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Archive for October 23rd, 2007

‘What sold me on journalism’

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007

When I went into college as a journalism major, nobody, not even me, actually expected I would finish as such. I’ve often told people I chose the major fully expecting to fail, though I’d never really failed at anything. I didn’t want to just fall into science without at least attempting something else. I didn’t have the right personality for journalism. I didn’t have the right skills — my strengths were in Calculus and Biology, and though I’d done my share of writing for the high school newspaper and literary magazine, my grammar was atrocious or at the least embarrassing. But the one thing about me that made journalism a fit was I like a challenge. Journalism, I reasoned, was a challenge.

I saw this story about a former WP editor teaching now linked from Romenesko, and as I was reading it I came across this passage, which triggered a memory of my first few weeks as a reporter for the Daily Kent Stater.

Jackie Jones said:

Jones said her passion for journalism began years before, as she studied at George Washington University and began writing for its student newspaper, The Hatchet.

“I did a story for the GW Hatchet on the university’s food service,” Jones said. “Students complained about the food and would periodically bring food samples to the office to back up their claims. Someone brought a saucer of asparagus to the newsroom that had twigs in it.”

Jones said that when she began reporting on the situation, she met several barriers, including the food service managers shrugging off the twigs by telling her the cafeteria asparagus had “a wood-like consistency.”

Jones said her reporting required the school to take action.

“It forced the university to put out new bids and made the food service clean up its act in an effort to retain the contract – which it did, ultimately. The meals got better, and the selections became more diverse.”

Jones said as soon as she saw that her reporting had an effect, she was hooked.

“What sold me on journalism was learning that I could make a difference, as clichéd as that sounds,” Jones said. “Working for the student newspaper best prepared me for my career.”

OK. My ‘aha’ story was not about cafeteria food. There are actually three stories I can distinctly recall happening within a month of each other that convinced me of the important role a journalist plays.

First, the very first story I wrote for the Stater was about how a recent change in contract with Microsoft was costing students more money, BUT it wasn’t costing them more than the bookstore was by not telling them about that agreement and instead peddling their “student discount” version for $200 without mention of the $70 software option available right there as well. I knew as a freshman I had purchased the software for $20, and I had originally begun my story focusing on the jump to $70. But when I went to the bookstore to try and find a source or two who were buying the software, was alarmed to watch as the clerk sold the $200 box on the shelf to an unsuspecting student. They wanted to sell through their vendor, and though the software was available to pick-up at the bookstore, you had to make the purchase online. But wasn’t it worth at least mentioning that to cash-strapped students? Especially when 15 feet from the software desk was an Internet-enabled computer these kids could go make the purchase on? Well, after my story ran, they still wouldn’t go as far as telling kids “Don’t buy that software, go online and get this,” but I consider it a victory that they did put up a huge sign behind the desk advising students of that option.

There you have it, my first story I was able to a) alert kids to this option and b) make the bookstore alter its practices.

Second, only my second story — and first centerpiece, though my first story also had run on front — and I saw firsthand how my reporting directly impacted other people. The story was an enterprise look at identity theft and its prevalence among students, what students should look out for and a story from one student who had been a victim. That night, I was gathered around with the other officers before our Habitat for Humanity meeting. The co-president was flipping through her mail with a trash can beside her, tossing most everything. She tosses one envelope and then two seconds later reaches back down and grabs it out. Then she looks up and says, “I was reading this article in the Stater…” and proceeds to tell us about how you should shred credit card offers before tossing them to prevent identity theft. I laughed and said, yeah, I know, I wrote the article. But the laugh was also just happiness. My work had just prevented her from a potential disaster. How many other kids had I saved?

Third, was my first “breaking news” story ever. I’d been a reporter for a few weeks, less than a month, and my beat was student finance. Not a whole lot of breaking news there. So one Thursday, I had just finished filing my 40 inches required for class that week when we heard on the scanner there was a buck (as in those huge deer, you know?) loose running around campus. There was one other reporter in the office and she was already working on deadline. The news editor, who I’m sure only knew my name from my dual-role as a proofreader on the nights she supervised the paper, scans the room and sets her eyes on me. She tells me to go check it out. I am scared and also clueless. I catch my breath long enough to ask, “What do I do?” And she doesn’t skip a beat: “Grab a notebook and find out what happened.” So, I rush over to the area between the dorm and construction area next door where the buck was reported.

I could see the glass window shattered where passers-by told me they’d just watched the buck jump through. As I’m getting names and statements from witnesses, the buck jumps back out — CHARGING US. One of the kids in the crowd is so spooked he literally climbs up and jumps the construction fence. The rest of us dodge en masse back up the hill away from the buck as it proceeds to tear its antler in the construction fence and then sprint back down the sidewalk toward the dorm. This was the moment where I knew my role was never again to be the casual observer. I ran back down after the deer, and was able to get the first-person story of the girl whose window the buck would jump through as he charged the building that second and final time.

I guess you could say that’s how you’re supposed to be initiated into news, by the seat of your pants. It definitely was for me. Hard and swift. Within a month of starting as a reporter at the student newspaper, I was absolutely hooked.