Joel Reichenberger: Moving on from the best job in journalism
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The first thing I knew about Steamboat Springs is that it was magical.
We’d take spring break vacations to the mountains when I was a kid, my family making the trip over from Kansas to Winter Park or Breckenridge.
Someday, my parents promised, we’d venture further, deeper into the mountains to Steamboat Springs, where my mom had visited once when she was young. It was the home of Billy Kidd, she explained, and, in proof that marketing isn’t wasted money, Champagne Powder.
That vacation never quite worked out, but I most certainly made it to Steamboat. My first visit was for my job interview at the newspaper on Jan. 31, 2008.
After more than 10 years, I’m not moving on from this magical town, but I am moving on from the job that brought me here. I’ve served as a sports reporter for six years and, for the past four years and five months, sports editor. I’ll start early in June as senior editor for The Progressive Farmer magazine, a location-neutral writing and photography position for a monthly agriculture publication based out of Birmingham, Alabama.
It’s a move I’m both extremely excited about and one that’s difficult. It wasn’t easy to decide to leave a job that’s been so much more than a job to me for the past decade.
I wasn’t happy before I moved to Steamboat, living near Kansas City and working in a tiny office doing sports for two small weekly newspapers. I worked with good people but not “close friend” kind of people. I more tagged along with the friends I did have in the city than I actively participated.
I didn’t truly realize the funk I was in until I moved.
Steamboat was a town at its peak in 2008. The newspaper office was literally overflowing with young, new-to-town reporters, so many that one guy had to work from home because there weren’t enough cubicles. It felt like college again, everyone looking for adventures and eager to make friends.
Many people come to Steamboat for the outdoors, and I did too, in a sense. I’ve never been overwhelmingly outdoorsy myself, however. I’m still not. But the town, the paper and the people all fit perfectly. I knew I was lucky to be here and with such a fun, intelligent and creative group, one I was quickly a part of rather than tagging along with.
And what a job. What a job. I covered the Freestyle Skiing Junior Nationals in my first week. I was there for moguls skiing and aerials and knew virtually nothing about either sport, but I was in awe and pinching myself as I looked down over the valley from the top of VooDoo Run at Steamboat Ski Area.
It got so dramatically better from there, with dozens of days skiing for work and trips around the state and the country chasing stories. I’ve covered the best skiers, snowboarders and even cyclists in the world and, oh, I got to travel and cover the Winter Olympics. Twice. It’s still hard for me to believe.
Many of the best moments came far closer to home, at state wrestling, track and cross country championships, or even on seemingly average regular season nights when a great game would break out in Oak Creek, Hayden or Steamboat.
I’ve loved watching athletes I cover succeed, being there for the rough nights then seeing it all come together in a game-winning shot or in landing a halfpipe run to win a bronze medal in South Korea or a gold medal in Aspen or in having everything work out right to make the Olympic snowboard cross gold-medal finals.
Those athletes and events help Steamboat to be a mindbogglingly great place to be a sports reporter, but so do the adventurers. Whether it’s Mount Everest or Antarctica or the Continental Divide Trail, I’m not sure there’s a challenge in the world someone from Steamboat won’t attempt, and they’ve all been willing to sit and share their adventures with me.
It’s the best job in the world.
Plenty has changed, of course, and more than just the fact that we now have enough cubicles for everyone at the Pilot & Today offices.
Most of those reporters from 2008-10 have moved on. Some have climbed in the business to peaks worthy of their skills and drive. Others are succeeding outside journalism, as lawyers or marketing professionals or West Coast hikers. Most are still close friends.
I’ve moved on in plenty of ways, too. For instance, that warm feeling of friendship I felt in 2008 has nothing on the swell of pride I felt two weeks ago when my 10-month-old daughter Lydia, after at least a month of pulling herself up on all fours and growing frustrated as she could only wobble forward and backward, crawled for the first time.
I didn’t know I could be so proud.
There were plenty of stages to my journey with the paper. I was enthralled early, but maybe halfway through my decade started taking it more professionally, doing, in my opinion, better, bigger and deeper stories. It’s not a coincidence that coincided with Lisa Schlichtman starting as editor.
I made a point to use the opportunity of a new boss to focus on my efforts, and that was fully matched by her full-hearted support, her willingness to provide an ear, a hand or a boost when I needed one.
But, it’s also felt like it was the time.
If you can’t get excited for the big high school sports event of the week — be it football, lacrosse, wrestling or anything else — you need to be doing something else. I never failed to get excited, but some of the regular events, the things I’ve covered 10 years in a row and where it felt like I’d written every angle have started to wear. What would inevitably happen is I’d still show up at those events and see something new and walk away wondering how I’d ever had doubt, but it was nevertheless gnawing that it was time for a change.
I didn’t always expect it to be a change to agriculture journalism. I grew up on a wheat farm in Kansas, but that’s been more of an icebreaking tidbit than a career aspiration.
I couldn’t pass up this opportunity at The Progressive Farmer, however, one of the best jobs at one of the best magazines in ag journalism. I’ll be traveling the country in search of interesting people and fascinating stories, still doing, at the root, what the best part of my job has always been.
I’m not leaving Steamboat Springs, and I’m sure I’ll have a few more bylines in the Pilot & Today one way or another, but, it’s most certainly the end of an era.
It’s not the end of anything for the Pilot & Today.
The paper will have no problem finding another sports writer who will be in awe of the opportunity this job provides just as I was, who will do some things differently and certainly do some things better.
It’s the end of an era for me. I’m moving on from the best decision I ever made, from a job that’s defined so much of me and an organization that’s given me such tremendous opportunity.
I can’t thank the people of Steamboat enough. I’m thankful to the people who came up to chat when I was awkwardly keeping to myself in the corner of the gym, the athletes I grew to know and respect who’d occasionally turn an interview around and ask how I was doing, and to everyone who trusted me enough to share their private thoughts and emotions.
I had great experiences with everyone from Olympic gold medalists to Class 2A track stars. That’s the beauty of the job.
I’m so thankful Steamboat Springs became a place where I made many of the best friends I’ll ever have, where I matured as a journalist, where my wife, Jacki, and I fell in love and settled down and where our daughter was born.
Steamboat became a home, and it proved to be every bit as magical as it seemed when it was just a spot on the edge of the map a little past Winter Park and Breckenridge, a place with Champagne Powder, Billy Kidd and a job opening for a sports reporter.
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