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College presidential appointments

At least, the heads up on the Purdue presidential appointment came with a bit more than the less than 24 hour notice we got last spring when the new president was named at Kent State.

Still, in a similar move to Kent State, students will be long gone before the person who is to become their leader and their school’s ambassador to the world is publicly named. But I’m hoping I’ll get to throw my hat in the ring for a little bit of reporting, at least on background. See, covering presidential appointments is actually something I have, get this, experience in.

At the time of Lester Lefton’s appointment, we knew what to do. Kind of. OK, mostly, we made it up as we went along. I still remember the race back to campus from breakfast in Akron after we got the call that the board of trustees was meeting the next morning. Ryan drove and we brainstormed, drafting a rough budget during the 20 minute drive. We were both on our cell phones trying to get as many bodies for those assignments to the office as possible. Most of our editors were graduating and while they’d been following it, they didn’t have the time or concern to jump on the story. If we had run a masthead in the two extra editions we put out during exam week, it couldn’t have been more random than if we’d pulled names from a hat. But still, we threw everything and everyone we had (and probably more than we thought we had) into that story, breaking the news with context and impact. Hell, we put a reporter and photographer on a plane for Tulane, where the president was coming from.

To say we were excited and overwhelmed is an understatement. It was the biggest story of our fledgling careers, and something we’d been waiting and waiting and chasing and chasing. The Stater’s motto, “we cover Kent State and more,” had nothing to do with it. This was about getting the information out there to a campus that was slumbering under the weight of final exams. It was also about pride and our unofficial credo, “We cover Kent State like nobody else.” Damned if someone else was going to get that name first.

They didn’t. We dominated the story and had the name online before I took my statistics exam that afternoon. The following day every news account that said “Lester Lefton is expected to be named …” was preceded or followed by “According to the Daily Kent Stater” or “The student newspaper reported …” It was also our first true test of breaking news online. We posted several breaking news updates that day, adding details as we got more information. Our first post was simply a president was being named. Then, when and where. Then, bit by bit as we got more information and a name. Then as we got more comfortable we were right with that name, who he was. Each bit of biography we could cull from the Web, from phone interviews, from off-the-record conversations, from his neighbor’s dog groomer… OK maybe not that much, but we exhausted pretty much everything.

Earlier this week, I was talking to another reporter who happens to be the editor of his college paper (not at Purdue). I mentioned that Purdue would probably pull off what Kent did and name someone at the most inconvenient time to deflect as much media attention and scrutiny as possible. I mentioned that I had failed an exam as a result of our announcement, which in turn caused my GPA to drop below magna cum laude. My editor laughed and said I probably made the right decision. He’s right, and I didn’t feel even a twinge of hesitation when I made the decision to drop everything and focus on getting that story. That moment was the defining moment when I knew for certain nothing else mattered, I was a journalist first.

I was sad to see that the Purdue paper, the Exponent, has nothing posted on the impending announcement. It doesn’t even have as much as our story today (and the TV story that followed) about the woman who has identified herself as a candidate. Although technically I work for a competing media outlet, part of me wants to see the college paper blow everyone else out of the water.

Here’s to another exciting presidential announcement. Though, I do have to say, once it’s over, the excitement you’ve built up starts to dim almost immediately. As much as it’s awesome to get the story out, as we learned last year, the chase is actually the most fun part. Though, the payoff of getting it first and getting it right is definitely worth it.

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