Just forget the words and sing along

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Unofficial Journalism School

I've finally begun the long and arduous task of rebuilding my website, Chaos In a Box.com.  I mean, I still give that URL out to people as my online calling card, and I'm paying for the URL, so people should see something a little better than my early-2000s HTML-ing skills when they go there.  Besides, when I first moved servers some 8 years ago, I wound up with a lot of dead links that I've been meaning to go back and fix.  A friend of mine installed everyone's favourite web software for me, WordPress, and I'm slowly starting to transfer everything over.

But, seeing as to how I wrote every page by hand before my website had a proper back end, that's some 400+ webpages I have to reformat and copy over.  It's a lot of cutting and pasting, pretty much.

Yesterday was my first real day of copying and reformatting.  I managed to copy over and reformat the earliest pages of my website, the very genesis of my blog, and that's my opinion column, Chaos in Print, which ran in The Dagligtale, the student newspaper of Augustana.

See, back in the day, I had my radio show on the college station, but I wanted more listeners.  So, in a flash of cross-promotional genius, I started writing an opinion column for the Dagligtale to plug my radio show.  This being the late-1990s, the dot-com bubble was still blowing up, so I desired a web presence.  Following the advice of some friends, I found some free web space and started building a website.  Needing content for my website, I started posting my columns.  Then, I graduated from college.  I no longer had my radio show, or my opinion column in the newspaper.  But I still had my website, so I thought, "Why not keep writing the column, and posting it on the website?"

And thus, I started blogging.  I don't think I actually heard the term "blog" to describe what I was doing for another 2 or 3 years.

It was interesting, skimming over those old articles and reformatting them.  What happened to you, college Mark?  So full of passion and fire...  Here's some of the highlights:
  • Armageddon is the greatest movie ever made!
  • Dax from Deep Space Nine and the Pink Power Ranger are the hottest women ever!  (This was a recurring motif)
  • Physics is the last bastion of free thought.  (I was told that a philosophy professor quoted this on a final exam.)
  • Today, I visited 100.3 the Bear and acted like a total hick.  I'll never work in radio for real.  (Yes, I visited the Bear and wrote an article for the paper about how real radio stations operate.)
  • When something's this big, you can't help but get swept up in it.  (This was me describing the hype for Episode I
In fact, that last quote makes me chuckle.  That's from the final article I wrote for the Dag.  I called it The Interview.  I was laughing at how that column came to be.  It was perhaps my first lesson in the true power of radio.  For their final issue of the school year, and their final issue ever, the co-editors of the paper decided to dedicate the paper to "The 10 Most Interesting People on Campus."  The people were to submit their nominations, and whoever got the most nominations would be declared one of the most interesting, and asked to write an article.

So, when the paper came out, and nominations were open, I got behind the mic on my show and said, "Hey, everybody!  Be sure to nominate me as one of the most interesting people on campus!"  The Dag came out monthly, so on my show, for a whole month, I encouraged people to nominate me.  I was told later on that the co-editors were very unhappy with how I encouraged the listeners to vote for me, and I could tell when they called me up to inform me that I had made it and asked for my article that, yeah, I had made them grumpy.

But I knew it was the only way I would be able to get an article in the final issue, as I really offended one of the co-editors in my final months.  That guy...I did not get along with him at all.  He wanted to make the paper "edgy," and thus printed a lot of highly bizarre, surrealistic, offensive articles.    He told me once he kept trying to dump my column, considering it not "edgy" enough, but the other editor always vetoed him, because the other editor liked my stuff.  Things came to a head when that one co-editor was running unopposed for Student Union President, and thus launched his "edgy" campaign.  I countered by running an equally "edgy" campaign, encouraging people to vote no for him.  And I learned a lesson that's still true in the real world:  people who tell you to question authority really don't like it when you question them.

(Just typing those words makes me want to go back into the newsroom.)

But reading those articles and remember those struggles, I just couldn't help but laugh.  It's like finding the diary you kept when you were 8-years old in the back of your closet.  There's no doubt in my mind that, at the time, I felt THIS WAS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING EVER!   15 years later, I just can't laugh at how silly it all was...at how silly I was.

That's another reason why I've been hesitant to start rebuilding my website.  I know I'll be running into a lot of stuff like this.  How many of YOU want to make the diary you kept when you were 8-years old public?  But on the other hand, it has been public for 15 years.  If someone really wants to read it, they're going to find it regardless.

That being said, though, a few names may be changed to protect the innocent.

And while we're on the subject, all this reminiscing about my time writing for the school paper made me decide to go back in my notes and dig out this reminiscing I wrote a few years ago.  November 20, 2010 is where it appears in my notes.  I only shared it with a few friends when I wrote it, but now, I feel it's safe for public consumption.  I titled this piece The Unofficial Journalism School.  Inspired by an article I read in the Edmonton Journal celebrating the anniversary of the Gateway - the student paper of the U of A - I decided to write my remembrances of the student papers I wrote for.  In addition to the Dagligatle, I wrote for the Nugget, NAIT's student paper, when I attended NAIT. 

So here's The Unofficial Journalism School.

Already being nostalgic for my college days due to last night's screening of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, my nostalgia was further triggered this morning when I opened up the Edmonton Journal, and read this article celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Gateway, the school newspaper for the University of Alberta. After reading the article, I left this note in the comments section:

"I went to Augustana, where I wrote for their paper, the Dagligtale. A change in the life direction led me to NAIT, where I started writing for their college paper, the Nugget. And each time, I grew to deeply resent the Gateway, as my editors-in-chief would hold up the Gateway as par excellence in college newspapers. They would rapidly turn our publications into 'Gateway wannabes.' Many of my aritcle were rejected on the grounds, "They wouldn't run this in the Gateway." So, thank you, Gateway, for spawing pale imitations at campuses all across the province!"

Yeah, it was fun writing for college newspapers. I'll never forget the duo of editors who took over on the Dag and started saying that the Gateway is what they should aspire to. The one particular issue of the Gateway they had hanging in the newspaper offices saw the paper temporarily renamed "The Getaway" for that issue, so the duo looked at that and said, "We'll rename the paper for every issue!" Did they know the purpose for renaming that issue? Was it a permanent thing, or just for a gag in that one issue? I never found out. The co-editors were all like, "The Gateway did that, so we have to do it, too!" The writer of that Journal article applauds the Gateway for its cynical attitude. What the co-editors at the Dag never realized was that cynicism can turn into bitterness very quickly, and the Dag soon became a very bitter paper as they worked to capture the cynicism of the Gateway.

I won't rehash my stories of my conflicts with the co-editors of the Dag. Hell, the readers of this blog are folks I went to college with, and we soon start rehashing those stories whenever we get together and have a couple of drinks. But what I don't talk alot about is my relationship with the editor before that duo...a man who I've kept in constant touch with over the years, and still regard as one of my best friends.

I'll never forget, o, about the the third article I submitted for the Dag. "I really like your writing, Mark," he said to me. "Most people who write for this paper don't know how to end things, and their articles just kind of run on. Your articles have a very definite beginning and an ending." That was one of the first kind things ever said about my writing and I treasure it to this day.

My friend was editor of the paper during a dark time in Augustana's history...the Melanie Murphy affair. Melanie Murphy was a student at Augustana who gave birth to a baby in the freshman dorm's washroom one night, and disposed of the stillborn baby in one of the trash cans. It made national news at the time. When I was going to NAIT and learning how to be a radio reporter, one of the lessons was that, if there's a story in another town that's of interest to your listeners, feel free to call up your fellow journalists in that town to get information. With that in mind, I called up my friend one night and said, "Wow, during the whole Melanie Murphy thing, your phone must have been ringing off the hook!"

He told me that yes, yes it was. He told me how just about every major media outlet in Edmonton interviewed him. He cited one article in the Edmonton Sun where so much of what he told the reporter was used verbatim, that he felt like he ghost-wrote the article. He then also told me that he was called into the office of Augustana's president, and ordered that he was absolutely NOT to cover the case in the Dag. Complete media blackout of the incident in the school's media. The only thing he ever wrote was about the flags. When the affair began, all the flags on campus were lowered to half-mast. About three months later, the flags were once again raised to full-mast. When that happened, he wrote an op-ed piece about how the flags being raised symbolised the healing beginning, and he got a lot of flak from Augustana's administration for writing that.

But then he left, and co-editors came on. Despite our fights, I had fun. Fun I hoped to recapture when I was back in school 4 years later, going to NAIT, and began writing for the Nugget.

I never intended to write for the Nugget. It all started when I ran for Students Union president. I ran for president as a joke vote...just to stir up some shit. And at the end of it all, I wrote this gigantic letter to the Nugget ripping apart every candidate -- myself included -- in a very humerous manner. It alienated me from my classmates for a couple weeks, too, as I also ripped them apart for what I felt was poor news coverage on the campus station. (I mean, really, here you are complaining about not being able to find any good news stories, and right under your nose THERE'S A FREAKING ELECTION GOING ON! COME ON!  Sadly, I've seen this in the real world now, too.  Reporters who won't cover elections because, "Covering elections is hard you guys, what with the equal airtime and all."  Still a bugaboo of mine.)  Some of my classmates quickly wrote a rebuttal, throwing the support of the campus station behind the new president and branding me as a sore loser. Whatever. The new president actually thought my article was freaking hilarious, and he and the outgoing president were the ones who talked me into writing for the Nugget the next semester. "I don't know if you've noticed Mark, but we're a tech college, and as such, not a lot of the instructors teach writing," the outgoing president told me. "We have a serious shortage of good writers on this campus. We need you."

So for the next semester, I applied to be the news editor, and got hired. It was my job to write the hard news for the paper. I figured, for my radio news class, I was already writing news stories, so if I were the news editor for the paper, I could pretty much pick up a paycheque for doing my class work. I got in, and promptly met the editor-in-cheif, who once again was holding up the Gateway as the standard we should aspire to. I could easily predict what happened next. Cynicism-turned-bitterness was on the horizon. 

About a month into the semester was that annual even known as the Terry Fox Run. Headlines were made in Edmonton when one kid running the Terry Fox Run was suffering from asthma, and died of an asthma attack as he literally stepped across the finish line. The features editor for the Nugget wrote an article completely slamming this kid, tearing this poor dead child a new one for even thinking of trying the Terry Fox Run with his condition. The entire campus was livid. The issue was immediatly pulled from shelves mere hours after it went out. The Nugget couldn't publish in colour for the rest of the year, because pulping the issue cost so much. When the dust settled, the features editor was fired for writing the article, and the editor-in-cheif was fired for publishing the article. I only met the editor-in-cheif about three times during his 6-week tenure, but I was starting to like him. I was still doing my column for my website, and on a few slow news days, I'd submit my column as an op-ed piece. "These columns you write are brilliant, Mark!" he'd tell me. "This is EXACTLY what belongs in a college newspaper!"

(If you haven't figured it out yet, a quick way to impress me is to tell me you like my writing.)

But he was gone, for trying to out-Gateway the Gateway. The VP External of the Students Association became the de facto editor-in-cheif, and she and I started having weekly meetings about my news stories, mainly because they didn't want things to happen again. We got along good. She even offered me the position of editor-in-cheif, but I turned it down, because I pointed out that I'd be leaving the campus at the end of the semester to do my practicum. The tech editor was made the new editor-in-cheif. Again, I only met with him about three times before I left, and I didn't like him. He had an ax to grind with campus security, and reporters with axes to grind are a dangerous thing.

His particular ax had to do with his major.  Being the tech editor, he was majoring in something in the computer sciences.  As I learned a long time ago, hanging out with the computer science majors at Augustana, programmers tend to work on their own schedules.  And campus security had really raised the ire of the computer sciences students, as the measures campus security had taken to prevent theft of the computers weren't conducive to writing code at all hours of the night.  This new editor in chief was out to prove that campus security was nothing but two-bit rent-a-cops abusing their authority. 

During my time as news editor, there was a bomb scare on campus. School was closed for the afternoon. I chose not to do a story about it, because it happened on a Thursday, and the paper came out on Tuesdays, and I figured that by the time the paper came out, my story would be too much like rehashing old news. But the new editor-in-cheif did a story on it, and with his ax to grind, his whole article blasted campus security and pointed out every security flaw on the campus. He just reveled in making campus security look like a bunch of buffoons.  I was kind of disgusted by it. But whatever. At this point I had two weeks left until I was officially done with the paper and off on my practicum, so I just rode it out.

At the end of that semester, the campus's media relations people treated the VP External, the editor-in-cheif, and me to lunch at Ernest's for handing our jobs with maturity and dignity throughout a difficult semester. For those who don't know, Ernest's is the fine dining establishment on NAIT's campus where the culinary arts students get to practice their craft. That's the only time I ever ate there, because they do charge fine dining prices. And that ended my time as a student journalist. A 4-star meal and a "Thanks for your hard work!"

But again, it was fun. And looked good on the resume, too. My news instructor told me that, with my experience on the Nugget and writing news for the school radio station as part of my news class, any newsroom at any radio station would be foolish not to take me. I should have heeded her words...during the Great Year of Unemployment, as I was searching for my first radio job, I didn't get any callbacks until I started applying for news positions.

And now I am working radio, and I find that some of the people I work with have the same problems as those college newspaper editors I worked for all that long ago. They throw something up on the wall and they say, "This is what we should be doing!" But they don't take the time to figure why they do what they do, and how it can be applied to their situation. They just start copying, and as we always know, copies are never as sharp as the original. 

So, my advice to all the future college newspaper editors out there, don't settle for just copying the Gateway.  Break forth, do your own thing, and if you do choose to emulate the Gateway, take the time to actually read the darn thing and figure out why it works.  Don't copy their content...copy their methods, and use their methods to produce something that's 100% yours. 

An addendum from my notes, going back to the two co-editors of the Dag.  I looked up the Gateway on Wikipedia, and found this:

"Each December, the Getaway is published (notice the different spelling), which features satirical articles and non-sequiturs. The Getaway is a no-holds-barred publication, each issue containing considerable profanity and sexual content."

Those co-editors based their entire editorial policy on the annual joke issue. That suddenly explains a lot.

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