It’s sort of weird for Fountain Hills resident Ryan Winslett, 30, to be interviewed. Since he was a little kid, Winslett has always had a passion for telling stories, which has translated into a journalism career that’s made him schools and sports reporter for The Fountain Hills Times. Winslett is also a dedicated video game player and has worked that fervor for gaming into writing gigs for www.bitcreature.com and www.gamingblend.com. Read on for what it’s like living in Fountain Hills and how his life as a reporter has shaped him, as well as hear five reasons why he loves living in the Valley.
What brought you to Arizona?
I was born in Athens, Georgia. My mom was looking for a new job when I was in the 5th grade and she found it in Globe, Arizona.
What first got you interested in journalism?
Honestly, if I had to pick one moment, there was a show on Nickelodeon called Clarissa Explains It All, and there’s an episode where Clarissa has to go job shadow somebody. Her next-door neighbor, his dad is a journalist. In the episode, she goes over and finds him sleeping in his closet and he says something like ‘You know, journalists have to get sleep whenever we can because we’re always so busy.’ He also had a desk in his living room that was just covered in balled up pieces of paper and Chinese takeout containers. I never realized how weird that was. Something about that made me think it was something I wanted to do.
When did you first start writing?
Before I realized journalism was what I wanted to do, I’d write these little books as a kid, and I’d make up little newspapers and talk to family members about things that happened around the yard, and then I’d watch the evening news for the weather and didn’t know anything about plagiarism at the time, but take their weather and put it in my newspaper.
What about journalism seemed fun to you?
Just telling the stories. I liked the idea of telling somebody else’s story. I always loved to write and come up with my own ideas, but I think one of the coolest things is sharing someone else’s story with others, and maybe someone takes something away from that.
What’s your typical year like at The Fountain HIlls Times?
I cover schools and sports, but I also end up doing random features or covering various community events. Throughout the school year, I’m constantly receiving things from teachers and administrators, and I’ll be compiling those, doing interviews, taking photos and everything to turn them into stories. And then on the sports side, I’ll keep an eye out for things that might make an interesting feature, and then I go to as many of the home games as humanly possible. Somewhere in there I’ll do the weekly wrap-up for each of our high school sports.
What makes it an interesting beat?
I wish I could be as excited about anything as these kids are about the science project they’re going to be presenting or their football season. Seeing these people who are still so new to the world, and learning about it, and getting to share their stories is cool.
How would you characterize young people today?
I wasn’t a teenager too long ago, but they’re vastly different. They grew up with a computer in front of them. I’ve seen kids in the 4th grade here doing things on computers I didn’t get to do until high school. These kids are ridiculously smart in a lot of ways we never could have dreamed of being, but at the same time, that probably comes at a cost. There are certain things they may not grasp as well as we did back in the day, more physical stuff, going out and doing stuff, because everything’s been at their fingertips, but I’m very impressed with the youth of today.
What are the best and worst parts about living in Fountain Hills?
The best thing is that it’s a small, close-knit community, and it’s a stone’s throw away from a big city. I hate the idea of living in a big city, but I love that I can live in this small community, I don’t have rush hour, it’s a 5-minute drive to work, and I know half the people here. I’m still really close to movies, malls and comic book stores in Phoeix, though. The worst thing is that the vast majority of my friends live in the Phoenix area, and there’s not an overabundance of things to do in Fountain Hills, so I’m usually going to them. It’s fine, but I miss the old college mentality of walking 200 yards and finding 500 of my friends in their rooms.
What can people expect from a visit to Fountain Hills?
It’s smaller and quieter. The people here are really nice. I know it gets a rep for being a retirement community, but it’s really not. There’s a gap, I guess — it goes from infancy to about 18, and then 35 on to retirement, so there’s a group of people who aren’t here because they’re off at college, but it’s a simpler place, a quieter place and a gorgeous place. You have some really good small town shopping and some great places to eat, and it’s all within walking distance, and there’s no traffic or construction to worry about.
What are your three favorite places to go to in Fountain HIlls?
Fountain Park is a really great place because the fountain’s really neat, and there are a lot of cool events going on there. It also has disc golf, and it’s within walking distance of where I live. We really like the All American Sports Grill, and it’s right across the street from the fountain and has a great little atmosphere. It’s a place to come watch the game and grab a drink and sit on the patio when it’s nice out. Another favorite place is the library and Community Center area, which might sound crazy because I’ve never actually checked out a book from the local library, but they have great art, and I love walking around that area.
What’s your most memorable story you’ve ever written?
It was a story about a guy named John Woodruff, who was a former Olympian who went to the Olympics when they were in Germany in 1936 and got a gold medal as an African-American man in front of Hitler. He retired here in Fountain Hills — his wife still lives here. Later in his life, he was battling with diabetes and lost his legs. He’s one of the fastest humans in the world and an amazing man.
He had broken the world record in Texas for the 800-meter run in 1937 at the Pan American Games, and I don’t know how this works, but they determined they had measured the track too small — so actually, he didn’t break the world record. These kids in a Texas elementary school did the math and got a hold of me to put them in contact with John Woodruff — before that, I didn’t know who he was. They did a school math project that proves that even if the track was too short, he still would have beaten the world record running at his current rate. They wanted me to get a hold of him because they’d all made cards for him, and I thought it would make a really cool story.
The teacher was awesome. I worked with her and her kids, they gave me great quotes, I got to deliver this box of beautiful handmade cards to John. Shortly after that, he passed away, but I ended up doing a follow-up because the University of Texas ended up making a scholarship in his honor. The record was never officially given to him, but I think it was really cool before he left us he found out this completely random group of kids who lived in a completely different state cared about something that had happened in his life enough to do this project and reach out to him. It was a big story that affected a lot of people about someone in this small town. If the teacher had never got a hold of me, I would have never had known we had this Olympian and world record holder here in Fountain Hills.
What’s your ultimate goal in journalism?
I’ve been playing video games my entire life, but as someone who likes to tell these stories, the idea of being a journalist who covers the world of video games is my dream job. I started writing for joystickdivision.com a couple of years ago, covering game news and doing reviews. I got to cover E3 2011 for them, which was a dream come true. That was me getting 4 days to see what it was like to live the life I want to live. It was go-go-go, constantly interviewing, constantly writing about this industry I’m so passionate about. I was up until 2 a.m. to send a story in, just to get up early the next morning and rush to the convention center to do the next thing.
Joystick Division went under, but one of my co-workers from there started a new site. He wanted it to be different and not just cover video game news, so BitCreature.com is a mix of diverse writers, and we write columns and essays, as well as interviews and reviews. The whole point is to look at video games as a part of culture, because that’s what it is. Everyone plays games now, including on Facebook and on the iPod and iPad. Whether they realize it or not, when people play Words with Friends, they’re a gamer. Everyone now is a gamer. It’s this movement of considering it a normal part of life, so you have these great stories of people telling these life experiences and tying them into a video game they played. I also write for GamingBlend.com and do about four stories a day for them and two a day on the weekends. I’m just constantly writing!
Why do you love video games so much?
They’re such a big part of my life. In Globe, there wasn’t a lot to do. We had a one-screen movie theater, we had a Walmart. We hung out at the car wash on the weekends or in the Jack in the Box in the parking lot. I think every healthy teenager has that place they escape to. I was into sports, and I read a lot, but I was really into video games because they took you to these fantastic places and allowed you to be the hero, the sports champion or anything I wanted to be.
What has kept you a gamer?
It’s an amazing art form. They can tell just as amazing stories as a novel. They can blow your mind like an action movie. They’re these amazing experiences that hit you on a different level than any other medium.
What’s your view of the journalism world today?
Print journalism is in danger, but it’s been that way for years. I think the days of print are numbered, but small-town newspapers, I think are going to be here for quite awhile. I’m not saying that because I work for one, but that’s the only place you can get that news. If you want to know how the Falcons did at Friday night’s game and know these stories about the people in your town and what the town council decided, The New York Times isn’t covering what’s going on in Fountain Hills.
I think one of the most dangerous things about journalism is that people have taken away the value of the written word. Especially in the world of video game journalism, kids are so desperate to get their foot in the door, they’re willing to do the work for free, and for me, that’s a terrifying thought. Not only does it devalue you, but it devalues your fellow writers and what you’re doing. I’m scared of the idea of misinformation, of people putting things out there as fact when they didn’t properly research it or speak to anyone. Secondhand information is the information of the now, unfortunately.
What are the challenges to working as a small-town reporter?
One of the hardest things is that you know people and want to do good things for them, so when something negative comes up, it’s really hard because you have to report on it. More so than normal, I do my best to present the facts as best I can, give everyone a chance to say their piece, and let the readers make of it what they will.
Do you have any real-world tips you’ve taken away from being a reporter?
If someone’s excited about something, and I don’t try to feel their excitement, I’m going to write a bland story. For people who are worried about meeting strangers, everyone loves to talk about themselves. Once you get someone rolling and show them you’re genuinely interested in what they’re talking about, being a good listener and being attentive gets people to open up.
Do you have any writing tips for people?
I’m a firm believer that everyone sort of has their own method – you just have to start doing it. I know people who can’t write unless they have music blaring. For me, if music has words in it, it’s distracting, but sometimes I like to listen to instrumental music. Usually, I like to be in a quiet place. You have to be willing to close your door and focus.
What’s your favorite video game?
Metal Gear Solid. I was in high school, and my friend told me about this game that was coming out for the PlayStation. You got to be stealthy, and you could get through the game without killing anyone. It wasn’t the typical action-packed game we were used to, and he loaned me his system and a demo for the game one weekend. I played it countless times and, by the time the game came out, I had my own PlayStation. I ended up playing Metal Gear Solid over a dozen times in a row. Nowadays, it’s hard for me to play anything more than once, but I played that over and over. This was the first game I played that told a big story.
What trends do you see in the video game industry?
Digital. All three of the big console makers – Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony – have some sort of digital market. There will be more streaming, and the games will be on the cloud, which is already being done with stuff like OnLive. We’ll see more of that in this upcoming generation and, if we make it to another one, I think all consoles will do away with physical media completely.
What is your favorite video game system?
The PlayStation 2, which I actually received as an extravagant gift from a college roommate. The library for that system is hard to beat, and I have a lot of fond memories with it. The PS2, like pretty much every gaming system, also helped me get through some pretty tough times.
Do you have any tips for becoming better at video games?
Just play more, just like anything you do. I never really understood the term “good at video games.” It’s like saying you’re good at watching TV. Granted, you’re interacting with the game more, but the only reason why someone is not good at the game is because they have less experience with it.