I wrote that down.
Every year, students at accredited journalism schools write, photograph, and broadcast their aspiring tails off in hopes of receiving the summons to San Francisco for the Hearst Foundation's annual awards, generally regarded, when they're regarded at all, as the "Pulitzers of college journalism." The competition is fierce; college journalists are not, after all, a wealthy bunch, and the Hearst Foundation's checks buy a lot of ramen (about $400,000 worth, this year).
I got the invitation to San Francisco based on a profile of an 80-year-old farmer I'd written during an internship at The Oregonian in Portland. It was not a spectacular story; I'd edited much better profiles for my college paper, The Daily Northwestern. But my piece was submitted to Hearst, it was technically sound, and it spoke to enough universal truths to get me a $2,000 prize and the chance to win $5,000 more, if I bested seven of my print peers in San Francisco.
The competition took place under grueling conditions. When I arrived at my room in the Palace Hotel (going rate, according to the card affixed to the back of the door: $520-580 a night), I was immediately forced to access two voice-mail messages, from any one of three phones. The first voice message told me to read the written message I'd just picked up at the front desk. (It was: "Welcome!") The second voice-mail told me to look on the bed for a black bag from the Hearst Foundation. The bag turned out to contain a leather binder, a map of the city, and other welcome materials. Then I paged through the room service menu, noted that a bowl of Special K would run me $7, and began to learn the price of success.
The following four days were a blur of filet mignon, wine flutes, and deferential waiters, with some quasi-journalism sprinkled in. In the print category, the National Writing Champion would be determined on the basis of three stories -- one based on an event, two on a press conference -- that the student journalists would write during their stay in San Francisco. After dinner on the first night, eight print finalists convened to receive assignments from the judges. It was tense stuff: Some of the best college journalists in America, their résumés slathered with national awards and professional internships, stood ready to dig through the back alleys of San Francisco for an eye-popping story that, if published, would make the reverberations of the '89 quake seem feeble.
The assignment: Cover the Haight Street Fair.
"On its face," said one of the judges, "it doesn't look like much. But we want to see what you can do with this rich stew we're throwing you into."
By "rich stew," I assume he was referring to the strange folk parading along Haight Street, and there, in the Haight, I did fine; but inside the hotel, high-priced gaucheness began to wear. One of my collegiate colleagues put it this way: "It seems like this weekend strips away your idealism and replaces it with a sense of superiority." The unsettling opulence reached a zenith aboard the cruise ship that hosted final speeches, toasts, and a much-anticipated awards ceremony that Phil Bronstein and Sharon Stone were to attend before, alas, he got chomped by a Komodo dragon.
Still, most of the people aboard that ship, where I was able to acquire a reasonable and free buzz, were good and well-meaning. I finished second in the print competition and be- came $4,000 richer than I'd been, pre-Palace Hotel. So I guess I really don't understand why an elevator ride with Al Franken at the Palace Hotel seemed, and seems, the most important and genuine moment of the weekend.