Joel Reichenberger: On home turf in Sochi
February 23, 2014
People always wonder why we're here — at first, anyway.
I was riding the bus with a trio of New York Times reporters — I'm pretty big time in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia, in case you were wondering — and one, perhaps seeing "Today" on my credential, was asking who I was with.
"Uh, no. Steamboat Pilot & Today."
They're surprised we sent one reporter and even more so that we sent two.
At times, I, too, have wondered why we sent two people.
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In some sense, it seems important to the brand — the paper's and Steamboat's — to have Ski Town USA staff the Olympics.
If you'd asked me in January before we left, I'd have said, "We can cover our local athletes better than anyone else."
I said it and I believed it, but I wasn't sure how much that mattered. So the Fletcher brothers are a little more frank with us than they are with reporters they've never met. Does that really make a difference in the story?
Do you, our readers, care?
Photography here is a bit of a paint-by-numbers enterprise, anyway. What difference does it make whether or not the photographer knows Todd Lodwick when the job is frequently as simple as, "Stand here. Point the camera that direction."
It does matter, though. I got real answers to those questions during our last week of the Olympics.
One of the cool things about covering the Olympics is covering the same story as the big papers and the big reporters.
As a reporter or a photographer in Steamboat, it's often difficult to compare yourself to your peers. There isn't exactly anyone else on the Soroco basketball beat, for instance.
At the Olympics, though, we're rubbing elbows with Pulitzer Prize winners. We're standing next to big-city newspaper columnists, and we're catching flights with ESPN personalities.
We're checking out what they do and comparing it to what we produced from the same event.
It's awfully empowering when you realize you did as good a job, or even a better job, than they did.
The best example is reporter Luke Graham's story on Vic Wild.
Vic Wild falls somewhere in the middle of the "Steamboat-ness" scale as far as Olympic athletes. He spent time in town and with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, but he wasn't born-and-bred like others. He doesn't still live in Steamboat, and he hasn't for a while.
At the same time, there are a few other "Steamboaters" with far shakier credentials.
A shockingly high percentage of the U.S. press corps at the Olympics knows almost nothing about what or who they're covering. Reporters from major U.S. news outlets treating the news that Todd Lodwick was retiring as if it was breaking news, almost whispering it, as if it was a secret to get out.
"Why are you retiring?" he was asked.
Uh, because he's 37 years old and this is his sixth Olympics?
Columnists from major news outlets from our state were asking basic, Google-able details about Lodwick's shoulder injury, which we began covering in detail nearly the moment it happened (Jan. 10, for any reporters out there wondering).
The media was somewhat attuned to Wild's story, however. Wild married his Russian girlfriend and, frustrated with a lack of funding for Alpine snowboard racers, left the United States to join her country's snowboard program. On Wednesday, husband and wife each won medals.
A defecting U.S. snowboarder who wins a gold medal for his new country, and his wife takes the bronze? That's gold for a journalist, as automatic as it gets for a writer who likely just saw his or her first parallel giant slalom race.
Luke didn't take that angle, though. Instead, he played up the friendship between Wild and a snowboarder who stayed in the U.S. and continued the ugly fight for funding for their forgotten sport.
Why did Luke write that? Because he talked to that snowboarder, Justin Reiter. Why did he talk to Justin Reiter? Because we know Justin Reiter. We know Justin because we've covered a dozen races with him, because we've sat through long events on cold nights on an icy Howelsen Hill taking photographs of Justin. We've warmed up during long interviews with Justin in Olympian Hall.
Luke knows Justin Reiter, knows he's a deep thinker and an insightful quote, and Luke got the best story — not to mention the only unique story — about Vic Wild.
That day, it didn't matter how many Twitter followers you had, how many Super Bowls you'd covered or how many appearances on ESPN you'd logged.
That day, it mattered if you knew enough to talk to Justin Reiter.
There were dozens of times it mattered that we came armed with real insight into Steamboat athletes and their sports.
It mattered a day later when Lodwick was walking away after his leg of the Nordic combined cross-country ski relay. The photographers from Arizona and Colorado, standing several feet away, saw a man walking away from a race. I knew Lodwick was walking away from racing.
I don't mean to skewer the other journalists, most of whom I know to be very talented and whose work I still will aspire to. If we were on their turf, perhaps we'd look as silly as they did at times here, asking "Who was that?" after an interview or "So, there's jumping AND a ski race?" before an event.
But this isn't their turf. The Olympics are our turf, and after 18 days of big events, gold-medal moments and unforgettable experiences, the very coolest part is knowing we did a great job. The coolest part is knowing sometimes — not always, of course — we did better on a story than The New York Times, The Associated Press and Sports Illustrated.
In this day, when the dying newspaper industry is a punchline, it's easy to ask why it matters. Why should the Steamboat Pilot & Today ship two reporters to Russia for three weeks of coverage?
The pictures, the scores and even the quotes will be available online within moments of an event being over.
There's a reason, though. I hope we showed why we were here with our work, why it matters with photos, stories and insight that, I promise, you cannot get anywhere else.