Lessons in resilience

If 2020 was the year of the pandemic, 2021 was the year we learned to live with the pandemic.

As COVID-19 infections waxed and waned through the seasons, the rollout of vaccines and emergence of variants, we persevered. Public health restrictions came, then eased, then started to return again. With them, so did our hopes for an imminent return to normal life.

Masks became the go-to accessory to pack whenever you left the house. They were joined by the vaccine passport. Simple acts like paying for groceries or entering a movie theatre became a juggling act of displaying cards, flashing cellphones and packing your own bags. And don’t you dare cough while doing any of those.

If nothing else, 2021 proved our resilience.

Despite the ongoing anxiety and uncertainty of our worlds turned upside down, people forged ahead. They chased their dreams. They started businesses. They celebrated achievements, albeit with a bit more restraint. Music and theatre returned. So did sports. And social gatherings. Maybe their absence made us embrace the richness they bring to our lives a little tighter.

The lessons we’ve learned through the past 21 months will be with us for generations. Hopefully they’ll make us stronger, more ready to adapt when the next big crisis comes along.

Here’s some of my favourite photos from the past year. Be sure to click on the “i” when you’re in the gallery to learn a bit more about the photo, and how it was shot.

Game on. Again

In the grand scheme of things, sports may not save lives, cure disease or reduce climate change. But its absence for many months then gradual return highlighted its importance to our mental health.

Even when denied the opportunity for competition, athletes and weekend warriors found ways to stay active, overcome challenges and strive for goals.

And when the games returned they were more than ready to play with renewed enthusiasm and dedication.

The fabric of our lives and community are richer when the fields, pitches, diamonds, pools and gyms are alive with the sounds and sights of sports. Because in the end, it’s not about winners and losers, it’s about just being able to play. Again.

Here’s some of my favourite sports photos from 2021, when the games came back. It’s great to be back on the sideline. (Be sure to click on the “i” icon when you go into the photo gallery to learn a little about how the photo was made)

Putting the coverage into local coverage

This is what local coverage is about.

Saturday, we had two local teams playing in the two varsity semifinal games at BC Place Stadium to determine the opponents for next week’s Subway Bowl provincial high school football championships.

This is typically a pretty big deal.

The kids get to play in the grand environs of a big-time stadium. A couple or few thousands fans fill a section of the expansive grandstand. The local TV stations usually send a crew or cameraman to put together a highlight package (in fact, in days of yore I think they even showed the final game live on one of the stations), the daily papers assign at least a reporter and photographer. Also on the sidelines would be the reporters and photographers from the various community papers if one of their local teams was participating.

It’s always been a lot of fun. We’d get to shoot some dedicated young athletes in relatively decent light, catch up with our colleagues and compete for the best coverage.

But local news resources are now so depleted, the sideline media contingent last night consisted pretty much of myself, a former newspaper journalist who now blogs about high school sports and a reporter from one of the dailies who spent a good chunk of time trying to figure out how he could get a hot dog (can’t say I blame him; don’t even get me started on the demise of the food buffets that used to be provided at big time sporting events to ease the hunger pangs of journalists working at their event).

As we had two teams from our coverage area playing for the possibility of an all-Tri-City final for the first time, I pitched my editor this was an opportunity for us to go big.

With my colleague @KyleBalzer up in the press box handling the writing and live posts to social media, I was able to concentrate on shooting.

At halftime of each game, I headed up to download a couple of photos for the quick hit he’d post to our website and social media channels immediately after each game. Following the final whistle, I edited a more complete take while he gathered quotes and produced a more fulsome account.

Within an hour of the end of each game, visitors to tricitynews.com were able to read a complete game story with accompanying photo gallery and even a few video clips Kyle shot with his phone from the press box.

The daily has yet to post its story (maybe the photos they were going to get from one of the organizers weren’t any good).

The morning news show on TV didn’t even mention the scores.

The blogger is probably sleeping in.

The hits we get on our website may not come close to the traffic generated by a story about a local crime wave or a reader’s screed about a parking ticket, but I’d like to think each one we get will go away from our site appreciative of our commitment to cover the community and then return to us again when they want to find out what’s going on in their neighbourhood or across town.

And for Kyle and I, the evening was a chance for each of us to do what we do best so we could provide our readers the best coverage — even if we were really hungry…

Sports is more than just fun and games

It’s been awhile.

As the end of 2021 draws nigh, we continue to struggle for normalcy.

The COVID-19 pandemic is still all around us, changing the way we work and how we interact. Our newsroom continues to work mostly from our homes, meeting occasionally over Zoom, daily on Slack. Who’d ever even heard of those apps before all of this started?

But compared to last year at this time, we’ve come a long way.

Not every story we tell now has a pandemic context. Events are starting to happen again. Sports is happening again.

That’s been huge.

While most of the sports I’ve covered over the past several years — first at the papers in Burnaby and New Westminster, then the past four years in the Tri-Cities — has been off the side of my desk, it’s still my passion for shooting and writing. So much so, that even when the pandemic shut down pretty much all sports at every level, the only times I wasn’t able to get some sort of sports coverage into the paper was when ads took my space.

I’ve always been a proponent of a feature-based approach to sports coverage. Partly as a survival strategy because it allows me to stockpile stories to be parsed out when other duties are more demanding. Partly because blow-by-blow game reports filed in a weekly paper seem so futile in this age of social media and live streaming.

Mostly, I love covering sports because it’s such fertile ground for interesting and compelling features. They’re stories of triumph and adversity, hopes and dreams. They offer drama, pathos and even humour.

Sports is a microcosm of life, played out on the ice, the pitch, the diamond, the hardwood.
In the past year, I told stories about:

a pro hockey player getting back on the ice after overcoming cancer three times;
a young boy knocked off his BMX bike by a similar diagnosis;
student-athletes coping with the uncertainties of the pandemic on both their academic and athletic aspirations;
a hockey team’s commitment to providing its players supports for their mental and emotional well-being;
a young lacrosse player who can’t play because he can’t find a helmet that fits his head;
a minor pro baseball player toiling for a team named after a hot dog;
a basketball player thriving on the court despite being deaf

Yet, sports continues to struggle for respect from editors.

After photographers, sports reporters have paid a heavy price for our industry’s woes. I know several who were punted to the bench because their beat was deemed more expendable than say covering city council or school board, their work not as important, well read or generating as many hits.

But sports coverage is a huge community builder, a point of entry for readers — especially younger ones — who might not otherwise get engaged by the latest drama unfolding at school board meetings. And in the newspaper industry’s rush to stanch the bleeding, those roles have largely been neglected, further distancing us from our lifeblood.

A feature story about a young athlete heading to university to play a sport they only took up in Grade 12 won’t affect your taxes or property values, or alert you to alter your commute to work, but it will give you a glimpse into your community and the diversity of the people who populate it. And it might even make you smile, feel a bit better about where you live, more connected to your community.

To be successful — heck, even relevant is an achievement these days — newspapers must be all those things. We must inform, but we also need to entertain, evoke emotion, broaden your understanding of the world around you, even if that world is just down your street or across town.

An anniversary

It was 30 years ago today I pointed my little red Toyota Tercel west.

My road and mountain bikes were clamped in the Thule rack on the roof, my camera gear and clothes squirreled in the hatchback.

My first newspaper job in Oshawa, Ont., had been claimed by the 1990 recession. And while a few of us had pooled resources to scrounge up some freelance contracts, I wasn’t done with newspapers and I was hoping newspapers weren’t done with me.

So, with only a vague assurance from @craighodge that there was work to be had in the suburbs of Vancouver, I decided to head west instead of east where I had already secured a job offer at a small daily in Nova Scotia.

My first day on the road, I got as far as Appleton, Wis., even as the car radio crackled with tornado warnings through Illinois.

The second night, I encamped in Butte, Mont., where I watched Nolan Ryan no-hit the Toronto Blue Jays on the motel TV.

I made it to Vancouver on the third day, navigated my way to Port Coqutilam, and a few days later started pulling photo shifts @tricitynews.

It was heady time in the Lower Mainland newspaper business.

Every market had competing papers.

We were a photo department of six shooters, plus freelancers. The photographers who huddled around the light table at the end of every 10-hour shift — @gregkinch, @arlenredekop, @simoneponne, @dougshanks, @marcusoleniuk, @evanseal, @briangiebelhaus, @brianlangdeau, @steveray — all pushed each other to bring out our best.

Mario Bartel storyteller photographer journalist communicator
Blowing off steam between assignments in the studio.

We covered events like the BC Summer and Winter Games, Canada Games, Commonwealth Games, Molson Indy, Grey Cups.

Our bylines may not have been in a daily, but by god we weren’t going to let that stop us from working like we were a daily. Heck, one year we even managed to convince our employer to charter us a plane so we could attend a news photogs’ conference in Spokane, Wash.

The reporters I got to work with — @johnwawrow, @richdalmonte, @mikemcquillan, @katetrotter, @guidomarziali — were all supremely talented and dedicated. We all thought nothing of toiling late into the night if it meant getting the story.

Mario Bartel storyteller photographer journalist communicator
Remember when journalists smoked in the newsroom, kept a mickey of Scotch squirreled in a desk drawer? This guy, John Wawrow, is one of the best old-school reporters I’ve worked with. He’s still hanging on, covering sports for AP in Buffalo.

Of course, the halcyon days didn’t last.

By the mid-1990s we were starting to hear things about reading news stories on WWW services like AOL, exchanging gossip about favourite TV shows on Internet Newsgroups.

Internal politics split up our photo department. Economics started to deplete our ranks. The urgency to roll to late-night scanner calls diminished. The chatter when we gathered at the police tape or the pub grew increasingly dour.

Life started to take on more importance. It was time to find balance.

For 17 years (!) @katiebartel has been my port in the storm of a professional life that became increasingly tumultuous, crashing through changing roles, ownership changes and amalgamations, several publishers, numerous editors, a closure, then ultimately a rebirth.

For eight years, @thelittlering1 has been my light, showing me all that is incredible about life through his eager, inquisitive eyes and wry smile.

Mario Bartel storyteller photographer blogger Vancouver snow

Every day, I marvel a little that I ended up here.