Why I use the F word

I resisted calling myself a feminist for a brief period of my life. I had some pretty valid reasons, I thought: I didn’t fully understand the fight for reproductive rights, and I wasn’t sure which stance to take for personal and religious reasons; I didn’t read feminist blogs or magazines, I didn’t attend marches or rallies — and that’s what feminism entailed, I assumed; but mostly, my hesitation stemmed from the strange looks I got when I used the F word.

I didn’t, and still don’t, associate myself with any political party (I like to think my seven years of journalistic experience are at fault for my pretty consistant objectivity). Social activism, gender issues in particular, is really the only political realm in which I take a particularly vehement position, and even there, I tend to read news articles and blogs with a discerning eye. 

So I was bewildered at the disarming reactions to my feminism. I had always associated the term with strength and activism; it brought to mind the years of effort that innovative women put forth to give us all the things that we take for granted today. But for many others, I quickly learned, feminism was something of a dirty word. Actually, I think Susan Sarandon expresses the mindset best in this article from The Guardian:

I think of myself as a humanist because I think it’s less alienating to people who think of feminism as being a load of strident bitches and because you want everyone to have equal pay, equal rights, education and healthcare.

It’s a bit of an old-fashioned word. It’s used more in a way to minimise you.

So there it goes. Decades of rallies and protests and outreach, no longer relevant. Those brave women who made so much possible for women today identified their work as feminism. Celebrities like Sarandon, in erasing that term from their vocabulary, are disassociating themselves from all the incredible years it encompasses. Even those who do consider themselves feminists to some degree or another feel the need to defend and distance themselves from the term. Beyonce, for instance, had to back up her use of the word this April: “That word can be very extreme…’But I guess I am a modern-day feminist. I do believe in equality. Why do you have to choose what type of woman you are? Why do you have to label yourself anything? I’m just a woman and I love being a woman.”

It’s true, words carry connotations, and those connotations warp over time as associations and ideas shift. But a word like feminism — which stands for so many admirable qualities and ideals — shouldn’t be shaken off simply because some people don’t understand it. Sure, there are people who are intimidated by feminism because they associate it with bra burning and hairy legs; but isn’t that all the more reason to use the word as much as we can? Yes, as Beyonce reminds us, feminism is a label. But it’s a label that recognizes all the women who worked to give it meaning; and I’m personally proud every time I label myself a feminist.

I was disheartened to read about Sarandon’s stance on the word. But just as I prepared myself to respond to the article on my blog, I discovered another Guardian article about Ellen Page. And I think her words sum up everything quite beautifully:

I don’t know why people are so reluctant to say they’re feminists. Maybe some women just don’t care. But how could it be any more obvious that we still live in a patriarchal world when feminism is a bad word?…Feminism always gets associated with being a radical movement – good. It should be. A lot of what the radical feminists [in the 1970s] were saying, I don’t disagree with it.

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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.

“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.

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…