Summer project number one: Check

It is finished.

The draft is, anyway. The Elm’s first (as far as I know) staff manual has been PDF-ed and emailed to editors. There’s no turning back now.

I don’t know why we never had a manual. I’ve been on staff for three years; I’ve watched three editor-in-chief transitions, and no matter how involved the outgoing editor has been with training and preparing her successor, things fall through the cracks. Policy changes are forgotten, only to be readdressed again in the fall. The staff asks the same questions year after year, each editor trying to remember what the unwritten procedure was in past semesters. Writers and photographers make glaring journalistic errors, and we editors can only bristle at the results, try to edit them into shape, and move on. We can’t reprimand our staff for making mistakes when there’s no resource that dictates where they went wrong.

Last year’s editorial process felt like we were constantly putting out fires our staff members started, not out of malice, but out of pure ignorance. They threw in unknown hours of interviews and writing, but the end result was far too often an unusable mess, a jumble of first person narrative and twelve-sentence paragraphs and unanswered questions. As furious as these “Wall of Shame” worthy articles made us, we struggled with holding the writers accountable for their mistakes, because how were they supposed to know any better?

I’m a natural worrier. I tend to anticipate the worst, so naturally, once I was given the official title of rising Editor-in-Chief, I started thinking of all the worst-case-scenarios that might pop up during my term. What if we have to cover a student death? What if we get a letter to the editor from the school president? What do I do if I have to fire someone? Has that even happened before? I had just spent two semesters correcting writers who literally didn’t know any better. How could I, in good conscience, do that to my editors?

Enter my overly-ambitious brainchild, the Manual.  It’s a simple solution, really: Compile every conceivable Elm policy, guideline, and style rule into one organized document. It was writing the 17-page monster that killed me.

I made the manual my first big summer Elm goal. I had no idea it would take half of the time allotted to me, but I like to think it was worth it. I just sent it to the staff to review, and I’m sitting on the edge of my office chair, waiting for responses.

I’m already breathing easier about all those potential conflicts that are going to worm their way into my editorship (we love a good crisis at the Elm). At least when those issues arise, I can point to a specific page and defend myself. And I can finally, guiltlessly reprimand staff members when they make mistakes.

“You can’t say you didn’t know that was the rule. Didn’t you read the manual?”

Seeing Double

My favorite part of grocery shopping is meandering out of the store with my new purchases swinging beside me, taking in the sweet satisfaction of my own, money-guzzling independence. And then there’s that delicious moment when, as I’m flipping open my awesome switchblade-style car keys (one of the many perks of owning a bug), I pause to flip through the stack of newspapers sitting beside the ATM and coins-to-cash machine.

I’m always brainstorming ideas for design improvements for The Elm, so even if I don’t have time to read any of the stories, I at least scan the front pages for an inspirational information box or graphic. We’re a tabloid sized paper, so we can’t copycat too many layout ideas even if we wanted to, but occasionally I stumble across something that sparks my imagination and makes me want to zip right back to the Publishing House and play with inDesign.

This weekend, while I was shopping with the family during my Father’s Day visit home, the familiar pile of papers caught my attention, and veered away from my parents’ preoccupation with a finicky self-checkout machine to do some front page browsing. The first that caught my eye was The Washington Post. As a D.C. regular, it holds particular interest for me, and always jump at the chance to read about one of my favorite cities in one of my favorite forums. The photos were, of course, intriguing and strong, and the design was crisp and clean.

The front page for The Washington Post’s last Sunday issue.

Satisfied, I investigated the other publications on the shelves. It’s not every day that a grocery store in Frederick, Md. stocks The New York Times, so I picked up the thick ream of paper for a quick perusal.

And the Sunday front page for The New York Times.

If it weren’t for the differing titles, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the two newspapers apart.

Both had a dominant feature photo on the lefthand side of the page. Both had a main, two-column article to the right of the photo. Under the photo, both featured two stories, a one-column and then a more prominent three-column.

Both layouts worked, but I was struck by how the two front pages were virtually identical. I hate to accuse the designers of being unimaginative, but I was certainly disappointed. Here I was, a young journalist hungry for inspiration and innovation, and I found myself glancing at two of the country’s most respected publications, both with the same, standard front page.

The brighter side of my observation is that there’s still consistancy in elements of design. In the upheaval of journalism so many of us are trembling under right now, it’s nice to know that print designers are sticking to the same, effective, time-tested techniques. Both front pages boasted a dominant photo, a clearly dominant story placed above the fold with a bold, strong headline, less prominent stories lower on the page, and other elements to spice up the look of the page, such as subheads and info boxes.

I never got any official training in layout or inDesign. I learned the art of Adobe through trial-and-error in high school, so I’ve developed my own, very personalized style. I’ve strengthened my skills as a news editor these last two years in college, working on a weekly news cycle instead of a sporadic schedule from high school. When you’re designing the same four pages of a section week after week after week, it’s easy to get into a rut. By the second semester of my junior year, layout had become formulaic, swapping old stories for new ones and doing simple rearrangements of text and graphics.

During our trip to the Associated Collegiate Press conference in my spring semester, however, I remembered why I love design. I love it because it can be artistic. I love it because there’s a concrete, definite goal (getting all the stories on the page) but a designer has the freedom to use his or her skills to make a page as effective and aesthetic as possible. The speakers at the ACP conference reminded our burned out college brains to bring some life back into our newspapers, to take risks and try radical design concepts. We’re students after all; we’re at school to learn, and what better way to learn than to try something new, fail, and try again?

We came back and electrified our design. We scrapped our old, horizontal “In this Issue” bar and tested out new design methods with it each week instead. We used color blocks and shading, different font sizes and styles. We integrated cutouts and treating the masthead as something unchangeable and permanent. Some issues were better than others, but people noticed out hard work. We got more compliments on our newspaper those last few months than we had all year.

I understand where those newspaper designers whose work I reviewed last weekend were coming from. There are conventions we use as designers. They’re conventional for a reason: They work. Those guys in D.C. and New York know what they’re doing. They’re getting paid to make pages look clean and effectively showcase photos and stories.

I feel pretty damn lucky to still be in college. I’m not getting paid to be perfect. In fact, I’m hardly getting paid to work at all. I’m on staff to learn, so I’m going to take as many risks as I can.

By the people, for the people

(Warning: This blog post is overflowing with cheese and gushiness. Read at your own risk.)

I was a tad bit glass-half-empty for my last post, and looking back, I feel somewhat guilty. It’s one thing to analyze the fate of your passion and muse, but it’s another to rant and rave when your own luck in the field is on the upswing. My summer internship has been an incredible blessing, and while I enjoy the cathartic aspect of blogging and its magnificence as a forum for criticism and contemplation, I’d like to take a devil’s advocate moment and reflect on the rewarding reader responses I’ve had the honor of receiving.

Last week, I had two front page, above-the-fold articles, but  as always, I found it hard to imagine that people were actually reading and digesting my words. I know the numbers, the facts: Thousands of people have subscriptions to the Kent News, and although they don’t all read every single word of every single article in the newspaper, my writing went places. Surely, at least some people read my stories, but that’s a difficult concept to register completely when I so rarely recieve a response. Every once in a while, though, I hear back about my work, and I remember that there’s power in journalism.

I remember my first giddy awakening last summer. My editor assigned me a fluffy, bland story on my first day in the office, something so seemingly unimportant that even if I misspelled half the names and wrote it in a lopsided octagon form instead of inverted pyramid, it wouldn’t have made too much of a difference. So I wrote the article, a tiny little piece about a church yard sale, playing phone tag with different organizers and jotting down as many emotion-packed quotes as possible. A funny thing happened as I talked to my sources, though, something I didn’t expect so early on in my internship; I got swept away in the story. The people who spearheaded the yard sale weren’t used to publicity or fame, and they were ecstatic to talk to someone from The Herald-Mail, even a lowly summer intern. I spiced up the story as much as I could with a catchy lede and my favorite quotes, then turned it over to the fateful hands of the evening copy staff.

The next morning, I saw my first byline in a daily newspaper, but I also saw something even more inspiring: A message in my email inbox from the director of the church giveaway. She thanked me for my write-up, for giving something so small and undervalued a place in a bustling newspaper, for working hard on something that was somewhat tucked away in the inside pages, something that probably wasn’t too well-read.

I was thrilled.

People don’t often think of journalism as a humanistic career. The common, skewed image is a horde of paparazzi, gossip-hungry reporters who care more about breaking big stories than treating their subjects and stories with respect. There are some of those writers out there. I’ve met them, and they scare me. It worries me that some people, even those in its front lines, think journalism is simply an avenue for destroying reputations and embarassing celebrities. But I like to think that most of us care about what we do and what it means.

I got two invigorating responses about my Kent County work last Friday, and once again, I remembered why I love my job.

The first was an email from the young woman whose 4-H project I highlighted in an article last Thursday. It ended up as the dominant front pager that week, complete with a heartwarmingly delicious photo of my subject with one of her favorite cows. The story was supposed to garner interest in donating to her 4-H project, and she emailed to tell me she’d already gotten five responses.

Almost as soon as I finished reading her note, I got a phone call from the patriarch barber I’d interviewed for an article the week earlier. He said he loved my story and that he, his son and his grandson had gotten no end of positive feedback from their customers, many of whom are weekly Kent County subscribers.

Sure, I write for a tiny, smallish-circulation newspaper. Some people might think it mundane or silly that I find such pride in spending my afternoons interviewing and writing about dairy farmers and barbers. But the people I highlight in my stories do beautiful, monumental things for their communities. I love giving them the room they deserve on the front page and knowing that, years from now, their names will still be in the paper’s archives as beloved and valued members of their towns.

Like I said earlier, there’s power in the press. And I like to use it for good.

Technology and Me: An unhealthy relationship

I hate technology. Or rather, it hates me.  I know, I’m a journalist and I should be embracing technology and all its opportunities for connection and speed and accuracy, but it refuses to reciprocate my efforts. It seems like every time I try to use it effectively it finds some backhanded way to lash out at me, whether through crashing my phone or computer or throwing me some new and confusing interface to navigate right when I’m facing deadline.

I got an iPhone this spring. Last summer, the Herald-Mail bought all of its reporters iPhones (barring the intern, of course), and they were encouraged to take photos and videos, post to Facebook and Twitter, stay updated with the news, communicate amongst each other to their hearts’ content, and play Angry Birds.

“If I’m going to be a hip, new-age, responsible journalist, I’d better get myself an iPhone,” I  told myself that summer, and I waited patiently for a cell phone upgrade, itching to get my hands on the shiny new device that I was convinced would become my new favorite toy.

I christened her Esther (Named after the heroine from Bleak House, which I was reading at the time. I name all my electronic devices. I know it’s wishful thinking, but I feel like if I personify my purchases they’ll treat me with more respect. Esther worked particularly well because she’s a famously good-natured, patient, and helpful character. What better name for a phone?). I diligently hooked her up to my computer, powered her up, fed her with all sorts of yummy apps and updates,bought her a pretty, new case (which promptly broke, leading to a bit of an emergency during the brief amount of time she was case-less and my eventual purchase of a heavy-duty Otter case) but to no avail: She hates me.

Every once in a while, she likes to stick her fancy, Apple-brand tongue out at me and claim she doesn’t have a SIM card. She was in the middle of one of these temper tantrums during my very first day at the Kent News this summer, naturally. I ended up having to drive to my assignment in Rock Hall twice, once to interview a gas station owner like I intended, the second after driving all the way back to Chestertown just to be told that my editor had tried to reach me on my cell phone but I’d have to make another 15-minute trek for a second interview. Her keyboard is a spaz, too. About once a week, the letters refuse to obey my fingers, instead choosing to listen to a pair of phantom thumbs that dance around randomly and send my friends strange, jibberish texts.

My work computer. I haven’t even bothered to give it a name.

Today, my work computer reared its ugly, Windows 97 head at me and almost sabotaged my afternoon. We work with a program called Saxo here at the Kent News; it’s basically a dated and ugly, albeit usually effective, system of filing and transferring copy and photos each week. It stopped working today.

The office is used to Saxo being tempermental, so no one was surprised when I haplessly wandered the building for help. Eyebrows were raised, however, when they discovered that Saxo was working everywhere else; Saxo chose me, and only me, to play mind games with today.

I hate this icon even more than I do the Apple swirly pinwheel of death. Note the deceptively peppy term “Seamless” and the ironically cheerful neon colors.

Without Saxo working, I couldn’t access the three stories I was in the middle of writing and editing. All I could do was stare at my screen helplessly and click on the infuriatingly vibrant Saxo desktop icon of a rainbow-colored city skyline. I restarted my computer twice, but nothing worked.

Another little note: my computer is old. She isn’t as old as some of the bulky, decades-old, “worthless” computers taking up space in random corners of the building, but she’s old, which probably doesn’t help my situation much.

One of several ancient Macs that no one’s bothered to throw away, or turn off, apparently.

Luckily, my editor swept in and rescued me. He recovered my files off of his Saxo account, despite their being saved under my personal and supposedly private account, and emailed them my way. So I was able to put finishing touches on my articles on time.

That’s usually what happens: Technology teases me with some seemingly insurmountable obstacle, then magically whisks it away with a solution, just as I’m starting to claw my hair out by the roots in frustration.

Like most 20-year-olds, I’m addicted to my phone and computer. Technology insults and humiliates me, but I always come crawling back, thinking it’s changed its ways. It’s a dangerous relationship, really. I don’t foresee myself leaving Facebook and Words with Friends goodbye any time soon, no matter how many times they hurt me. I’m a college student, I’m a journalist, and I’m a blogger: I am, therefore, hopelessly and unhealthily and eternally, dependent on technology. And so the vicious cycle continues.

Good news: My new computer, River, has behaved surprisingly well so far. I know, I probably just jinxed myself, but I wanted to give credit where it’s due.

Writer’s Block: A success story

I spent an hour slamming my head against my desk this afternoon as I ran draft after draft of descriptive ledes for my dairy farming story through my head.
Okay, so the head slamming part is a bit of an exaggeration, but I still think it’s a fair visualization of the brain-crumbling, spirit-devouring condition otherwise known as writer’s block.

Just about every blogger on my reader’s feed tagged “Writing” or “Journalism” has a post about writer’s block somewhere in his history, so I guess it’s about time I joined the ranks. It’s no wonder, really, that so many writers are fixated on this bizarre and debilitating state of mind. There isn’t a cure for it; there’s no drug or therapy or acupuncture treatment that will magically stimulate creativity. It’s a phase, an inevitable dark side to the writer’s tortured mind.

In case you can’t tell, I’m still a little bitter about the hour wasted at work today, and it’s manifesting itself in the form of angst. Readers, I apologize.

This post isn’t just a melodramatic rant, though, so don’t abandon my blog in favor of mindless memes (although if you’re going to go down that route, I strongly encourage frustrated journalism cat). There is, amazingly enough, hope for even the most foregone of writer’s block victim’s.

It’s called a break.

My eyes were fizzling in their sockets by lunch time, but I still hadn’t made any progress on my story. I’d looked at photographs from my interview for inspiration, googled cow images, even tried to find poetry about cows online, to no avail. My word document was a jumbled mess of row after row of abandoned, half-finished sentences.

Then Trish popped her head in my office.

“Craig and I were going to do lunch at the Blue Bird today. A sort of celebration for surviving this crazy week. Wanna come? My treat!”

And what a treat it was. Little did Trish and Craig know that our little excursion down College Avenue was more than a meal for me (and lunch out is quite a treat for a summer intern, as any college student knows) – it was a brain saver.

A token of my lunch break!

Lunch was delightful, by the way. We clinked our glasses of diet coke to my third week on the job. We talked about the newspaper, the bureaucratic messiness of having to work under a parent company, Trish’s unusual love of antique outhouses and Craig’s passion for old guitars and his pre-Chestertown life. In honor of my first trip to the Blue Bird, Trish had the bartender sign a coaster for me as a souvenir.

When I came back to my office, everything was clear. Everything seemed brighter, sharper, as if my brain could finally process the sunlight streaming through my window as something beautiful and writing-worthy. As I browsed through my photos again, I started to relive my afternoon on the farm. I could feel the story come alive, and I noticed connections between the poetry in the photos and the words I’d transcribed from the interview. Suddenly, it all made sense.

I’m a bit of a workaholic; I crave productivity, and I like a tinge of stress in my daily life. It’s a blessing and a curse, really. As much as I love how the heaviness of a long day drugs me into a deep sleep at night, it can also wear me a bit thin.

I’m constantly relearning the lesson that rest is just as important as hard work when it comes to success. Whether it’s going out to lunch out with coworkers, cracking open a guilty pleasure read, or checking your Facebook wall, a little bit of non-work isn’t laziness: It’s self-preservation.

I think I might just treat myself to lunch at Sam’s next week…

Down on the Farm

Something about me must read “loves cows.” Either that, or fate is trying to tell me that I have a future in dairy farming, a completely laughable concept considering my aversion to mud, muck, manure, and all things smelly and farm-like. Yet I find myself, for the second summer in a row, writing a story about dairy cows.

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The dairy barn where I spent my second Monday afternoon.

Last, summer, one of my long-term research projects was about the economics of dairy farming, which is far more complicated and jargon-filled than I anticipated. Before I even made a phone call to one of the many farming families I contacted over the course of those few weeks, I spent countless hours looking up statistics and definitions about the price of fluid form milk prices per hundredweight, the rising cost of farmland and coop farming business versus individually-owned farms.

I ended up pretty proud of my hard work on the assignment. Although I was initially uninspired by the subject matter, it was a story that not only needed to be told, but one that turned out to be more interesting than I ever could have expected.

Yesterday, I was back on the farm.

A local girl is working on the very first level 6 4-H Diamond Clover project in the history of her school. This is like the 4-H version of the Eagle Scout: It involves 75 hours of community service as well as packets of documentation and records.

And so, camera hefted around my neck, I headed off to Still Pond for the first time to take notes and photos of a high school girl and her cows.

I felt ridiculous pulling in to the farm’s gravel driveway in my shiny silver Beetle. The other three vehicles were dust-covered, giant-wheeled pick-ups, and here I was, I self-proclaimed city-lover equipped with a GPS, iPhone, digital camera, and butt-warming car.

And I was stupid enough to wear sandals.

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So much mud…Those are my interviewee’s shoes, by the way. I was trekking around in flimsy, plastic sandals.

To give myself some credit, I didn’t bring many shoes with me to campus for the summer. I didn’t think far enough ahead to consider that I might end up covering a story that involved sloshing through piles of mud and gunk to take good shots of cows. But here I was.

My interviewee was simply delightful. She drove me down to her personal barn, introduced me to some of her favorite cows (she owns 14 in all), and beamed as she recounted her favorite memories with her pets. After I snapped a few shots of her cooing over her cows, she dashed off to the milking barn. (she milks three days a week, and it takes a couple of hours total. She also wakes up at the crack of dawn to feed all her animals before school, then comes back for at least three hours after school for more feeding and work. Oh, and did I mention she’s president of the 4-H club, vice president of FFA, in National Honors Society, and is the Eastern Shore’s reigning Dairy Princess?)

Despite the copious amounts of research I did on the dairy farming world last summer, I never got the chance to immerse myself firsthand in what I wrote about. I talked about cows on the phone, but I never met one of them. I read about the skyrocketing price of milk and how it’s affecting farmers, but I didn’t actually drive to a local dairy farm and shake hands with one of the owners. At the Herald-Mail, there are photographers to go out and do the dirty work for us (I use the term dirty work literally in this case); all I had to do was fill out a photo request sheet and post it on the assignment bulletin board.

In Chestertown, reporters take their own photos. I’m not a naturally-gifted photographer, but I’m certainly glad I had the chance this time. I haven’t started writing the story yet, but I have a feeling that the the rawness of my afternoon yesterday — Prancer’s velvety nose, the vinegar smell of fly-spray from the milking barn, the soft squelches that the farmers’ crusty boots made in the mud — will find its way into my writing.

I talked about how hard farmers worked in my article last summer, but I didn’t really understand what I was saying. This time, I’ll go into the writing process with more than just facts and figures. This time, I have a real story to tell.

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I know this picture isn’t particularly relevant in terms of my blog, but…I had no idea udders could be this big. Wow.

Proof that I’m a newspaper nerd.

Aside from Memorial Day (which I spent recovering from Tea Party weekend), this is my first real day off since joining the Kent News staff.

My morning consisted of: mingling with local farmers and dog-walkers at the Chestertown farmer’s market; finally procuring an official Kent County library card and loading myself up with books; watching the ducks splash around on the water while parents encouraged their kids to feed them breadcrumbs despite the clearly-visible signs warning people not to feed the birds; and browsing through bargain racks at a few consignment stores.

My afternoon was spent holed up in the publications house, getting everything ready for August.

Publications Boot Camp (Washington College’s version of newspaper editor training) starts August 20, but I’ve been so inspired by my internship that I’ve already thrown myself headfirst into the planning process. When I’m not spending my spare evenings watching dorky movies or cooking with my best friend, I’m doing something Elm related. So far, that’s included writing a staff manual (don’t ask me why we’ve never had one before), reading college newspaper blogs and websites (collegemediamatters and Charles Apple are my new obsessions), compiling training material, decorating the Elm office with memes and front page examples, and making fresh templates for inDesign.

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Giving the Elm’s front page a little TLC.

I love doing layout. I love configuring text and graphics on a crisp white computer screen and seeing everything the staff and I have slaved over for days on end pop onto a page. Design is like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle: Some weeks you have 100 pieces, other weeks 1,000, but after a cups of coffee and a motivational Pandora radio station, you always make the pieces fit.

Today, I discovered the wide and wonderful world of free font downloads.

I’m not a font connoisseur like some designers (the movie Helvetica was mind-blowing and, honestly, somewhat terrifying), but I can recognize a font that I like for the Elm when I see one. So after about an hour of scanning free download sites, I picked my favorites and put them to the test.

Our front page is already beaming.

We don’t need a redesign, per se. Our layout is pretty crisp if I do say so myself. But it can always use a little freshening up, and it’s amazing how a new headline font will brighten a page.