Not Considering Grad School Could be a Mistake

I have always said that I will never go to graduate school for journalism. I never saw a point in grad school. My theory has been that it looks better to be out in the field, getting clips, honing your craft, etc.  But lately, I’ve started to rethink a philosophy I have stood by for years.

Maybe it’s because I graduated a year and a half early, and I miss school. (Truth be told, that’s a major reason.) But also, I realized there are more aspects of journalism that can be learned in grad school than the reporting basics I blindly assumed were taught.

One of my lofty, most-likely-will-never-happen-but-I-can-dream-about-it goals is to start a magazine. I don’t know the first thing about running a magazine. Sure, being editor in chief of my college paper helped, but it goes without saying that that’s not nearly enough experience to (essentially) start a business.

First, I considered going back to SIUE to get an MBA in the School of Business. But after looking into the program and realizing I would have to take classes involving finance and accounting, I figured that was more math than any journalist should ever have to deal with. So I went back to the Mass Comm department’s grad program.

At first glance, I didn’t see anything that looked like it would benefit me. But then I came across the subject of “media management” and thought, “Oh, hey. I want to manage a magazine. This works!”

While the student loans will probably be terrible, if I can even find the time to go back to school, I am seriously considering applying. Being out of school for the few months that I’ve been a college graduate makes me really miss learning new information everyday. It’s such a shock to the system. When you graduate, it’s expected that you’ve learned everything you need and can go make a career.

But I can’t. I want to learn more. I need to learn more. I never want to stop learning about this industry that I’ve committed my life to. And it only took about five years for me to realize that grad school is an avenue that can keep people learning about the industry. It’s not really about the degree itself. It’s about gaining additional knowledge that will help you acquire skills to advance in the industry.

Sometimes I wish I would have realized that sooner because I may not have a chance to go back.

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Choosing Money Over Dreams Guarantees Unhappiness

A recent article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch shows that some college students choose their major based on how much tuition they’ll pay at a certain college and how much money they’ll make after the fact. As far as I’m concerned, those students can pretty much expect a life of regret, and probably unhappiness.

The article explains how some advisers (in high school and college) have convinced some students to turn to careers with higher monetary gains, rather than doing what they love. That’s — pardon my language — bullshit.

If someone is truly passionate about what they want to do in life, they’ll find a way to make it work, regardless of what any adviser thinks is best. Most students who plan to attend college have a pretty good indication of what their career choice looks like from a financial perspective. And if they really care about it, yearly salary won’t matter.

Yeah, I know it matters in some sense just for the fact that you’ll have bills to pay and all that grown-up stuff that nobody likes to think about. But if you’re getting into a career for the money, I just can’t see how you can be content with yourself. If I wanted a writing career with a better salary, I would have been over in the Speech Comm department at SIUE studying public relations as my major instead of my minor. And really, can you imagine a future journalist saying, “Oh, yeah. Let’s go cover board meetings and riots so we can get rich to pay off loans and buy expensive things!”…?

But to get back on track, honestly, I would have more respect for a counselor who is upfront with me, saying, “Look, you’re not going to make a lot of money. But if this is what you want to do, and you feel you’ll be happy doing it, go for it. And I’ll do whatever I can to help you find scholarships or grants.”

Steering students away from their goals isn’t the job of a counselor or adviser. They counsel. They advise. They don’t convince students to walk away from their dreams.

Journalism: A relatively humble industry

One thing about journalism (well, any profession, really) that irritates me is that there are people who think they are God’s gift to the written word and refuse to believe otherwise. They think their first draft copy is golden. Award-winning. The best thing they’ve ever written. And I can’t stand it.

Nobody is as good as they think they are, award-winning journalist or not. If I really wanted to, I could brag to anyone who will listen about how I won awards two years in a row at the Illinois College Press Association conference and that I wrote the lead story for the news and features sections in an edition of my college paper that placed third in its category.

But I don’t. Why? Because past accomplishments aren’t going to mean anything unless I continue to produce quality work.

Am I grateful for those awards? Absolutely. Do I feel I deserve them? Yeah, I think so.

But I realize that not everything I write is going to be award winning. I’m going to have slumps. I’m going to write stories that I know just don’t have that “it factor” to make it worth reading. Hell, I wrote a few of those just a few weeks before I was promoted to editor in chief.

A couple awards do not make you worthy of flaunting your skills to anyone who will listen. I’d like to think awards should make you humble and appreciative of the work you’re doing. But I know that’s not the case for a lot of people.

Luckily, I’ve met very few people like that. Most people are extremely humble. That’s one of the things that I think drew me to journalism. People work long hours for little pay and do it because they love it and wouldn’t have it any other way. And the fact that they know their work makes a difference in someone’s life is humbling. As humbling as any award can be.

Community Newspapers Provide Outlet for Recent Grads

“Print is dead.” “Journalism is a dying profession.” “Everything is going to be online.” “Newspaper circulation is down.” “It’s not a good time to get into journalism.”

Every journalism student within the last five years or so has heard those words. Those are the nagging words of relatives who question why you chose journalism. The words of current journalists who speak to lecture halls filled to the brim with bright-eyed cub reporters waiting to burst out into the real world. But what people forget to tell you is that not all of that is true.

Newspapers AREN’T dead. It’s not really a bad time to get into journalism. Not everything is online.

My first job is proof of that. I write for a community newspaper with an editorial staff of two that I found out was hiring through an ad in the newspaper itself. Yes, times are tough for journalism. But what field could you study where times aren’t tough? Not many.

My point is, just because major news outlets are pushing their online content, social media, etc. doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for the print product. Community journalism thrives on its print product. People like having a newspaper in their mailbox or on their front porch with the week’s news. And quite frankly, I like writing for print.

Plus, community papers are the perfect way for recent college grads (like myself) to work in a big media market, but not be ‘thrown to the wolves’ (so to speak) by jumping into a big newspaper like the New York Times or L.A.  Times. It allows you to continue honing your craft, find your strengths, determine your weaknesses and improve your overall presentation as a reporter.

There’s still a place for newspapers. Not everything is going online. I firmly believe that. And to be honest, if that wasn’t the case, I wouldn’t have a job right now.

*Image courtesy of a Google search

Why Journalism Is More Addicting Than… well, anything.

Other than the sports reporters post, I felt like I was making too many negative blog posts, so today I’m changing it up a bit. For all the things I could complain about, there are a million more things I absolutely love about this business.

The rush of deadline

Nothing provides more stress, excitement and anticipation that knowing you have a limited amount of time to write a story. There’s something about being under pressure that brings out the best in what journalists are trying to convey. Yeah, it’s a pain some days, but you know you wouldn’t have it any other way. And neither would I.

The excitement that comes with breaking news

There is nothing more exciting than being the first to break a story or knowing another media outlet has the story too and doing your best to beat them as well. But more importantly, that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach that says, “This is what you live for. Go get that story!” (Yes, I realize how cheesy that sounds.) is what keeps us going. That little rush sets everyone a buzz in a journalistic euphoria that nobody can quite describe.

Telling someone’s story

Telling someone’s story is probably what I love the most. As journalists, we expect complete strangers open up about their lives, giving us all the grimy, dirty, wonderful details, and then we turn that into something that will live on in the history, in library archives, in internet databases, etc. The scope of impact you make on someone’s life — even if it’s just for a moment — is worth every struggle in getting a story to turn out just right. Of all the stories I’ve written, the ones I remember most are about people. Not budgets, not building expansions, not board meetings. PEOPLE.

Jesse Ingram, the man who drove a shuttle bus at SIUE through Madison County Transit and co-wrote “If Loving You is Wrong, I Don’t Want to Be Right” with his brother, Luther Ingram

Darnell Malone, the art grad student who was so particular about how his quotes sounded that it drove me batty, but who said (through the grapevine) that of all the stories that have been written about him, mine was the best

Davey Vega, the local professional wrestler (who, ironically, graduated from the same high school I did) who told me that he bookmarked the profile I wrote about him

As important as all the hard news stories are, the appreciation for what it takes to tell the story isn’t there near as much as it is when you’re talking to a person about their life, their hopes, their dreams — not a person in a high-level position telling you facts, explaining complex formulas or outlining construction schedules.

I can’t imagine myself doing anything else

Writing has always been one of my passions. I loved writing essays in school. I loved when the teacher would have “peer editing” days. I couldn’t wait to pull out my red pen and copy edit all over my neighbor’s essay — and circle all the ‘be’ verbs. Writing is in my blood. It’s the one thing I have always felt I was good at, and one of my three biggest passions in life, aside from professional wrestling and music. Very few things give me greater joy than finding ways to effectively transition from a lead-in to a quote or carefully selecting the right words to create a lede. Nothing compares to this. There’s nothing in the world I would rather do for a living than sit down with my recorder, notebook and a pen to tell a story.

It’s not about the money

For as long as I can remember, I was told, “There’s no money in journalism,” “You’re not going to make anything studying journalism” and any other phrase that echoes the same remarks. But I don’t care. Nobody gets into journalism for the money. Anybody who does is fooling themselves. But that’s the thing. It’s NOT about the money. It’s about holding people accountable, hunting down the big stories, chasing after breaking news, telling stories for people who, otherwise, would not have their voice heard.

It’s about passion and desire and wanting to be happy with your profession, not with your bank statement. Long ago, I made peace with the fact that I will never be rich, I’ll most likely live paycheck to paycheck for the rest of my life and I won’t have great benefits.

But I don’t care. I love journalism. This business is my life. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Five Things I Miss About My College Newsroom

Having been out in the “real world” of non-collegiate journalism for a few months (four months and nine days, to be exact), I’ve spent a good chunk of time being semi-depressed/nostalgic for things I wish were the same at my “real world” newsroom that were always present at my college newsroom.

For those of you who wish to join me in my ink-stained journey back to the not-so-distant past of my college days, here we go…

1. My friends

No matter what lies people try to feed young journalism students about how they can get sucked into journalism and need to find a way to balance their work with their personal life, they need to ignore it. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The people I worked with at the Alestle are some of my best friends. I still keep in contact with them, but it’s not the same as seeing them almost every day for the two and a half years I spent in that office. Especially since one of them moved half way across the country after graduation.

2. The pureness of it all.

I’ve heard it said before that college newsrooms are the most pure. Reasons differ, but the fact the remains. There’s just something about young, dedicated and passionate journalists trying to find their niche, and (for the most part) refusing to fail at any assignment their given, that makes it… pure. Everyone is so careful not to misquote someone, spell a name wrong, get a fact wrong or libel someone. When one of those things does happen, it’s one of the worst, most gut-wrenching feelings ever. Plus, everyone is in it together, figuring things out and learning what to do.

3. The camaraderie.

Because you spend just about every day with your fellow college journos, you’re going to become close. And most likely you’ll have at least a class or two together. There’s just a connection that you all share, pretty much like I mentioned in the ‘pureness’ part of this blog. Even if you hate someone you work with, or you’re easily frustrated by them, you know you’ll all pull together for both the good and the bad. Unfortunately, for my newsroom, we pulled together for the bad. But I’ll never forget how we were all there for each other. They’re a second family, whether or not you realize it at the time.

4. The inside jokes.

So many things happened with my newspaper friends that will always be ingrained in my memory. From the jokes that developed at journalism conventions (“little box”) to the quotes that were said in drunken-hilarity (“These Red Vines are going to be GONE!”) to the randomness of anything and everything that was said on a production day (“I’m going to throw one of three things out the window.” “Please don’t throw me.” “Well, now we’re down to two.”), it’s something you take for granted. Cherish it. I know I will.

4.  The quirks of your co-workers.

You know that one thing that someone always did to try to relieve the tension or stress of deadline, or just because they wanted to try and make people laugh? That’s what this video was for us:

Okay, let me explain. We used Quark to design our paper and had to “collect” the pages before we could leave for the day. And almost every print production day, someone (99.9 percent of the time it was our sports editor) would play this video, and then yell, “[SECTION NAME] COLLECTED!”

5.  The guidance of a writer’s coach and adviser.

This one is pretty obvious, but there’s nobody to fall back on when you get into the real world. You don’t have a writer’s coach offering to look at your copy before you submit it to your editor. You don’t have an adviser you can go to for advice on a tough issue. You have yourself. So, take advantage of everybody who is willing to help that you can. Soon enough, their voices of reason and objectivity will become the editorial voices inside your head.

Why Sports Writers are (arguably) the Best Writers

You don’t have to be a diehard fan to understand the passion seen in sports fans and the athletes themselves. And the same can be said for sports writers.

A former editor in chief at my college newspaper once told me sports writers are the best writers. I took what he said and made a mental note of it, not really thinking much about it. But occasionally the thought would creep back up. That thought even caused me to buy a couple editions of “The Best American Sports Writing” series.

Right now, I’m about half way through the 2008 edition in the series, and it’s obvious why my former editor told me that. Because it’s true. There’s just something about sports writers that makes them unique. They have such a passion for what they write about that I can’t even begin to describe. But it shows in every word of ever story.

Sure, reporters get excited about breaking news (I know I can) and big, investigative pieces, but the deep connection with the subject just isn’t there. The relationship between the writer and the subject doesn’t have near the history in news as it does in sports. I’d be surprised to find a sports writer who didn’t grow up idolizing the people or the sports they’re now covering.

From my first experience in a newsroom environment (my high school journalism class), I heard the phrase, “Sports is on an island.” And it’s really true. There’s a different approach to writing game stories versus meeting stories, sports profiles versus traditional feature profiles and even investigative sports stories versus an investigative news piece. There is just something in how the story has to be approached, how the writers grew up immersed in the  subject they report on and how they have to transition from biased fan to objective spectator that, I think, makes sports one of the most challenging  — and rewarding — things to write about. And something I’ve always admired.

Obviously, that last statement is speaking from very little experience, as most of my sports stories (the list can be counted on one hand) have been profiles or sports-features. But that doesn’t discount my theory that sports writers are, arguably, some of the hardest-working, most dedicated reporters.

You Don’t Need a “J-School” to get Good Experience

“Why aren’t you going to Mizzou?” “You know Mizzou is one of the best J-Schools in the country, don’t you?” “Why wouldn’t you study journalism at Mizzou? The have such a great program.”

I heard many variations of these questions/statements when I would tell people I chose Southern Illinois University Edwardsville to study journalism (Well, technically “Mass Communications with a specialization in print and electronic journalism”) instead of Mizzou — the “best Journalism school in the country.” The reason? I just didn’t want to.

I have nothing against Mizzou, its journalism program or anything associated with the university. I know many people who graduate from the program go on to do amazing things in the industry.

But I had no desire to go there.

Partially because 90 percent of my high school goes to Mizzou just about every year and partially because I was tired of hearing about how everyone who studies journalism needs to go to Mizzou. Everybody who wants to make anything of themselves has to be in the J-School. And I knew that wasn’t the case.

It’s not about the school’s name on the piece of paper you get when you graduate. It’s about the work you produce and what you learn at the school you chose. And I’m proud to say I chose SIUE, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

My time working for the Alestle, SIUE’s student paper, was great. It was, by far, the best experience of my time at SIUE. From the day I set foot in that office for my interview as an intimidated, but excited little freshman, I knew it was the right place to be. I learned more from the student editors there, than I think I could have ever learned in a classroom.

And that little voice inside my head that (to this day) forces me to keep changing around my stories, asking more questions, constantly getting clarification on things that (at first glance) don’t seem like that big of a deal, that’s the voice of a former Alestle editor in chief.

As helpful as my professors were, and as much as I did learn in the classroom setting, nothing compares to the first-hand experience I got at the Alestle. And it’s not just because it was a campus newspaper that offers a good starting point for baby reporters. It’s because everybody cared about the paper. They cared about the final product. They wanted every story to answer every possible question it could answer. They wanted every single reporter to improve with every story. It wasn’t just about improving yourself and generating clips for your portfolio, it was about everybody improving together — about everybody being passionate about the paper and its success.

I know that happens at schools like Mizzou too. But I don’t think I would have enjoyed the experience as much. There’s just something about the Alestle, and the people who are truly dedicated to the paper, that makes them stand out, makes them more passionate, more driven, more sincere than anyone else I’ve ever met.

Plus, I never would have met these awesome people if I chose any school over SIUE:

The Alestle Editorial Board, 2010-2011

The Alestle Playlist

Two of the most important things in my life are music and journalism, so naturally they would overlap at some point. This post defines that point. Whenever I hear these songs, I immediately think of my college newspaper. The reasons vary, and they’ll most certainly be explained, so… without further procrastination, I present to you the short, but meaningful, Alestle playlist.

1. Jack & Diane, John Mellencamp

During the second journalism convention I attended, we all went out to a comedy club/bar/karaoke bar/whatever it wanted to be that night in Louisville, Ky. After seeing a Loni Love show, we stuck around and ended up being there for karaoke. And my adviser and one of our reporters (who would go on to be managing editor when I was EIC) sang “Jack & Diane” together. That night defines what I love about my college journalism friends, and why I can’t hear this song without thinking about that group.

2. One Week, Barenaked Ladies

Our Sports Editor was (and still is) obsessed with this song (and Semi-Charmed Life) as karaoke songs. When we were in Kentucky, and also when we had a “senior sendoff” type of karaoke night before finals, he sang either this song and/or Semi-Charmed Life. I can’t hear either of these songs and NOT think about how awesome the songs are and how awesome our sports editor’s karaoke skills are for these two songs. They can’t be topped.

3.  Semi-Charmed Life, Third Eye Blind

4. Whipped Cream, Ludo

I got review passes to cover the “A Very Ludo Christmas” show at the Pageant this past December, and I took our photo editor, who loves Ludo a thousand times  more than I do, with me. There’s not any other reason for this song being on the list, other than the fact that after the show, the “Whipped Cream” music videos and references to the song became a constant during my last few days at the paper.

College media outlets deserve more respect

I recently came across an editorial from The Daily Egyptian, SIU Carbondale’s daily student newspaper, explaining how factual errors were made in a late-breaking news story that was written on a tight deadline. An accident occurred in the university’s coverage area, and witness accounts that turned out to be inaccurate were included in the final copy. I’m not condoning the errors or making excuses for the student journalists at all, but the following statement from the editorial really touched a nerve:

“The reporter at the scene had tried to verify information with one of the police officers, but because he said that because she was from ‘just the Daily Egyptian,’ it wasn’t important that she get information.”

That sentence should NEVER have to be written. College newspapers are just as important and just as entitled to information as any other media outlet. Withholding vital information that could potentially be the difference between a factual story and an error is despicable. Just because student journalists are still learning the craft doesn’t mean they should be directed (even if it was unintentional) in such a way that results in misinformation. And by the way, you’re constantly learning in journalism, regardless of how many years you’ve been in the industry.

What makes situation even more aggravating is that the student journalists did everything right  — talking to witnesses, talking to officials, making multiple follow up phone calls, holding production of the paper in order to verify the facts. But the fact that nobody responded to the requests shows a blatant disrespect for college journalism. It’s disgusting.

However, despite the crappy situation the DE was forced into by default, I feel they handled it as professionally as possible. I know they had to make a decision on deadline. That’s something everyone has to deal with at one point or another — college journalist or not. For what it’s worth (and as a ‘nobody’ in the journalism profession, I know it’s not worth much), I commend the DE for their professionalism in this situation, for explaining the interactions that unfolded the night of the story and for owning up to their part in the situation. I don’t think I can say the same for the police officers involved in the situation.

If I haven’t made myself clear, my tweet from a couple nights ago after reading the editorial (but before furiously typing away to create this blog post) says it all: