By Dan Spears

Maybe I’m more attuned to it than normal, or maybe it really is true. Either way, it seems I’ve been asked a lot what I’m going to do for Christmas this year.

The answer to that question has been the same every time: Find an old routine.

For me on Dec. 25, that’s traditionally a pretty simple list: Sleep in a little bit, get up, go for a run, grab a shower, call China Star for takeout, then hit the couch with General Tso and his chicken for a viewing (or two) of “A Christmas Story.” Exciting, I know. Yet it’s something I and many others have been craving desperately.

A year with its usual twists and turns took a hard left through a hurricane (and, for me, some unexpected surgery a month later). Between then and the rest of the year, there was another major hurricane in Florida and some devastating fires in California. While the power’s on and the roads are open, life’s not back to normal for any of us that have had to deal with an upside-down end to 2018.

All of us worked a lot of hours in the final four months of the year, whether it was “on the clock” or not. Even the things that don’t feel like work — posting pictures and updates on Facebook to friends and family from your personal page, for example — really are. We’ve all truly learned about priorities.

For editors like me, it’s about what you’d like to get done vs. what absolutely has to get done. A few months ago, I had several great story ideas for our teams here in Wilmington, and a plan to do a monthly APSE talk with small-division editors across the country. Those story ideas? They’re on hold. The monthly talks will happen, but they’ll start in January instead of September.

For reporters, though, it’s tough. They’ve been told to drop everything. In some cases it’s for a day or two. Others, a week. Still others, longer than that. That’s where editors really must help our people do their jobs and be even better communicators than we were before.

I’ve seen fire …

For sports reporters Will Denner and Sharon Martin of the Chico Enterprise-Record, their primary job responsibilities went out the window on Nov. 8, when the Camp Fire started just outside the city and engulfed much of the town of Paradise. Denner was covering state-qualifying cross country that day. Football playoffs were the next night.

“We were texting after everything and said, “Let’s pitch in and if we can help out with news,’” said Martin, who’s been at the paper since the fall of 2014. “We only have four people. We sent out an email the next day to say we were ready to do whatever.”

“As soon as I got to work Friday morning, the whole room was discussing the day’s strategy,” said Denner, who just started in Chico in September. “I was tasked with going to evacuation centers and talking with folks. We were focused on just hearing survivor stories and what they would do next.”

Sports remained on the fringes for almost two weeks, before the two slowly returned to their usual coverage. That doesn’t mean their lines of thinking have returned to normal though. While Paradise High wasn’t lost to fire, many of its surrounding buildings that housed sports equipment and team content were affected.

“Covering them, the fire is going to contextualize it in some way. Even if I’m not looking for that angle, it comes up in some way,” Denner said. “It’s still obviously affecting these people on a daily basis and we have to be cognizant.”

“How do you cover a game without being too hard (on the students),” Martin said of teams that are struggling in games and had major fire issues. “How do I approach this and think about it from their perspective? They’re probably not still there 100 percent to play basketball. You look at it from their point of view.

“One of my standard questions is — what can you do to help the team rebound from this? And the coach said, ‘Not a thing. If they can rebound from life, they can rebound from a basketball game.’”

… And I’ve seen rain

Fires are unpredictable; hurricanes, not so much — until the storm hits land and hits the brakes, like Florence did in Southeastern North Carolina.

Like Chico, it was all hands on deck here in Wilmington, which meant new roles for a few people, including our high school sports writer, Jackson Fuller. He had moved into that position in June; as the storm approached, he had a new temporary beat — breaking news reporter in Brunswick County, stationed at the county’s Emergency Operations Center.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘Oh god,’ and then I realized at same time it would be an experience I would look back on and enjoy,” he said recently. “And when (my managing editor) said there would be Wi-Fi and meals there, I figured it would be OK.

“At least for the first couple days.”

When Florence stalled instead of moving out quickly, however, much of our area was underwater in all the wrong places, thanks to more than 2 feet of rain. Fuller’s expected two-day stay at the EOC stretched out to almost a full week after every major road into and out of Wilmington flooded. He was able to leave only after county officials put him on a boat that was headed toward Wilmington via two rivers and the Atlantic Ocean.

When he returned, the StarNews no longer had an office; our roof had failed the night of the storm and all newsroom employees were scattered to homes and hotels with power and internet.

Students were out of school and sports for almost a month in some cases. When they returned, Fuller returned with them, new stories in hand.

“I think before, I was very much in a routine — but not always a good routine: Postgame coverage, get everything done,” he said. “(Florence) created so many stories. Once I started diving into that stuff, and getting to talk to the kids … it’s just made me more focused on finding what else is out there. Keep out of the routine.”

For a while now, sports journalists have touted our ability to do anything, any time, anywhere with whatever technological options we have. Some of us proved it to an extreme level in 2018; some of you might be next in line in 2019.

However your new year goes, know that there are always others there to help you, no matter the situation. Have a great holiday season, everyone!


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