Journalism lessons from a spring day a dozen years ago
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A beautiful spring Tuesday in 2004 took a sudden turn when flames engulfed Bridger Hall.
For my best friend, the fire destroyed her bedroom and most of her belongings, from band T-shirts to family keepsakes to photographs. For another dear friend, the thick smoke caused a severe asthma attack, and she was rushed to the hospital.
For me, the Bridger Hall fire brought some of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in journalism — lessons in how to handle breaking news, how to accurately write under the pressure of a deadline and, most importantly, how to see the humanity in every story.
I interviewed a student who ran through Bridger’s hallways as they filled with smoke, knocking on doors to alert his friends of the fire. Another student told me that he was taking a shower when the fire alarm sounded, and he thought it was simply a drill until opening the bathroom door to a wall of smoke. Eventually, he broke through a second-story window and made his way onto a balcony and out of the burning dorm.
Later, I walked the charred hallways, saw the black hole of a room where the fire started and talked to the students who lived there.
A dozen years after the Bridger Hall fire, these are stories I easily recall. Images of the fire by Seth McConnell, a fellow Trail staffer, remain fresh in my mind.
Let me pause here for a moment. I understand this forum in the Northwest Trail isn’t a place for old alumni to share their meandering memories of their college days; I was invited to write this piece to share about what the Trail meant to me and how it shaped me as a journalist.
But I want to share these memories of the Bridger Hall fire — one of the largest disasters in the Northwest College’s 70-year history — to emphasize that it was students on the ground who reported this important breaking news story.
Yes, other media outlets exist in Powell; I worked for the Powell Tribune at the time of the fire, and I continue to work there as an editor today. But students have access to their peers on campus that a professional journalist does not. Students hear news tips in the dorms or cafeteria, and they make connections with fellow students as well as college employees.
For decades, students’ voices were represented in the Northwest Trail — whether it was a funny movie review, an impassioned political column or a feature highlighting students’ talent and hard work.
Without the Trail, so many of those stories will be lost.
Like many fellow Trail alumni, I remain disappointed and sad that future students will no longer learn the basics of journalism at Northwest College. My time at NWC was incredibly valuable in shaping me as a journalist as well as a person — and I never even planned to be a part of the Trail.
When I was a senior at Powell High School, Dennis Davis encouraged me to apply for Northwest College’s journalism program. I was looking at colleges elsewhere, but decided to give Northwest a try. And I couldn’t be more grateful for that decision.
Dennis Davis remains the best professor I ever had. His lessons are ingrained in me as I double check to make sure I spell names correctly, seek to write a quote exactly as the person said it and quietly refuse to take food or drinks at an event I’m covering. Dennis showed me how to pursue a good story and accurately report it. He taught me even greater lessons in integrity, respect and humanity.
I am still striving to become the journalist Dennis taught me to be during my time at Northwest.
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Tessa Schweigert Baker started her career in journalism at the Powell Tribune in 2003. While attending Northwest College, she worked on the Northwest Trail staff from 2003-05, serving as the editor her sophomore year. She then finished her bachelor’s degree in English/communications at Boise State University and worked as an intern at the Idaho Statesman. Following a short stint in England, Baker returned to the Powell Tribune in 2008 and currently works as the Tribune’s features editor, overseeing special sections and covering K-12 education as well as general assignments.