Community journalism: Not as lame as it sounds

I know, I know, it’s been three weeks. I pulled my very first blog fail, and I’m going to throw at you, my ever-devoted readers, the same old excuse every blogger uses when he or she hasn’t written an update in three long weeks: I’ve been busy.

In the past month, I’ve: Tasted 10 different kinds of homemade ice creamplayed with pit bulls, toured an almost century-old marina, petted pigs and baby goats at a county fair, and talked to a Teach for America college graduate.

So I’ve been busy. No excuse, I know, but I’ve been busy.

I’ve also been busy readying the Publishing House for the upcoming year of Elm awesomeness. That included, but is not limited to: Creating inDesign templates and snippets; cleaning out old filing cabinets, bookshelves, and desktops; organizing the kitchen and Elm office; decorating walls with newspaper clippings and memes; putting finishing touches on the manual and other files and forms; advertising our subscription sales; and planning this summer’s annual Elm Boot Camp.

I’ve been busy, but that’s what I love about life as a journalist. I’m glad I spent my summer living everything I wanted to blog about instead of having plenty of free time to actually blog. I went to bed exhausted every night, drained from a day of assignments, Elm-related tasks, cooking delicious meals with my best friend, and barreling through a few TV shows (I know, the last item sounds like a lame substitute for blogging, but one of the shows related to my senior capstone project, so it was kind of like homework. Right?).

So this blog post is in defense of community journalism. I just lived three months in the smallest county in Maryland. It’s not the most urban or hip of communities, but it’s full of life, and it deserves high-quality reporting. There’s a slew of negativity out there regarding the future of journalism, but there are some places in the country that, I think, will always appreciate the art of newspapers.

It seems trite, reporting on county fair winners and the Humane Society’s pet of the week. We’re probably not going to snag any Pulitzer Prizes for our hard work (and we work hard. These reporters I work with are some of the most passionate, dedicated people I’ve ever known.), but that’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to bring a community together, and that’s a pretty admirable goal.

I hoped I’d get something big out of my summer experience as I prepared for my editorship next year. I anticipated gaining some more practical writing and editing skills, maybe even brushing up on my photography. I didn’t expect I’d come out of this summer with something so meaningful.

In the flurry of budget meetings, deadlines, school work and thesis next year, I’m going to try my best to hold onto everything I learned about ethics and purpose during my internship. I want to emulate the goals these reporters strive for at the Kent News, even if they’re not always the most rewarding.  We’re not going to get many pats on the back from our readers next year. In fact, if it’s anything like past years, we’re going to get mostly nit-picky complaints about typos from alumni and total unresponsiveness from students. But we’re here to inform and report as fairly and accurately as possible, regardless of what we hear back.

So thanks, Kent County. I’ll do my best to make you proud next year.

Oh, and in case any of you who didn’t forget about me during my July hiatus from Word Press, I’ll be keeping up this blog during the school year. Keep reading if you’re interested in college newspapers, the ramblings of an overwhelmed student editor, or journalism in general.

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?”