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.

Friday the 13th: Daily Punctilio style

I started reading the “Series of Unfortunate Events” books way back before they were cool, long ago and far away during my third grader hipster years. At the time, I appreciated them for their lofty humor, a satirical quality that I couldn’t quite grasp or articulate but still loved to read.

The infamous Daily Punctilio, hot off the press!

I finally finished the 13th book, and I enjoyed the series on an entirely different level during this reread. I enjoyed the books as an English major certainly; I was finally able to grasp all the subtle allusions Lemony Snicket slips into his narration and I caught on to his many tropes and how he takes literary norms and flips them on their head.

But I also appreciated these books as a journalist. In case you’re unfamiliar with the series (and as Lemony regularly reminds us readers, we would all be better off if the books never existed), there’s a recurring character by the name of Geraldine Julienne. She’s the Star Reporter for The Daily Punctilio, the city’s completely immoral and libelous, yet somehow respected, newspaper. She writes her first lie about the Baudelaire orphans in the seventh book, the Vile Village, triggering the children’s exile from society by falsely accusing them of murder.

Here’s a copy of this week’s newspaper. I made a little edit in the photograph in honor of the holiday….

She comes back book after book, writing falsehood after falsehood, endangering the subjects of her stories while roping her readers in with her scandalous, crazed headlines: DOCTOR TELLS HISTORY OF KNIFE; HEIMLICH HOSPITAL ALMOST FORGETS PAPER WORK; MURDER ATTEMPTS TO MURDER MURDERER; COUNT OLAF THINKS UP IDEA FOR LION SHOW; EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH COUNT OLAF, WHO IS NOT COUNT OMAR, WHO IS DEAD.FREAKS PUSHED INTO LION PIT.

Lemony gives his reader a caricatured version of society. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that society as a whole, adult society to be more specific, is the main antagonist of the series. Every grown-up figure or person of power whom the Baudeliaires encounter is either evil or ignorant, and together, these individuals form a corruptible, crazed mob. The media is an overarching representative for these people; The Daily Punctilio voices their selfish opinions and sways the people time and time again into believing falsehoods, even when the truth is right before their eyes.

So sure, Lemony puts the press in a pretty miserable light in his books. But I like how the series highlights the power of the written word. Journalists have the influence to make change and insight anything from a meek letter to the editor to a riotous, orphan-murdering mob.

Geraldine is one of the series’ most infuriatingly dimwitted characters (and trust me, these books are rife with idiot adults), but she’s also a solid warning against the power of the press when it’s in the wrong hands.

So happy Friday the 13th everyone! I hope you have a Very Frightful Day, and remember, the world is quiet here.

Independence Day on the Chester River

I’m assigned plenty of busy work as part of my duties as the “lowly intern” as one of my coworkers likes to jokingly call me. My favorite of these sometimes mundane but necessary and intern-worthy assignments is compiling each week’s early files.

This newspaper dates back to pre-Civil War times, and we take full advantage of our history here in Chestertown. Each week, the newspaper runs clippings from old issues, dating from as far back as 150 years. So every Friday, I scour the towering bookshelves lining the hallway to the back room, pulling out enormous collections of yellowed newspapers. I start with the earliest, 1862, then work my way up, from 150 year ago to 75 years ago (the 100 year-old issues are in fragile enough condition that we can’t even open their book) to 50 to 25 to 10 years ago.

I’m particularly fond of browsing through the 1937 issues, both because of my personal fascination with the time period and the fascinating department store and film ads.

But as a belated Independence Day blog post, I’m focusing on the July 5, 1862 issue today. A few things to note about Civil War issues of this local newspaper: They are laden with quips toward the Confederacy:

A GOOD JOKE: The Richmond Examiner states that, as a result of the late battles, Confederate stocks rose from 93 to 97 cents–payable in Confederate note currency ! It would have been the same thing had they advanced to 197, for both are equally worthless, and a cart load of them would not command a dollar in hard money nowhere in the world outside of rebeldom!

– July 5, 1862

They insert non-political (and oftentimes racist, unfortunately) jokes randomly between news stories:

“Can you give me bills for a ten dollar gold piece?” asked a very pretty young lady of a young man named William, who was tending store.

“No, I cannot,” was the reply.

“Can you oblige me with a single Bill?” she asked.

“Well yes, I guess so–you see they call me Bill, and I’m single, and am entirely at your service.”

– July 5, 1862

And they are beautifully written. Even the most mundane of articles, like regular updates on the wheat crop, are composed in a delicate, almost poetic style. It’s a dramatic contrast to the clear, concise news writing journalists are trained in today. It makes the articles especially entertaining to read.

Some of the most eloquent write-ups are the obituaries. Today, I came across a death notice for a Civil War veteran, born and raised on the Chester River, and also an alumni of our very own Washington College. The first was published soon after his death:

Departed this life, in Memphis, Tenn., the first week in May last, Mr. BENJAMIN C. VICKERS, aged 26 years, and fourth son of George Vickers, Esq., of Chestertown.

The death of Mr. V. was caused by a wound received at the battle of Shiloh, in the first week in April. The deceased with in the battle of Belmont and escaped unhurt.  He was formerly in a large grocery house in this city, an displayed much talent and tact at his calling.

He was educated at Washington College, possessed considerable talent, was intelligent, quick in his perceptions, and of indomitable perseverance. No obstacle was too great for him to surmount. He was courteous, kind, and of noble and generous impulse. He was an affectionate and dutiful son, kind brother and a true friend. His ear was every open to hear, and hand ever ready to relieve, where distress or charity presented their claims. Had he lived, he would have become prominent and successful in his vocation.

Although he lingered and suffered in a land of strangers, yet there the heart of sympathy was found, and the soft hand of friends to smooth his dying pillow. It is said he died in “hope of glorious resurrection.” His parents and relatives have sustained a heavy loss, and a sad bereavement, but may they be consoled “though he cannot come to them, they can go to him.” May he rest in peace, and although the affectionate hand of a mother may not be able to plant the flower at his grave, yet the consolation is, that he rests in peace, where he the cannon’s roar and the din of battle are not heard, and that in the morning of resurrection he shall rise, clothed in white, and in a new body be caught up to dwell forever with the Lord.

The second article went into a bit more detail about his last days:
From the Baltimore American of the 24th.

THE LATE BENJAMIN C. VICKERS. – We have already announced the decease of Mr. Benjamin C. Vickers, son of Gen. George Vickers, of this place, but were unable, at the time, to give any particulars respecting it. We have now the circumstances attending his death, which may prove interesting to a large and sorrowing circle of friends.

Mr. Vickers was at the battle of Shiloh, and seemed to have a presentiment that he would fall in that battle, for in his pocket was found a paper with his name and company written upon it, as also a request that if he fell in battle his father should be informed of it. He was wounded by a minie ball in the thigh near the joint, which broke the bone, and in its course upwards lacerated the integuments and muscles, and when extracted was found flattened to the size of a quarter dollar.

This was on the sixth of April. He was taken to Memphis, to the house of a relative of a friend, where he had every care and attention, and where he died on the third of May, in the twenty-sixth year of his age. Two weeks previous to his disease, and when it because apparent that his wound would prove fatal, he was married to Miss Houston, of Tennessee, niece of Gen. Sam. Houston, of Texas, to whom he was engaged previous to entering the army, and who devoted herself to him with that spirit and tenderness which belongs only to woman.
During his whole illness he was perfectly calm and resigned, and expressed the utmost confidence that he had made his peace with God. A few days before his death he partook of the Communion, and after having sent his remembrances to each of his family, and expressing a great desire to see his mother, and that his father sho9uld be informed that he was not afraid to die, he passed away calmly and peacefully, and almost without a struggle.

And thus passed away our young friend, whose death thus early was triumphant: By his noble and generous qualities he appears to have attracted a large circle of friends in his new home, who manifested a deep interest in his condition and contributed largely to his comforts him his sickness by their attention and sympathies; and as a soldier, his chivalrous bearing at the battle of Shiloh won for him the tribute due to a brave and gallant man; but all this is nau8ght compared to the ever-lasting source of consolation which should bear up his immediate family in their unexpected calamity. Amid the gloom and despondency surrounding them, they have a balm for the wounded sp9irit which must be ever present – their son “died without fear, and in the blessed hope of a joyful resurrection.”

My college is working on a veteran recognition project right now, the first official memorandum we’ve ever offered for the men and women who gave their service, and sometimes lives, to their country. I actually wrote an article on the endeavor last semester, so it was just my luck to run across an article on a Civil War alumni, and only two days after the Fourth of July at that.

I read and reread those two articles for about 15 minutes this morning, imagining what this Benjamin Vickers, who studied, laughed, drank, and learned on the very same campus where I live now, may have been like. It was a harsh reminder for me of the realism of war. Americans have become accustomed to seeing battle and bloodshed as a distant blip on their radar, yet another tragedy to litter news stations and papers. But in the 19th century, war was personal. George Vickers was a real father whose young son was lost to war, and his sorrow and pain were just as heavy as any mourning parents’ today.

This discovery was also a rejuvenating moment for me. As a journalist, I have a part to play in history, too. If it hadn’t been for the anonymous reporter who talked to this young man’s family, or the printer who placed all the individual stamps into the letterpress, Benjamin would be lost to history. If it hadn’t been for them, the 150th anniversary of his death would be forgotten, his name never forwarded to the Washington College alumni office to be listed on their veterans memorial website.

So I’m proud of many things today. I’m proud to be a Washington College student, earning a liberal arts education along the same paths and in the same buildings that once hosted hundreds of brave men and women who went on to serve their country. I’m proud to be a journalist, someone who can immortalize pain, triumph, and sacrifice, so stories can be found and retold again some day. And I’m proud to be an American.

So happy Fourth of July, readers, and let’s remember those who deserve it.

“Overheard in the Newsroom”(s)

Chestertown is the biggest town in Kent County. With a whopping total of about 4,700 residents and a ghost town-esque row of empty store fronts making up its downtown area, it is the closest thing this tiny county has to a cultural hub. I love it here, truly, I do, but it’s a quiet place, not what one might expect from a “college town.” But Washington College thrives. Its students party, learn, grow, and party on the shores of the Chester River, despite rarely interacting within their own town.

To my surprise, Washington College and Chestertown aren’t as divided as I once thought. In fact, I’ve noticed some rather uncanny similarities between The Elm, my beloved college newspaper, and Chestertown’s newspaper. I didn’t expect to relate so much with the staff, but I find that many of their struggles and frustrations, as well as triumphs and joys, are almost eerily similar to my experiences as a student editor for a liberal arts newspaper. So I decided to make a list based off one of my favorite journalism junkie websites. Below are some of what I’ve noticed, based on my internship here as well as some of my past internships, to be universal “overheard in the newsroom” complaints:

  • “If you want something done right, you do it yourself.”

There’s nothing like coming in to the news room on layout night, only to discover that one (or two or three or four) of your photographers flaked on a major assignment. And now it’s up to you to find time, between copy editing pages and placing stories on inDesign, to go out and find some kind of art yourself. Too many times than I’d care to remember last semester, my fellow news editor and I had to venture out, armed only with our amateur photography skills and a “Let’s get this over with so we can get back to work and out of here before midnight” attitude. This has happened with stories we had to more or less rewrite at the last minute, too. It isn’t a pretty sight.

Turns out, we’re not alone. In any system where tasks are delegated among different people, some of whom you never see face-to-face, details fall through the cracks. And sometimes, it’s just easier to stop what you’re doing and get the job done yourself.

  • “I hate those people who complain about the newspaper but never actually read it.”

I heard this from a coworker just the other day, and I’ve heard it echoed among staff at the Elm time and time again. We’ll get email complaints from people who disagree with an article or opinion, which is great (we love feedback: read the following bullet). But these people clearly picked up a single issue and glazed over an article, never having looked at an Elm before they found something they felt like complaining about.

The poor readership on campus is somewhat disconcerting, actually. People pick up Elms, but tend to read the Public Safety reports, try to find their friends in photos, and scan headlines instead of sitting down and digesting the in-depth coverage we try to provide. And more often than not, the complaints we get are from these “readers” who don’t read so much as browse. Which stinks.

  • “Why don’t our readers respond anymore?”

We love feedback, aside from stupid complaints described above, even when it’s critical. Actually, we prefer criticism to a simple “thanks for writing about this!” because believe it or not, we, as students, like to learn. We actually want to improve our writing and coverage, and one of the best ways to do so is by finding out what our audience thinks we could have done better.

But readers are lazy sometimes. And it’s not just college student readers who don’t respond with much more than angry comments online or curse word-laden email rants. High-quality, clear letters to the editor are hard to come by these days, even here at the Kent News.

It’s disappointing when a writer reports on a story that should spark debate, especially when you hear readers arguing over the issue in the dining hall, but none of them take the time to write out a response for the opinion section. I don’t know what to blame. The Internet? Texting? Citizen journalism? All I know is, it’s not just apathetic college students who aren’t responding to good journalism; grown-ups are lazy, too.

  • “InDesign/computers/cameras/iPhones/Facebook/Twitter/WordPress/technology hates me. &%$#@.”

I’ve noticed that no matter a newspaper’s degree of tech-saviness or access to fancy equipment, gadgets and gizmos tend to stop working right before deadline. At least once a week. Cursing ensues.

  • “My friends all think I hate my job from all the complaining I do…”

I’ve worked retail. I know obnoxious customers. I know how much interacting with insipid human beings can grate on your nerves.

I’ve also been writing news articles for the past six years. I can say, from experience, that dealing with public figures and defensive interviewees can be just as infuriating as running a cash register.

Break rooms are notorious places for venting. What exhausted worker doesn’t want to rant about his day when he meets up with coworkers at the proverbial water cooler? Complaining keeps employees sane. It is a universal truth.

Sometimes, during particularly frazzling news weeks, complaining gets a little out of hand. It leaks from the newsroom to phone conversations with family or chats between classes. Naturally, readers overhear these rants. I’ve had to explain to some of my non-editor friends why I continue to work for a newspaper that drives me half-insane on a regular basis.

To an outsider, we sound miserable. But complaining about missed deadlines and obnoxious interviewees is just how we journalists show our love. We’re a rather cynical bunch, but as I’ve told my friends (and prospective reporters who are disillusioned by overheard complaints), letting off steam is half the fun.

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.