boshnack arrives and we follow him to his desk.

After finding chairs for us, Boshnack begins calling his sources. Reggie and I exchange glances. Apparently, we're allowed to eavesdrop. Although journalistic integrity prevents me from divulging the details of those conversations, the story involves the Ft. Hood incident in Texas. Boshnack asks questions about military rank and history of service as he takes notes on a small pad. He asks each question in an even tone, nodding as though the person could see him. It's comforting to know that I'm not the only one who does that.

I scan the items on his desk. Two lemon yellow phone books nestled among the requisite office supplies. A striped Fighting Tigers figurine contrasts the black keyboard. A small black camera rests in the right corner. Back issues of the Star fill another.

Sam Pollak, editor of The Daily Star, greets us while Boshnack is on the phone. While we talk, Boshnack receives a message that a woman is waiting to be interviewed at the front desk. A few minutes later, we reconvene in the break room, where Pollak offers us drinks as Boshnack takes careful notes on the woman's story.

While Reggie and I are meditating on hot chocolate and orange soda respectively, Tanya Shalor, the newspaper's publisher, introduces herself. By now, Reggie and I have figured out that we couldn't have been more obvious than if we'd shown up wearing Hartwick Hawks sweatshirts. As she leaves, I whisper to Reggie that the experience was akin to a celebrity sighting, because I often read her column online.

His interview complete, Boshnack gives us a brief tour of the building. Instead of yellowed articles, color photos adorn the walls. He explains that they are community shots from the flood of 2006. Back at his desk, Boshnack answers my question about how to talk to people about sensitive matters.

"It's important to gain their trust. You have to remember that you are talking to people at their most vulnerable and suspicious. When it comes to asking a difficult question, sometimes people are ready to talk, and other times they are more hesitant. You have to give them the opportunity to tell their story to the community. Before it's your story, it's their life."

Reggie and I ponder this as Boshnack places his next call. People stop by to pass him notes. Someone leaves a photo for his story. On an adjacent desk, I note the following unusual items: a can of glass cleaner, a navy baseball cap emblazoned with The Daily Star, and an apple.

Details of the office sufficiently gathered, I proceed to my next favorite pastime: asking questions. Reggie is my closest victim. I've interviewed Reggie a couple times about various projects, and if he's grown weary of my perpetual "Can I ask you a quick question about…" he's too kind to mention it.

"Do you see yourself at a desk in an office somewhere, or out in the world with a microphone?" I ask.

"I think more with a microphone," he replies. "I imagine I'll start with newspaper reporting and branch out into other types--maybe doing the news on CNN."

"What do you think of the shadow experience?"

"Reporting seems pretty interesting. It lets me see how it is on the job," Reggie adds as he sips the last of his hot chocolate. "You get a whole different feel for it."

After Boshnack's last phone call, we return to the break room for coffee and discussion. He asks us about our career interests and describes his own reporting history.

"I started covering the Sidney-Bainbridge-Unadilla area. I also covered the education and agricultural beat. On a small staff, you get involved with everything; you have to be ready to adjust. The important thing is to have a feel for the news."

We take turns asking questions until I realize it's after 4 p.m. We're running late. We thank him for his time and make a polite exit. "Thanks for coming," the women at the front desk add as we head out to the parking lot.

Two days later, while waiting in line at Latte Lounge, my gaze falls on a copy of the newspaper. There is Boshnack's article on the front page of The Weekly Star. All of those even-toned questions and hastily scribbled answers were translated into crisp lines of ebony print. I choose a table and begin reading a snippet of someone else's life.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Hartwick College is a private liberal arts and sciences college of 1,480 students, located in Oneonta, NY in the northern foothills of the Catskill Mountains. Hartwick's expansive Liberal Arts in Practice curriculum merges traditional liberal arts study, personalized teaching, and experiential learning approaches to emphasize Connecting the Classroom to the World. Add to that a wide range of off-campus internships, collaborative research, study-abroad opportunities, and a unique January Term, and Hartwick prepares students for the world ahead. Strong financial aid and scholarship programs keep a Hartwick education affordable.

Contact: Christopher Lott
Phone: 607-431-4030