The Importance and Value of Mentorship

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The Importance and Value of Mentorship

By Barry Willis

Twenty-some years ago, during the first wave of dot-com hysteria, I worked as content director at an audio-and-music startup called Audiocafe.com, on Mission Street in San Francisco.  “Content-Commerce-Community”—anyone remember that mantra? Audiocafe was among the 99% of startups that tanked within a year or so of their birth, but during its short life it was a fun if very bumpy ride.

I shared a cubicle with Clare, our editor, a recent graduate from San Francisco State University’s school of journalism, and a fine writer and editor whose work had appeared in Wired among other journals.  Our job was to generate product and music reviews, and to ensure that everything that appeared on the website was concise, literate, informative, and entertaining.

One day Clare had the bright idea that we should recruit some interns to help with content. She took advantage of her connections at SF State and found five promising students, and arranged for them to get class credit for contributing. We picked three of the five—one girl, and two guys—who began to submit pieces to us. 

One day in the office, one of the guys, Mike, asked me for assignment ideas. 

“You have some favorite bands, don’t you?” I asked. 

“Oh yeah, of course,” he replied. “I’ve got tickets to Massive Meltdown at the Concord Pavilion this weekend.”

“Great,” I said. “You work up a review of the concert, and we’ll run it.”

He left pumped up with enthusiasm. A dream gig: writing about his favorite band! He got back to me the next Tuesday with something like this:

Late last Saturday afternoon, we drove out to Concord Pavilion, got a good parking spot, then made our way through the turnstiles and found our seats. We were eager to see Massive Meltdown, who hadn’t played the Bay Area in more than two years.

The crowd was rowdy as warm-up act Lust Bucket took the stage. Their first song was “I Wanna Be Your Pitbull” and the second one was “Stomp On My Toes.” Then they played “Dysentery” with a long instrumental break and followed that with “Sticky Dewdrops,” a new song that will be included in their next album. They followed that with “Puddle of Blood,” their most well-known song, with a screaming solo by guitarist Steven Bumblefork . . .

Mike’s this-happened-then-that-happened linear narrative continued at unjustifiable length, with little distinction between the event’s important aspects and its piddling details. We didn’t really need to know what he bought at the concession stand during intermission or how long he had to wait to use the restroom. 

Many paragraphs into it he finally mentioned the headliners, the whole reason he went to Concord Pavilion to begin with. His coverage of Massive Meltdown continued in the vein of they-did-this-then-did-that, but buried in his linear recitation were mentions of performance, song selection, staging, presentation, crowd reaction, and fanboy tidbits about the band. 

He was watching me with great anticipation as I scanned his piece. “Oh my effing god,” I thought. “Four years of J-school and this is what he produces. WTF are his parents paying for?”

I didn’t say that to him, of course. Instead, I said, “Mike, this is pretty good, but I see some spots that could use a bit of editing. Let me work on it and I’ll get back to you.”

That night I deconstructed what he had given me, pulling out the juicy salient parts about Massive Meltdown, moving them up front in the piece, giving Lust Bucket secondary mention, and throwing in some of his observations as spice, to give readers a feel for what it was like to be in Concord Pavilion for the event. His original was a music reviewer’s equivalent of a plot synopsis masquerading as a theater review, but the final version was what I had asked for—a review of the Massive Meltdown concert, an enthusiastic piece that might tweak the interests of other music fans not as enamored of the band as Mike was.

When he was back in the office, I showed him what I had done, and explained why. As he read the finished piece, he got tears in his eyes and said, “No one has ever shown me how to do this. I can’t thank you enough.”   

That was actually one of the few satisfying moments of my time at Audiocafe.com. I will never understand how Mike got through four years of journalism school without learning how to structure a story, without learning what to emphasize and what to ignore, but I felt great about having helped him. I can only hope that in some small way I encouraged him to keep writing.

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