First person account by Andrew Lwowski
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit overwhelmed as I walked through the San Francisco airport for the first time in my life, alone, on a Saturday afternoon. I followed the signs to baggage claim before I found myself in an Uber heading toward the heart of the Bay. The time for Hearst Journalism Awards national writing championship had come and I was being transplanted into a city in which I had no previous experience, no expectations and very little ground under my feet with two championship-level stories due just three days after the eight contestants had arrived.
I checked into the Palace Hotel — one of the nicest hotels I’ve had the pleasure of staying in — and unloaded my physical and mental luggage. Little did I know I would be starting one of the most memorable journeys of my young journalism career. It came time for check-in with the judges and seven of the best collegiate writers from around the country. Introductions were made, directions discussed–and the competition was on.
Our assigned topic on the future of the SF ferries overcoming plummeting ridership and pressure to electrify the dozens of fleets had a sharp 5 p.m. deadline on Tuesday, giving us little time to conduct our business and get typing. I spent all of Sunday on the SF Bay ferries, riding to and from the communities that encompass the Bay, breathing in the smell of the salty air, feeling the ocean wind and scoping out my first subject to speak to — just finding ground to build on for Monday. Sunday night was the introductory dinner where the seeds of friendship with my fellow competitors and judges were planted.
Monday came with more ferry rides and finding myself in the captain’s cabin of numerous ferries talking experience, the future of ferries and life in the Bay. The stress of scurrying to collect subjects and build my angle was weighing heavy, but it’s not called a national championship for nothing, right?
On Monday morning we had a virtual meeting with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who discussed two separate but timely topics: the evolution of AI and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. This was the second of our two championship stories. My final and most important interview with the executive director of the Water Emergency Transportation Agency, the department that oversees the bay ferries, was Tuesday morning. I swiftly got back to my room with two unwritten stories and typed for six hours straight.
Tuesday was something I will always look back on and find myself smiling. The pressure and adrenaline of a deadline with massive implications to being relieved after finally submitting my work was a rollercoaster of emotions. After submitting my work and taking a small break to reward myself, it was time to suit up for dinner and drinks with my new friends. All the championship finalists gathered and we ate dinner while discussing our struggles, our finds of the past three days that felt more like eight. No one had an empty glass of wine or bottle of beer; it was just a bunch of college kids having a great time over drinks on an expense-paid trip.
I spent Wednesday with my parents and brother who came out for this once in a lifetime experience and, after riding ferries and getting into business for my stories, spent my free day on another ferry. Only this time I embraced the role as a tourist. We took a tour of the Golden State Bridge and around Alcatraz before I met with some fellow writers and headed for a meal in Little Italy. That night we had our final dinner with everyone’s work on display ahead of the winners being announced. The past four days felt like weeks, but it was something that I will always cherish.
I walked through the San Francisco airport, only this time with family and the pride of competing in such a prestigious championship. I came home a better journalist with friends and resources from around the country.