Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Cub Years: Mariano Castillo '02

Many thanks to Mariano for this great account (and congratulations on grad school)!

I’m preparing to leave the daily newspaper business for a couple of years, and it’s hard to avoid reflecting on the rollercoaster that the past five years has been. Maybe I can share a few lessons I learned in those special first years as a cub reporter.

Of course, my story begins in Reed McDonald, after finishing my term as Batt editor in spring ’02 and putting everything I learned during those long basement nights to use in a job search.

My motivation during my search for that first print journalism job was a supplement from the Houston Chronicle called “Behind the Bylines,” where reporters talked about their jobs. One article featured Dudley Althaus, the paper’s Mexico Bureau Chief. He said that if you wanted to be a foreign correspondent, the border was a great place to start. I wanted to be a foreign correspondent, so I sent my best Batt clips to nearly every border newspaper from Brownsville to Tucson. I followed up with calls and emails, but leads dwindled as graduation neared.

Lesson 1: Don’t be afraid to start small

I was at my most discouraged when I received an unexpected call from a weekly paper in the Rio Grande Valley that I had never even heard of. Rather than use my resume to fix a wobbly desk (as I imagined most had), the managing editor at the Harlingen paper had passed my info on to the weekly as a favor.

I flew to the Valley on my own dime to interview at the Mid-Valley Town Crier, which I learned was a weekly shopper that was transitioning into a “real” newspaper. That’s why the front page was replete with advertisements, the editor explained.

I accepted the job right away. It was a staff of four people – two reporters, an editor and a page designer – and I cut my journalistic teeth covering everything from the city council to the local flea market. It wasn’t the most glamorous job in the world, but it put newsprint in my blood. Literally. Only a thin wall separated the newsroom from the pressroom and the dizzying odor of the giant vats of ink.

Lesson 2: Take risks

Something else unexpected happened in those early days. An editor from the San Antonio Express-News called in response to my resume and said that I didn’t have the experience to be hired, but would I consider an internship?

It hadn’t occurred to me that graduating seniors could apply to internships, but today I encourage every J-student to consider it if they don’t have a job lined up.

I already had a job. But I had a gut feeling about this opportunity. So I decided to leave the stability of my first job after only six months for a summer internship with no guarantees of a job.

Lesson 3: Luck counts

Feeling the pressure of my decision, I busted my butt that summer and got a job offer that was sweetened by a little luck. The Express-News’ Valley Bureau Chief was about to take a year off to work on a project. Since I had just come from the Valley, my first assignment would be to fill in for her.

Everything started really moving fast at that point. Before that year ended, I had driven into hurricanes, interviewed the president of Mexico and filed dispatches from as faraway as Venezuela.

Lesson 4: Pay your dues

I’d had so many adventures so early in my career that I almost forgot I was a cub reporter. But my year as Valley correspondent eventually came to a close, and back to San Antonio I went to start over where most new hires start – on the police beat.

I won’t lie – it was one of the most difficult transitions I’d ever faced. Going from a correspondent position where I virtually chose all my stories and schedule, I felt trapped doing the daily cop shift, which started at 5 a.m.

A veteran colleague recently commented to me that every young rising journalist needs a good punch in the gut to bring them back to Earth. He’s right – paying your dues matters.

Lesson 5: Always be a student

It turned out that being a police reporter was a great opportunity for me to brush up on some journalistic fundamentals and to work closer with editors. And the hours got better, and before I knew it, the Laredo bureau opened up.

The last two years in Laredo I mostly dedicated to writing about drug cartels, a natural mix of my newfound interest in crime writing and my love of narrative journalism. But I’m always cognizant that I’m young, and that there’s a lot more to learn.

In a giant nutshell, that’s it. I’m leaving a job I like at a newspaper that has given me more opportunities than I could have imagined in order to get a master’s degree in international affairs.

In today’s tight job market, it was a tough decision that sometimes makes me think, ‘Why am doing this again?’

Then I remember. See #2.

marianocastillo (at) gmail.com


Anonymous said...

Good account. Reminds me of my early days. Certainly an exercise in humility. I remember going from A&M, with all the high-tech page layout software, and going to the Uvalde Leader News, where we set the margins on our computer to the column length, printed out the stories, cut them, and then layed them on the page with glue and rollers.

If our computers ever went down, the paper still had several manual typewriters that we were supposed to use. I thought it was funny. Here I had graduated at the dawn of the 21st Century, went to work in the 20th, and was one power outage away from the 19th.