“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.

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.

The End of an Era

Chiyo, in all her broken-down glory. Note the undeniable cuteness, as well as the blacked out part of the right-hand screen.

Thanks to Target.com, tech-savvy family and friends, and a lot of blind faith, my new computer is on its way.

The downside of my new purchase is, of course, having to let go of my beloved netbook. Chiyo, my 10-inch, cute-as-a-button Eee Asus laptop, has been with me since my freshman year. (In case you’re wondering, Chiyo means “eternal life” in Japanese. After the painful, tragic death of her Toshiba predecessor, I selected Chiyo’s name after carefully scanning dozens of baby name websites. Sure, eternal life might be a bit of wishful thinking, but a positive christening certainly couldn’t hurt.)  She’s been a faithful little laptop.I decided on a netbook because I’m cheap and because I’m a journalist. I was a computer-browsing rookie when I first typed “best netbooks for college students” into google three years ago, but when I saw the angelically-white, sleek Asus visage pop onscreen, it was love at first sight. I remember Chiyo’s arrival, how I scurried to the mailroom, decided I couldn’t wait to walk all the way back to my dorm room to open the box, and plopped down on a sofa in the bookstore to bring her out of her packing kernels and into the light. We were meant to be.

Technology and I aren’t ordinarily compatible. It took me at least three years of having my own cell phone to appreciate the power of texting and portable web surfing; even now, I have at least one “Crap, where’s my phone?” moment a day, despite my friends’ constant reminders. I don’t own an e-reader, and although I’m trying to be a good little journalist and adapt to the world of tweeting, posting, and tumbling, print newspapers are still the first love of my life.

But Chiyo was different. Chiyo was a computer, and simply that. She suffered the daily abuses of a student reporter’s life, from being hastily shoved into purses en-route to interviews to exhausting her battery life after hours of essay-writing. I regret that I could only pay her back with scratches, cracks, and smudge marks. Even at her shambliest, though, Chiyo was cute enough to entice an, “awww, that’s the most adorable little laptop I’ve ever seen!” from an onlooker. Yes, Chiyo was a looker, even near the end of her three-year existence.

The perfect size for toting around in purses and attracting adorable cats.

The perfect size for toting around in purses and attracting adorable cats.

Chiyo’s successor should arrive in a few days. My new computer (whose name is yet to be determined) should be a bit sturdier than Chiyo, more ready to tackle its intense word processing and internet browsing duties than Chiyo was. My new computer will certainly have its work cut out for it this year, starting with a summer of full-time reporting and then pummeling headfirst into a senior year of thesis research and editing.

Chiyo’s sturdier, equally-adorable replacement, according to google images.

I imagine saying goodbye to tech tools like Chiyo is difficult for any journalist. AP Style books need to be replaced after a few short years; notebooks with precious doodles in the margins are constantly cycled through; recorders, cameras, cell phones, and yes, even computers, eventually succumb the the whirlwind life of reporting. We become attached to these gadgets. They’re full of the memories and fleeting moments that we aren’t able to squeeze into our 500-word articles, so replacing them is bittersweet.

But my new computer marks a turning point in my growth as a journalist, student, and writer. She (yes, it’s going to be a she) will be my Chestertown companion, right there with me in the newsroom, in my dorm room, on the Chester River shore, and wherever my job may take me. Actually, I do have a name for her, now that I think about it: River.