I worked for the Watertown Times for about a year – 1976. The relationship ended badly, but while I was in the Massena bureau my life changed, forever and for the better.
The Seaway figures into the year three times, and taught me a lot about writing.
The first time, a couple of weeks after I started, I was invited down into the bowels of Snell Lock in the dead of winter. I remember two things: how brilliantly, gloriously bleak it was, standing topside on a February day in bright sunshine and a wind that drove the temperature well below zero.
It was an “I’m at the end of the world” moment.
The other thing, once I got down below, is a picture in my head of bright safety lights and stone and concrete tumbling everywhere, like some ruin in a science fiction movie. It was amazing, but I was sufficiently overwhelmed that none of what I saw, heard or shivered through made it into my copy.
So I failed once by being intimidated by what I was covering.
A few months later, as the bicentennial geared up, one of the ‘tall ships’ of that year made its way upbound through the locks. The sailing ship was the “Christian Radich,” and I talked my way on by not correcting the impression that the newspaper I worked for was “The Times” as in “The New York Times,” not “The Watertown Times.”
I wrote three pieces from the half day I spent on board. They weren’t very good, and part of the reason was the language barrier. I knew nothing about sailing to begin with, and my ignorance was compounded by the fact that no one on board spoke more than a few words of English. I figured if no one could talk much, I didn’t have much to write about, ignoring the fact that I still had eyes and ears that worked perfectly well.
Make that two strikes – these pieces failed because I wasn’t paying attention to the obvious, everything around me.
The third was the oil spill. I ended up just outside of Massena, (Wilson Hill) as a bunch of guys from the DEC tried to round up geese to keep them from getting into the oil. Think cat herding and you have a pretty good idea of the challenge they faced. It was a hilarious, wonderful couple of hours – I had no connection to the tragedy that was unfolding west of me, no real idea of how bad the oil was.
This time, the piece was awkward and overwritten, but…better. There were more details, quotes and a sense of focus. If I recall correctly, I ended up on the back page, alongside real reporters like Larry Cole.
What did I get out of my year, and more particularly, these three stories?
Trust my own eyes and ears.
Write what’s in front of me.
There were a lot of rough years after that, (I’m a slow learner), but it was a start.
- Scott Atkinson
(Atkinson is the news director of WWNY.)