College papers capitalize on Chick-fil-A spectacle

By Wednesday afternoon, I was so sick of hearing about Chick-fil-A. I was tired about hearing how the CEO made public claims (via social media) about the company’s already well-known stance on homosexuality. I was tired of hearing people rooting for the company. Tired of hearing people bash the company. Just… TIRED.

Media fatigue.

But, as much as I believe this whole charade was nothing more than a PR stunt to increase publicity, I have to give credit to the college newspapers that took this ridiculousness and localized it.

My former paper covered the issue, as well as the Daily Egyptian, SIU Carbondale’s student newspaper. I didn’t look into any other papers, but I don’t doubt that others are doing similar stories as well.

Examples like this show just how easy it is to take national stories and bring them down to the college level. Granted, both campuses have a Chick-fil-A on campus, but my point still stands.

More often than not, there is always a connection between a university an a national issue. And the coverage doesn’t just have to come across through the news section. When the Egyptian uprising was occurring, the Alestle had two international students write guest opinion columns on the issue (here and here).

It’s good to see college journalists going outside of campus and bringing stories back in, rather than waiting for events and controversies to pop up on site.

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BREAKING NEWS: College doesn’t prepare you for the real world

I thought I learned everything I needed to know to land a good first job and start my journalism career off right. I did get a good first job. And I am doing quite a bit of work at my first “big kid” job. But I wasn’t prepared for what I was going to see, not necessarily in my newsroom, but the real world journalism industry as a whole.

The industry drives people away. It turns good journalists into burned out shells of their former selves. And it does so faster than I’d like admit.

It’s sad. There are at least two people I know who are turning away from journalism for that reason. Both of them are looking to get into public relations.

Journalism isn’t what they thought it’d be. It’s not what I thought it would be either. I had these ridiculous fantasies of ethics being commonplace in newsrooms across the country, people working together to make their product the best it can be and everybody loving what they do.

I can see that that’s not true in all cases. And college doesn’t tell you that. The best (or worst) advice anyone ever gets is, “Don’t go into journalism. It’s a dying industry.” The theory is that it’s dying because everything is shifting to a more online/digital focus. But I beg to differ.

I would propose the reason the industry is dying is because the good, ethical, passionate journalists get turned away by the depressing realization that people don’t hold themselves to high enough standards like we all did in college.

It was ingrained in my mind by former editors, fellow editors and professors alike that ethics, honesty and accurate reporting are the most important things. They are. I still believe that. But outside of the collegiate bubble, some people don’t see it that way. Or, if they do, they don’t realize that those qualities have been slowly slipping away.

If not for meeting the group of journalists who attended the SPJ Reporters Institute in July, I fear I might have already started to run away. But I love this business too much. All it takes is one person to try and make a change and pop the collegiate bubble so the  “real world” can get a taste of what it’s been missing out on.

I don’t think I’m that person. I’m probably not. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try and be that person. I have to. Otherwise, I might end up out of the industry like so many other talented journalists.

Why you’ll never be as close with your fellow journos after graduation

Watching a clip about the new HBO series “The Newsroom,” I was reminded about what exactly it is that makes a college newsroom so special. What exactly it is that makes college newsrooms such close-knit groups. Second families, if you will.

You experience so many things with in your college newsroom. Experiences that will never occur anywhere else and that create a connection that can never be severed.

In my case, our newsroom had to deal with one of our own being arrested on campus on charges I don’t care to discuss. But this “incident” brought us closer together. We had to turn to each other, lean on each other and talk through having to cover the story. Being the one that wrote some of the initial stories about the arrest, I can honestly say, those were some of the hardest stories I’ve ever written.

In another case, our newsroom dealt with accusations of stereotyping and unfair coverage due to race. This also brought us together because we knew we did everything right in regard to our coverage of the incident that occurred. But we still ended up having a meeting with administration to discuss the “issues.” Situations like that make you realize how fortunate you are to have people who understand where you’re coming from, who believe in the same things you believe in and who are willing (regardless of the fact that it’s required) to stand by you and your decisions — and even defend your decisions when you can’t find the words to do so yourself.

Situations like those are what make a college newspaper a family. You spend so much time with them (more time than you spend with your actual family) that you don’t know what to do when you have to leave them. It sucks. It really does. But they’re always there.

They’re there when you’re having a bad day at your new job. They’re there when you have something funny to tell them that reminds you of the college newsroom. And most importantly, you’re also there for them.

Because, as cheesy as it is, I truly believe that the friends you make working for your college newspaper will be your friends — and family — for life. Regardless of where your lives take you.

Journalism in the real world: A six-month reflection

Well, I’m half way there. Today marks six months since I started living in this weird little place called “The Real World.” And it’s definitely been an interesting venture so far.

When I first started my job as a staff reporter, I was also working at a second internship, which I started around Thanksgiving. Needless to say, the real world kicked my ass. I was working about 50+ hours a week between the full-time gig and the internship, along with doing interviews for InsideSTL’s music section in what little downtime I had left.

About three months in, I gave up on trying to hold down a full- and part-time job and a sporadic writing gig. I quit my internship to focus on my full-time reporting job. (I still write pretty regularly for InsideSTL.) Even though I’m still trying to find things to do to fill my time on my Wednesdays off, I’m glad I went the path I did. I think I would have burned out way too fast if I tried keeping up at that pace.

The only problem is that now I feel like I have too much down time. I went from being a full-time student and part-time journalist (which, let’s face it, there’s no such thing as a “part-time journalist,” even at the college level) to a full-time journalist and somehow ended up with more down time than when I was in school.

I’m not constantly on the go anymore, despite spending the majority of my weeknights covering meetings. I don’t have some work or school-related task to take up every waking (and sleeping) hour of my life. It’s so… weird. So weird, in fact, that I even went back to SIUE to chat with the Mass Comm department chair about grad school. I really do want to return to school at some point and get a Master’s so I can be better equipped to reach one of my ultimate career goals (creating a magazine). But, unfortunately, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

But anyway, to get off that tangent and back on track…

Life in the real world isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be (She says knowing everyone around her is saying, “I TOLD YOU SO!!!”). I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but the transition from a college newsroom to a community newspaper newsroom was shocking, to be blunt. At the Alestle, we had a staff of roughly 20 to 30 to cover one college campus, not including the advertising department. Where I work now, we have a staff of about 10 to 12 including secretarial, advertising, part-time office workers, etc., where my editor and myself are the entire editorial staff.

The staff size alone was a shock, let alone the way stories ideas are generated. Most stories come from board meetings/agendas now. In college, the ideas came from talking to people, searching SIUE’s website, campus events, etc. I just thank the journalism gods that my former managing editor (and later editor in chief) stuck me on the student government beat back when I was a baby reporter. It prepared me more than I could have ever realized at the time.

One of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to make is having very few people to vent to about the frustrations of my first “real” journalism job. Back in college, my best friends worked for the paper too, so there was plenty of time to get out our frustrations in between editorial meetings, watching episodes of Archer in the office and random nights out of the office.

But when your closest journalism friends from college either don’t go into the industry after graduation, or they’re at least 45 miles away, the healthy venting time just isn’t there. And it makes the stress twice as hard to manage.

Even though I’ve made post-collegiate life sound like a depressing hell, I promise it’s not all bad. I am getting great experience and learning new things with every issue we publish. Because our staff is so frackin’ tiny, I also copy edit the entire paper and post a majority of our content online. The small staff does allow me to hone other skills I have but aren’t quite where they could be.

I’ve also been able to write some pretty cool stories. A member of British parliament was visiting Jefferson Barracks a few months back, and I had the opportunity to cover her visit and interview her. And, one of my first post-collegiate stories was about the one-year anniversary of a tornado that ripped through the city of Sunset Hills the previous New Year’s Eve.

So, it’s really not all that bad. But the transition is the hardest part. THE. HARDEST. PART. But you (read, “I”) can’t let the frustration wear you down. Because it will cloud your vision, and you won’t be able to see how much progress you’re able to make and how much you really are contributing to the media outlet(s) you work for.

But because (as far as I can tell) journalists are generally a pessimistic, dark and depressing bunch (with a wicked sense of inappropriate, yet always entertaining humor), I can’t very well end this post on a happy note. So, here we go: When I was texting one of my old Alestle friends about some of these issues, he texted me back John Mayer song lyrics. At first I thought it was funny and a little odd coming from him. But then I realized, it’s so true…

Letting Go of Your College Newspaper

On my last official day as editor in chief of the Alestle, I refused to turn in my office keys until I left for the last time. As childish as that sounds, that just shows how much I didn’t want to leave the paper. And as I’m writing, a certain U2 song comes to mind… ignoring the “love” aspect, of course.

Anyway, back to my point. Even though I was looking forward to graduating and starting a new job, I didn’t want to leave the Alestle. I didn’t want to leave Edwardsville. I didn’t want to leave my friends — most of them worked at the Alestle. I didn’t want to leave with so much left undone.

As graduation got closer, I slowly started to realize there was so much more I wanted to do. I wanted to keep improving the paper. I didn’t even have a full year to make changes, help new reporters, work with new editors, etc. Everything I had worked for was just being left. Incomplete. Unfinished. Halfway finished. And I hated it.

But, obviously I had to snap out of it and get to work a couple weeks later, which I did. But I’ve spent so much time comparing my current newsroom to my college newsroom. The atmosphere is different. The conversation is different. The memories… it’s all different. Not necessarily bad-different. Just…  sad-nostalgic-different.

And I went back a few times to help with the transition for the new editor in chief. It was fun to go back and get thrown into the rush of deadline in the same newsroom that I walked out of stressed and near-tears so many times. (Yeah, I realize how weird that sounds.) It felt like I was in the right place.

But the last time I went to visit, it was different. Everyone was busy. They were rushing in and out of the office between classes, getting assignments ready for the next week, figuring out class schedules. And I realized, I don’t belong here anymore. As much as I love the Alestle, and as much as I want to see everyone on staff (editors now, but just baby reporters a year and a half ago) succeed and make the paper the best it can be, I know I need to leave it alone.

It’s not my place to critique, suggest, criticize or edit. I did my part while I was there. I didn’t have former editors lurking around trying to relive their glory days. And I don’t want to be that former editor. A visit every now and then? That’s totally cool. But to visit. Not to do any hands-on assisting with the paper itself.

It’s their turn to do things. And I know they’ll do them well. Sure, there will be some screw ups along the way — I know I had my fair share of them. But it’s part of the process.

And, now that I’ve written a completely cheesy and totally sappy blog post, I think it’s important to point out that, despite what the general public says, JOURNALISTS ARE NOT UNEMOTIONAL. WE HAVE FEELINGS! They’re just covered underneath many layers of newsprint and pica poles…

Ethics Shouldn’t Disappear After Graduation

When I first started writing for newspapers (including my high school paper), I would constantly worry about quoting people wrong, having facts wrong or doing something unethical. I put thought into every story. Read each story to make sure I gave both (read: all) sides of an issue equal time. But somewhere along the way, it seems that worrying process disappears.

Not for me specifically, but just in general. Stories I hear from fellow journalists and things I see in various newspapers are kind of disheartening.

The number of stories printed or posted online with one source just to be the first one with the news is sad. What happened to real, in-depth reporting? What looks better to the readers, a brief with one source or an in-depth story with multiple interviews that give a good overview of the entire issue? I know that some stories can’t be much more than a brief. Those aren’t what I’m taking issue with. It’s the bigger stories, the real news gathering, that gets slighted so one newspaper can beat the other.

Editing photos to please individual readers is also absurd. If I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times — Don’t crop photos. Don’t flip photos. Don’t alter photos to change the message they portray. DON’T. DON’T. DON’T. Then when I hear through the grapevine that some editors request items to be photoshopped out of photos because it would embarrass the person in the photograph, I am stuck in a state of disbelief. If you’re embarrassed by something, don’t submit a photo to a media outlet, simple as that. An editorial staff shouldn’t be forced to make unethical decisions for fear of backlash from a community member.

The amount of press releases passed off as legit news items also stuns me. We had a very strict ‘no press release’ rule at my college paper, and I followed that rule like it was a religion. Sure, we used press releases as story ideas quite a bit, but to run a press release just about word-for-word never even crossed my mind. We were the content makers, the ones getting the news out to the campus, not someone who, most of the time, can’t even use AP Style correctly. The immediacy of the internet has pushed public relations to the forefront of the news business, allowing journalists to slack off and editors to essentially give away free advertising when it could use the space for original content.

I have also heard of newspapers that refuse to run corrections. When I was EIC in college, I erred on the side of caution and probably ran more corrections or clarifications than the last few editors in chief. It wasn’t my favorite thing to do, but I wanted to be upfront with our readers, and if we made a mistake, I wanted people to know we are aware and regretful of said mistake. Not running corrections or clarifications, to me, shows blatant disrespect to the readers. If you’re not willing to own up to your mistakes, why should readers trust anything you report in the first place? Granted, if citizens don’t read other publications covering the same issues, they would never know. But even so, that could be just as bad. Probably worse.

As much as I love this industry, there are just some stains on it that don’t seem to want to wash out. But, I will do my best to bring the most accurate, precise and engaging content to the forefront of any publication I write for — and I have no doubt that former (and current) Alestle staff members and former high school journalism friends will do the same.

Four Things They Don’t Teach You in J-School

A friend’s recent status update brought to mind some of the things we have to deal with in the real world of journalism that aren’t always in the textbooks we fork over our hard-earned money for while in school. I’ve decided to compile a few of those tidbits on this here blog.

1. How to use your phone voice.

Everybody has one, even if they don’t realize it. The second you pick up the phone, your voice changes. You have to learn how to use that to your advantage. It’s not really something that can be taught. Like Nike, you just… do it. When you’re working on a feature story, your voice should be calm and happy-like. When you’re working on a hard news story, trying to force answers from an official who doesn’t want to tell you anything, you need to be more assertive, a teeny bit aggressive. And adding just a bit of hesitance to your voice, like you don’t want to ask the question, but you know you have to, that’s the key. Realizing when you shift from one voice to the next will be important because once you become aware of the changes, you can master them.

2. The art of leaving a voicemail.

Voicemail No. 1:  “Hi, my name is [insert first and last name]. I’m a [reporter/editor/photographer] with [insert news organization]. I’m working on a story about [insert story assignment], and I was hoping to ask you a few questions. I can be reached at [phone number], and my deadline for the story is [insert deadline]. Thanks so much, bye.”

Voicemail No. 2: “Hi, this is [insert first and last name] with [insert news organization]. I  just wanted to follow up with you about the story I’m working on about [insert story assignment]. I’d like to ask you a few questions. I can be reached at [phone number], and my deadline is [insert deadline]. Thanks, bye.”

Voicemail No. 3: “Hi, this is [insert first name] with [insert news organization, abbreviated, if applicable] calling again. I’d really like to ask you a few questions about [insert assignment/interview topic] for the story I’m working on. My deadline is [insert deadline]. If you could get back to me as soon as possible, I’d greatly appreciate it. Thanks.”

Voicemail No. 4: “Hi, this is [insert first name] with [insert news organization, abbreviated, if applicable]. I’d really like to talk to you about [insert story assignment/interview topic]. If you could please contact me as soon as possible, I’d really appreciate. My deadline is [insert deadline]. Thanks.”

Any questions? Nope. Okay. Moving on.

3. How to answer the question, “Will you charge for this article?”

“Well, um. There’s no charge for news, but if you’d like to run an ad, I can put you in touch with the advertising department.”

4. How to respond to people who sent you a press release and called to follow up (this specifically applies if you’re an editor in chief or managing editor).

“Yes, I did that email. I can’t guarantee coverage, but I’ll make sure to pass the information along to the appropriate editor, and if it’s something they’re interested in covering, either a reporter or the editor will be in touch.”

If you have anything else, add it in the comments!

Why ‘bored’ meetings are vital —especially for high school journos

In my three years “working” for my high school newspaper, not a single board meeting was covered. And that was probably one of the biggest mistakes we could have made.

I understand board meetings are not the most exciting thing in the world. I’ve sat through enough of them in the past few months to speak to that statement. But the true inner workings of the school are found there — along with a huge amount of story ideas. I generally get at least two stories and a couple future story ideas out of each school board meeting I attend.

I remember as a high school journo constantly struggling to come up with story ideas. We would have brainstorming sessions and barely come up with enough stories to fill the paper sometimes. Obviously, it all ended up working out. But I think there would have been a lot more interest in the paper itself if we covered the important things that were going on around the school (late-start days, required reading during our academic networking period, how state legislation affects students, etc.).

As an example, we generally knew about all the construction projects going on, but short of anything sports-related, I don’t think it dawned on anyone to write a story about them. They were just an aggravation, not something we ever really considered covering. But we should have.

It’s the same kind of theory we had at my college paper. Why are you letting the area news outlets cover things that are happening in your coverage area? It would frustrate me so much when I would see the Belleville News Democrat or the Alton Telegraph had stories about SIUE that as a campus paper we didn’t even know about. I don’t know why we didn’t have that same mentality in high school.

You generally think in high school that your paper (or newsmagazine, website, etc.) really doesn’t have any competition, unless you count a district-produced PR newsletter. But if more young journalists thought of community newspapers as their competition, especially now with the Patch sites popping up everywhere, they might be more inclined to work a little harder to get those stories.

If nothing else, doing so would have increased teacher readership and readership from the poor souls who felt bad enough for the journalism kids that they bought a subscription out of pity. Plus, it would have prepared those of us who continued to study journalism in college with meeting coverage skills.

Sure, I had a veteran reporter/editor showing me what to do when I covered my first Student Government meeting, but having internal knowledge of how to cover meetings would have helped me immensely.

So, if any high school journalists (or high school journalism teachers) out there are reading this, please, please encourage the students to force themselves to sit through the never-ending meetings. It might be painful, but, trust me, it will be worth it.

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.

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.