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Inexperienced student editors learn from each other, the job itself

Often in student media, at least the ones I worked at during college, the staff is thrown into their position and told, basically, to build wings on the way down. Most active student media types I knew held a half-dozen or more positions within the span of four years of undergrad work. Often, you’re unprepared and have only your gut, your slightly more experienced peers who were in your shoes a semester or two ago, and your desire to do good journalism going for you. Oh, and then there’s the “every mistake you make will be printed for your entire campus to read and call you on” factor — so you better not screw up. Even though we adamantly professed and considered ourselves to be (and expected to be treated as) professional journalists, the truth is, we were inexperienced and clumsy at times.

Hilary Lehman is the managing editor for print at the University of Florida student paper, The Independent Alligator. She’s in the position I described above. And she’s smartly decided to chronicle her experience in a blog in hopes of sharing it with and learning from the other hundreds of college newspaper editors like herself.

Our student media director used to describe what we did as “publishing our homework.” Sometimes, we really were. After we submitted articles to the paper, reporters in some classes would submit them for the professor’s take on the work (often with a much more critical eye than our student editors). But unlike many majors, where the models they produced or papers they turned in were graded and returned without anyone else ever seeing them, we were also doing a job. A highly visible job. Though our “homework” was designed to teach us, it was also a real product that came with real responsibility. When our teammates didn’t hold up their end of an assignment, we didn’t just get a bad grade, we had a hole to fill in the paper. When someone slacked off or turned in a sloppy assignment, it might cost us a correction and some credibility.

Our newspaper switched jobs (well the staff turned over and most people switched jobs) once per semester. Every four months, you had to learn a new job. The benefit was you get to try your hand at a lot of different aspects of journalism. The drawback was you never truly mastered any.

I was the managing editor (no. 2 in charge) of the Kent Stater‘s summer edition as a sophomore, after just two semesters on staff. Fortunately for my own development, I was able to step back after that semester with what I learned and take a few more semesters to work as a reporter and mid-level editor before becoming No. 1 in charge. I started on what I expected to be the least time-consuming job, at the bottom proofing pages, and hit most news reporting/editing roles between. I finished as the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, responsible ultimately for more than 100 people. That’s an insane amount of power to give a 20-year-old with one internship and two years in student media.

After I had been at my first real job even just a few months I remember thinking, “My God, why didn’t we think of doing it this way? How come no one told me!” If I knew then what I know now, that paper would have been 10,000 times more organized and productive. But it wasn’t. And that’s OK. The great thing about putting out a college paper is you don’t know and you don’t have to abide by all the rules of the professional news biz. So when I wanted to restructure my top editor positions to give the AME/Web more power, no one was there to say I couldn’t or that’s not how it’s done. I didn’t have any preconceived ideas of how it should be done. More college papers should exploit that to think outside the box. I wish I had done so more than I did when I had a chance.

The flip-side to that and what you lose with the quick staff turnover, however, is institutional memory. I remember making mistakes that decades of other students had made before me, and I’ve since seen people make mistakes I made. But, to be honest, I learned a lot from those mistakes, and being able to make them on a smaller playing field went a long way in preparing me for my job today.

All that said, as much as I really enjoyed being the editor at my paper, the biggest thing I learned was totally unexpected. I felt like I was too far away from the story, the daily journalism. Maybe it was that we had several layers of editors between the top and the reporters on the ground, but I felt as EIC I spent too much time worrying about keeping photographers within the budget, working with advertising/compo to get enough space for our special packages, and putting out fires among the staff and sometimes the community. That definitely wasn’t why I got into this. Some people might relish the power and prestige, but I missed the journalism. That was a powerful lesson to learn and one I’m glad I learned early on before I was shuttled into management in my career.

My editor today often comments that some day I’ll be in his position. I usually comeback, “God, I hope not.” I admire what he does, but at this point, not only do I not want it, I’d be bad at it. I chose this job and to start where I am because I believe you need a strong foundation. Maybe in a decade, my editor’s position will be exactly where I feel my strengths are suited and where I can make the biggest impact. Today, though I think I did a fair enough job when I was a student editor, I am enjoying my time as a reporter. Yes, I have less power to change the institution, my opinion on what to cover or not cover carries less weight and sometimes I have to accept doing something I’d rather not on the terms of “because I said so” from above. But with my undergrad crash course in newspaper roles behind me, I don’t think an editorship is in my immediate future. I’ll be the first to admit, I have a lot to learn. At 23, I have plenty of time to learn it.

2 Responses to “Inexperienced student editors learn from each other, the job itself”

  1. Erin Zureick Says:

    I totally get where you are coming from. I was EIC at The Daily Tar Heel at UNC last year, and while my job was rewarding (and I don’t regret for a second doing it), I really missed the journalism.

    Maybe 20 years from now I’d love to take another shot at it, but right now I just love telling stories and gathering facts.

  2. Finishing up « At the Alligator Says:

    […] Also, reading the post about editing student newspapers that Meranda Watling wrote in response to me starting this blog, I feel like I understand her feelings now in a way I didn’t at the beginning of this semester. In particular, this sentence stands out to me: I remember making mistakes that decades of other students had made before me, and I’ve since seen people make mistakes I made. […]