In Alaska, lessons learned in class come alive

By Gavin Stern

Mountains stand guard over the City of Seward, still capped with snow in the middle of summer. Beneath them, boats full of halibut and salmon return from the fertile fishing grounds of the Bering Sea. Campers watch from the black, shale-rock shore. Whale spouts and sea otters are a common sight, as is the sun, which shines 22 hours a day this time of year.

This wasn’t part of some master plan for an exotic journalism internship. I found it on just a month earlier. The ad offered a $500 per month stipend, an attic room – and an adventure.

Vanta Shafer, the editor of the Seward Journal, ran the newspaper from a corner desk at Cover to Cover, her bookstore. My job, as the inaugural intern of the year-old paper, was to find and write a least three stories per week. This fishing and tourist town – a one-mile-long strip of civilization surrounded by wilderness and saltwater – was mine to crack open.

Journalism in Alaska was, most of the time, pretty normal. I reported on high school graduation, retirements, fundraisers, festivals, Little League, construction projects and business openings. If you ignore the mountains, the midnight sun or the whale spouts out on the bay, you might think Seward was any little town on Long Island.

Then, the weird stories got peppered in. When a walrus calf was rescued on the North Slope 700 miles away and airlifted to the Alaska SeaLife Center in downtown Seward, everything changed. It was a national story.

I cannot overstate the value of being on site, of showing up. While the Associated Press fed updates to the major publications from afar, or relied on press releases, I was able to personally speak with the rehabilitation staff. I reached out to the SeaLife Center’s staff photographer to get photos that no one else had.

Months later, when the CEO was interviewed over the phone by NBC Nightly News, I cracked a smile. I interviewed her in person.

None of my three stories on the walruses were picked up nationally, but I do think I beat the competition. It mattered to me and it mattered to the paper. It certainly would have been easier to go with the press releases.

I also learned that sometimes journalism can be unfair – but it shouldn’t matter. When I covered Alaska’s storied Mount Marathon race, the second oldest footrace in the United States, event officials blocked my access to the finish line even though a rival newspaper’s photographer was allowed in. I didn’t settle. I found another spot farther down the road and got a close-up as the winner was sprayed with champagne. It turned out to be a more compelling photo. You have to adapt.

I learned to listen closely when reporting on the ships that passed through Seward’s harbor. It was a weekly beat that put me on advanced science ships, giant fishing trawlers and little skiffs. I knew nothing about the maritime lifestyle. So when I stepped aboard, I put myself in the mindset that whatever I wrote had to be based on what the mariners told me. Preconceptions are dangerous. The details matter when it comes to building credibility.

The greatest lesson I learned is that reporting can profoundly affect people’s lives and businesses. When a new restaurant owner, Steve Bangos, opened up about his life story and his dream, called Eureka’s Pizza, he put his livelihood in my hands. I respected that, wrote honestly, and now he buys color ads in the Seward Journal.

The residents of Seward, so engaged in their town, knew exactly which journalists not to trust. I had to make my own name. Once I built up trust, people were willing to come to me with stories, businesses purchased ad space and the paper did better. It happened, I think, by paying close attention to what was going on.

Of course, I screwed up plenty of times. I reported on a boat fire in which I went to great lengths to get a photo, made multiple contacts in the fire department – but didn’t talk to the boat owner who the fire chief suggested was responsible for the fire. I didn’t even think to do that.

I’m certainly still learning how best to structure my stories, to get the most compelling information out front. And I’m working on keeping my information organized, rather than pouring over notes and recordings after the fact.

And though I wrote more than 40 stories, I wish I had done more. I wish I had stayed longer.

Even in the stories I did write, I always could have done more. I noticed a strong correlation between time spent reporting and the quality of the story. Sure, I learned that in the classroom. The value of the internship is that now I know it from experience. That is, I think, the greatest benefit of interning on a small town newspaper. If you report a lot, and you write a lot, what’s right and wrong becomes much clearer. The lessons you learn in class come alive.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this risk paid off. I hope that future journalism students will seek out internship experiences like this one in addition to the big time news organizations. You don’t necessarily have to go all the way to Alaska, although it’s a great place to spend the summer. Just go somewhere that forces you to write your own stories.

Lots of them.