by Debbie Little
The Clyde Hirt Journalism Workshop pays tribute to the Hall of Fame writer by sharing harness racing with a new generation.
The workshop, currently co-chaired by Ken Weingartner and myself, was founded in 2003 and is now focused on writing, although TV and photojournalists do attend.
In 2005, Michael Casagrande, a young journalist at Western Kentucky University, was a workshop attendee.
“The workshop gave me the confidence to step outside my comfort zone and cover a sport I had only seen a few times in passing,” said Casagrande. “Starting from scratch meant learning harness racing from the ground level to the point I could write for an audience who’d know if I didn’t do my homework.
“Some of the connections I made at the workshop helped build my career through freelance assignments and job references. It’s been 17 years since I participated and I’m still in touch with a few of the professionals I met that week.”
Amanda Stellwag, a rising junior at Rutgers University, majoring in journalism and media studies, knew nothing about harness racing but all that quickly changed.
“My experience from the workshop was amazing, a great learning experience, and a chance to see how being a part of a journalism team works,” said Stellwag. “I was able to get experience writing articles for a professional newspaper and make connections while visiting the places I was taken to during the workshop. I also gained knowledge about harness racing history, the terminology, and a real hands-on lesson on how to ride in a jog cart.”
Unlike the overwhelming majority of workshop attendees, University of Kentucky student Emily Gaskin – Hirt class of 2009 – grew up in a harness racing family.
“The Clyde Hirt workshop played a pivotal role in the shaping of my career — it provided much needed experience and maybe even more importantly, allowed me to gain confidence in my writing skills when I needed it most,” said Gaskin. “After my time with the workshop, I was inspired to continue to pursue my career goals within the industry. The hands-on learning experience, the working relationships I was able to cultivate and the opportunity to learn from some of the best media professionals within the industry — all while having a good time doing it — was something I’ll never forget, and I am so thankful I had the opportunity to attend.”
None of this year’s class had ever heard of harness racing – let alone seen it live – before.
Claudine Smith, a rising senior at Rutgers University and want-to-be sideline reporter, made suggestions on how the workshop’s TV student could be posting live interviews for social media, which will be adopted moving forward.
“My experience as a Clyde Hirt Journalism Workshop student is one I will never forget,” said Smith. “I was exposed to so many opportunities that I would not have gotten anywhere else. My favorite part of the workshop was meeting different people in the journalism field who were so open and willing to give advice and help me in any way they can.
“I was also very enthused that I got the chance to interview a Giants’ football player because one of my favorite things about being a journalist is asking questions and talking to people to know their story.”
La Salle University student Amanda Johncola did the workshop in 2015, splitting her time between writing and photography.
“Even though the Clyde Hirt Workshop focuses on live-event writing, it’s helped me in all of the jobs I’ve had since then,” said Johncola. “When I was in the workshop, I thought I was going to have a long-lived journalism career. I’m no longer in journalism, but for the few years that I was, it really helped me hone my writing skills.
“The fast paced objective of writing a live sporting event helped me to write breaking news. It taught me to gather the facts quickly and how to write concisely to get a piece out as quickly as possible. It also taught me how to focus on the main topic and not to be distracted by background noise.”
Johncola returned to the workshop in 2016 as a photographer before graduating and becoming a Hirt advisor in 2017.
“The skills I learned helped me, even in what I do today as a 911 dispatcher,” said Johncola. “The fast-paced atmosphere of a race helped me to remain calm in gathering information in an emergency. The interview skills I learned also helped me figuring out what information is necessary to get for police to get them vital information as quickly as possible.
“In all, the skills taught by the advisors at the Clyde Hirt workshop extend far beyond journalism. I wouldn’t have made it where I am today without those skills.”
This workshop would not be possible without advisors Garnet and Nick Barnsdale, Lia Eustachewich, Dave Little and Kelly Young, as well as Trentonian sports editor Kyle Franko, Boston Globe sports editor Matt Pepin, DRF Harness editor Derick Giwner, Edison Hatter, Pat Leonard, Curtis MacDonald, Kristin Roberts and Tara Sullivan. With special thanks to everyone at The Meadowlands, Ray Schnittker, the New York Football Giants, the Harness Racing Museum, the New York Post, the Ohio Chapter of USHWA, The Hambletonian Society and the USTA.
Megan Husslein, a rising junior at The Ohio State University, was chosen to attend the workshop by the Ohio chapter of USHWA, who sponsored her.
“Coming into the Clyde Hirt Journalism Workshop, I knew nothing about the sport of harness racing. Additionally, that’s all I expected the workshop to be about. However, I was pleasantly surprised about the range of events that we got to partake in. From attending Giants training camp, to visiting the New York Post and even jogging a horse, it was a week full of unforgettable memories. This workshop gave me opportunities that I otherwise would have never received, and for that I am so thankful.
“As for the harness racing aspect, Debbie, Garnet and Nick were great teachers who were very patient with all of our questions. They helped us realize how fun this sport can be and I can now officially say that I am hooked! They, along with Ken Weingartner, helped me write two stories that were published in the Trentonian, and one of them was published in print — my first one ever. Overall, I am so happy that I took a chance and attended this journalism workshop — strangers became family, lifelong memories were made and harness racing gained a new fan!”