NEWS

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February 16, 2010

Uncommon Interview with Sara Olkon

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Sara Olkon was embedded with the Air Force and Marines during Operation Iraqi Freedom and hung out with the guys from Hoop Dreams 14 years after their dreams fizzled out. She has reported everywhere from Iraq and India to the South Side of Chicago as a writer for The Miami Herald and the Chicago Tribune. Olkon started work at the University’s News Office January 25 as their newest reporter, covering campus and student life. In an e-mail, News Director Jeremy Manier said, “Sara’s varied reporting background and outlook make her an ideal person to find those campus stories that we might have overlooked otherwise.” The Maroon sat down with her to discuss the news cycle, news reporting, and, well, the news.

Chicago Maroon: You interned for The New York Times’s Op-ed page when you were in journalism school. What was that like?

Sara Olkon: You’d be in the lunch room and overhear these conversations about people analyzing the current foreign ministry of the Israeli government. It was exciting to be in that world, and it reminded me of being back in school. I really loved school, and it really felt like being in that stimulating world again… .

One thing I learned quickly was that [when] people—general folks off the street, not Henry Kissingers, but the general folks off the street—would react to something, they would write a really poignant essay on something, but it would be so past the news cycle [that it couldn’t be published]. That was probably one of the first lessons in how quick you need to be to be timely with the news and…how quickly the newspaper moves. And this is before it really moved quickly.

CM: You worked a desk job at The Wall Street Journal, where you did a little finance writing, but when did you really start reporting?

SO: At The Providence Journal—getting sent out, going to meetings. I just didn’t have that experience [at The Wall Street Journal]. It was real street reporting. I think on my third day on the job, I had to go to a family’s house—this teenager had died in a car accident or something horrible. That never ever gets easy, but it was one of those experiences that’s hard to avoid. It’s pretty central at a daily newspaper.

You don’t know whether or not the family is going to want to talk at that point. Later on in life you see that sometimes families want to talk because they want to see a tribute, they want to see something, but at that time all you can think of is, “I do not belong here, I do not belong at someone’s doorstep at the worst moment of their lives.” You get this tremendous sense of invading someone’s privacy.

CM: What was working at The Miami Herald like?

SO: There was never a shortage of stories. You never had to feel that some amazing story happened and you were out of town or something, and you missed the story of the year. There was too much. There was an embarrassment of riches, constantly. Just a very dramatic, weird, weird place. One day a preacher would be pulled over [because] he was picking up prostitutes and that wasn’t even a story… .

I interviewed Elian Gonzalez. I knew his family really well. Well, not really well, but I was at the house constantly. I went to Cuba a few times.

CM: What was it like being embedded in Iraq?

SO: Your paper’s spending all this money—you definitely feel this pressure to get stories. In the beginning, we were getting good stories right away. It sounds really twisted, getting good stories [because] we were being attacked, because we were at this Air Force base and there were what they said were SCUD missiles. They weren’t, but we thought they were. We were attacked 13 times in one day.

You’d get this red alert, and you’d just be sitting there and suddenly you’d put on your chemical gear, and you’d have to be really quick and then get into one of the shelters… .

The first time it happened, a lot of people were upset, of course. There were tears flowing out of my eyes and underneath my gas mask, and I thought, “What am I doing? This is so stupid, I’m going to die in Kuwait for this ambition of mine,” and I felt guilty for my family. I felt bad about it. It wasn’t even so much the fear of dying; it just felt very selfish, being there. I didn’t need to be there, it’s not like I was paying off a debt to the military; I chose to be there.

CM: What did you do when you came home?

SO: I took a shower for like three hours. There was dirt deep in my ears. But I see how people get addicted: it’s a real rush, a lot of adrenaline. I would file things by satellite phone and hook it up by computer, and the sand would hurt the computer and it wouldn’t work. You have to be really careful with satellite phones because they can be traced by the other side. It was really difficult conditions and you really didn’t sleep, and I sensed it was nice to just relax, and [yet] it was also really intense and there was a lot of camaraderie with the soldiers, and I had mixed feelings.

CM: How was it working in the newspaper industry as papers were closing across the country?

SO: This is a job you do because you love it; you’re getting paid with your experiences. When it becomes less fun, it becomes less rewarding. I think that there were ups and downs with all of the places [where I worked]. The real down wasn’t so much coming from the institution itself, but the market forces, and different papers responded at different times. That was the thing that became very frustrating, and heart-breaking, really.

CM: How is working for the University different from working in a newsroom, like at the Trib?

SO: [At a daily newspaper] you’re just filing from your Blackberry, or, before Blackberry, from the phone. So whatever you do, there’s not a lot of time for reflection. It’s definitely different, a little more thoughtful. And in many ways, the jobs are similar. I am looking for interesting stories, developing sources, and am working against deadlines. So far, my days have been busy, but not nearly as frantic. I’m less reliant on peanut M&Ms and Starbucks than I ever thought possible.