The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

June 3, 2012

Eric Knopsnyder | Applying life's lessons to new role as editor

Eric Knopsnyder
eknopsnyder@tribdem.com

— This isn’t the first time I’ve been the editor of a newspaper.

Sure, it’s a long way, figuratively, from The Mountaineer at Berlin Brothersvalley High School, but that doesn’t mean I can’t take lessons learned there and at other stops along the journalistic highway and apply them to my new role at The Tribune-Democrat.

The value of hard work: After a solid year of journalism as a junior, I was deemed fit to be co-editor of my high school paper. It was quite an honor and one I quickly took for granted. I didn’t work nearly as hard as I should have in that position and it didn’t take long for my teacher, Miss Orendorf, to notice. It wasn’t that I was lazy – I don’t know anyone who grew up on a dairy farm who fits that term – rather, I wasn’t managing my time well. My co-editor had a circle of friends that she often sat and talked with during our scheduled class time. I followed that same path, using the first-period class as a way to ease into the day. Too many times I sat in the back of the room and recapped the weekend’s events with my own friends or planned out a big night in Berlin instead of taking care of the business at hand. Ginger Weighley, my co-editor, had a free period later in the day, which she used to catch up on the work she had neglected.

I didn’t have the time – or drive – to do the same. It wasn’t long before Miss Orendorf noticed. She tried to poke, prod and cajole me into carrying my share of the load.

None of it worked. I was a senior in high school. I obviously knew more about what I was doing than any teacher, and it wasn’t like I was goofing off every day. I was still writing stories for The Mountaineer and took turns with Ginger penning pieces for the high school page of a “real newspaper.” It was just that I was a busy guy and I couldn’t always find the time to lay out pages or read the other writers’ stories.

Then, Miss Orendorf took a drastic step. She took my name off the paper’s masthead. As far as the world – or the few hundred readers of The Mountaineer – knew, I was no longer the co-editor of the newspaper.

That got my attention. While my dedication to The Mountaineer could certainly be questioned, my pride in being co-editor couldn’t be. I resolved to put in more time and effort, and I did. I got my name back on the masthead as co-editor for the next issue and it stayed their for the remainder of the year.

I wasn’t going to be outworked then, and I won’t be now, either.

Procrastination doesn’t pay: Writing on a strict deadline is a skill that must be, ironically enough, acquired over time. It’s one that I thought I was honing during my college years by procrastinating on a regular basis. I’d often wait until the morning a story was due before a class before frantically churning it out in the final hours. In some ways, it actually was great preparation for my eventual job as a sports writer, but I carried it too far one time. I had a big project looming for a magazine writing class and wanted to make a splash. My assistant wrestling coach at Pitt had been teammates

with 1996 Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle and said he could help me get an interview with him.

It was a great idea, but I didn’t follow through with it soon enough. Fresh off his Barcelona glory, Angle was quite busy pitching pizzas for a Pittsburgh-area shop and trying his hand at a failed career as a sports broadcaster.

In the end, his television struggles led him to become a superstar in pro wrestling. My procrastination in trying to land an interview with him led to me missing my deadline for the class and, since it was such a large part of the grade, I withdrew from it. I took the class again the following year and did quite well with the knowledge that while I could still put a story together at the last minute, I better at least have my interviews done in advance.

 The importance of self-reliance: I hadn’t even finished college yet when I landed my first paying job, as a sports writer with the Somerset Daily American. I still had one semester remaining, but was confident that I could handle whatever assignments I got in Somerset County. After all, I’d done quite a few stories for The Pitt News, and covering high school sports should be easier than college ones, right? One of my first assignments was to cover the Ken Lantzy all-star football game at Windber Stadium.

I went into it with limited knowledge of the players and coaches involved, but football was football, I figured. Just report what happened, throw in some stats and pull it all together before 11 p.m.

It was time to make all that improvised on-deadline experience pay off. I watched the game rather leisurely, making a note to myself here or there. When the game ended, as I was ready to head down to the field to interview some players and coaches, I casually asked the public address announcer, “Who do I talk to about getting the stats?” I assumed that it was just like covering a game at Pitt, where I’d ask the sports information director to fax – yes, we still used fax machines in those days – the game statistics to the newspaper and I could plug them into my story.

The kind gentleman in the press box looked at me like I was out of my mind. “Stats?” he said incredulously. “I don’t know if anyone even keeps them.”

My calm, cool, professional demeanor was wiped away in an instant. Shear panic replaced it as soon as the words were out of his mouth. This was an all-star game. It didn’t really matter who won or lost. It was all about how the area’s top individuals fared. Without stats, how could I write about that?

Luckily, another reporter, who coincidently was working for this newspaper, overheard my plight. “I have some stats you can look at,” he generously offered.

Disaster averted, I realized that my journalism career wasn’t going to be over before it began. More importantly, I vowed to make sure I was never in a situation like that again, where I had to rely on the kindness of a stranger to do my job.

Those are some of the bigger chunks of wisdom I’ve picked up the hard way in this business.

I’ve made plenty of other mistakes, but I’d like to believe that I’ve learned from each of them. Odds are that I’ll make some more as the editor of The Tribune-Demo-crat. Hopefully, the great staff here can help me catch them before they ever make it to the newspaper or website.

If not, I’ll do my best to correct them, learn from them and move on a little bit wiser.

That’s my vow to the readers of The Tribune-Democrat.



Eric Knopsnyder is the editor of The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5091 or eknopsnyder@tribdem.com