Thursday, February 22, 2018

Tales from college: Covering MLK Day and how it changed me as a student journalist

We came back to the first newspaper meeting of the 2005 spring semester with a renewed sense of energy. Members of the previous semester's leadership, Edtior-in-Chief Aleysha Asgar and Business Manager Ernie Horn, had both graduated in December, and now Mandy Sole was the Editor-in-Chief. That was all I knew walking into the meeting. I recognized most of the people in the room, but there were a few new staff writers. Mandy introduced the editors, then finally added, “And our News Editor, Chris Slater.” That was a shock to me. I guess she could tell by the look on my face. “Oh yeah, I meant to tell you that earlier.”

After the meeting, she was talking to Jesse Call and myself. He and I were obviously the two best staff writers, and if anybody was going to take over News Editor after she became Editor-in-Chief, it was going to be one of us. And it wound up being me. Mandy’s explanation didn’t sit well with me. It just came off as she was implying that Jesse was a stronger writer than I was, and she needed him to write more and me to edit.

News Editor came with it more responsibilities. I now had a key to the office, and was free to be inside the room at any time. Mandy told me I would be writing less articles, which I wasn’t a fan of. Instead, I would be designing and laying out the pages on the big Mac computer in the office. I had done page design work in high school, starting with some graphic design stuff in ninth grade, advertisements in tenth grade, then actual page design in eleventh and twelfth. We used the same system and Mandy had me play around with it, and it all came flooding back. I was also given the password to the key code system outside of the Fine Arts Building, so that I could get inside after the doors were locked. I am 95 percent sure it’s still the password used today, or I would mention it. Don’t want any creeps getting inside the building. I last used it in 2015, when I stayed over at a house down the street from Concord and needed to use the bathroom that next morning.

Mandy had already laid out issue one for that semester, so I was set to work on issue two the following week. The way the paper worked, with it being printed Wednesday, was that most of the design work happened Monday evening and night, then the finishing touches were done Tuesday morning. The whole newspaper was compressed into a zip file, then put onto a CD and delivered to the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, the next city over, where they printed it for us. This was still fairly archaic, before technology allowed the emailing and/or cloud sharing of files that large. That was eventually the case a couple years after I left the staff, but until then it was always just driving a CD to Bluefield.

Being News Editor

My job was to design the news section, which was always the front page and page two, and occasionally page three. If we had a six-page edition, then I only had two pages; if we did eight pages, then I had three. The first issue I designed, the front page, lead article was about the push for Concord University to get a BB&T ATM machine in the Student Center, written by Steven Davis. At the time, there was only one for First Community Bank. Those two banks were both down the street, but only one ATM was at Concord. And, we did eventually get that ATM. I had a BB&T account, so I was happy.

That first Monday night, the latest season two episode of the hottest show on television was on, “Nip/Tuck,” the FX plastic surgeon drama. My roommate Alex and I loved it, and watched every week. This was actually the week before Mandy had given me the passcode to get into the building after hours, so I came up with a solution to work and be able to watch the show. I worked on designing the pages until 9:55, then I went out a little-used side door and wedged it open with a rock. From a distance, it looked closed and I knew nobody was going to be looking. I went and watched the sexploits of Christian and Eric, then back to the office. I was in there until probably about 2 a.m. working on those pages. I felt pretty good about what I had done, and came back Tuesday morning after class to check up on things. We had a visitor in the office, as Aleysha was in there saying hi. I caught up with her, and then asked Mandy about my pages. The only issue she had with anything was that I didn’t continue any of the front page articles onto page two. “Other than that, you’re doing a good job, and I was impressed.” Hey, works for me.

One thing I noticed after getting my keys and starting to stay in the office late at night was that I would freak myself out walking back to the dorm. It’s a very outdoors-y area, with a lot of trees and forest off in the distance. It’s not uncommon to see deer and rabbits wandering around campus on a quiet day – and once I saw a deer walking down the sidewalk on Vermillion Street, right off campus. Late at night, I would walk the several hundred feet from the newspaper office to my dorm, and I would hold my keys between my fingers, which I had read was an effective defense mechanism if you’re attacked. And, looking back, I realize now that I was working myself up and panicking during that walk over nothing.

One thing that really sticks out about those early days is how well run and professional the newspaper was. Yeah, there were some people who didn’t care much and didn’t try hard, but for the most part those people were weeded out and left. There really was a core group of awesome student journalists on that staff who cared about getting the news out to the students and faculty. 

Apathy and Ignorance 

When I became News Editor, the first notable event that I was going to cover was Concord’s annual event honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was 18 years old and thought this was some sort of crazy huge deal. I’ve later learned that literally every single school does pretty much the same thing every late January or February for MLK and/or Black History Month.

There was going to be a forum and the guest of honor was this author who had written a couple books. He had been featured multiple times on PBS interview shows, and had one time appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show. I was in awe. There was a huge guy coming to Concord. This was going to be big.

I asked Kelly if she wanted to come with me. She didn’t. My 13-year-old cousin Jackie called me right before I was going to attend. She always bugged me when we talked on the phone back then. A lot of the time I ignored her calls; this was before texting was popular and I probably could have tolerated her texting me. She just wouldn’t stop going on about nothing in particular. I wanted to get off the phone and couldn’t find the right opportunity, so I simply hung up. She called right back a minute later and I didn’t answer. The voicemail was from my aunt, Jackie’s mother, and she was super pissed off and yelling at me for some reason. I wondered if that was going to turn into something, but it was never mentioned again by anybody.

I went to the Fine Arts Building, where the event was going to be held. This was going to be a huge, standing room only event in my mind, so I went in the rear entrance to get backstage. I walked in expecting hustle and bustle, maybe a frazzled woman walking around with a clipboard yelling instructions. Instead, I looked there and saw nothing. Nobody was backstage. Nothing was happening. I went over to the curtain and peeked out. There was barely anybody sitting in the auditorium, and I looked over and saw the famous author chilling in the front row, with a couple Concord administrators sitting there with him.

So, I went back out and took a seat around the middle edge of the auditorium, over by myself.

I was so confused about what was going on. Why was nobody here? This was supposed to be a big deal. While the host was introducing the guest speaker and explaining why all of this was happening, I looked around and counted roughly 75 people in attendance.

I had participated in a MLK scholarship essay contest at the end of the previous semester. We went into the computer lab and they gave us like five different scenarios to write about. I received a participation certificate at the event. I had no idea they were going to present me – and everybody else – with one. I was one of the few people who showed up to get theirs. I put my certificate on the top of my desk in my dorm, which was built into the wall. It wound up sliding between a crack and being lost forever. So, my 2004 MLK participation certificate might still be wedged between a desk and wall in room 216 of Wooddell Hall.

As the fancy author was speaking to an empty room about what MLK would think about today’s world had he not been assassinated, I continued to study the room and wonder why nobody bothered to show up to this free event. The conclusion I came to became one of the defining catchphrases and buzz words that I repeated over the years: apathy and ignorance. Students didn’t know about things or they didn’t care. Over time, I realized that it was my mission as a student journalist to fix that. I needed to inform the audience – to fix the ignorance, and then I also needed to give them a reason to care about things – to rid them of their apathy. 

How it shaped me 

I enjoyed being the News Editor. I liked the added responsibility. Mandy needed to go out of town one weekend, and was gone that Friday and all weekend. I was in charge of the newspaper. In reality, all I did was handle one “What do I do?” call from Jesse. But, still, I was happy to do it. The one thing I didn’t like was that I didn’t get to write regularly. That never wound up being an issue in the future, but that semester, we had a big enough and talented enough staff that I was able to concentrate on my editing duties and didn’t need to write a lot of articles. We had a Japanese kid on the staff. His English wasn’t the greatest and I worked pretty extensively with him to improve his articles. A couple times, I basically rewrote them for him. But, such is the job of an editor sometimes.

Mandy was a typical worrier. She and Jesse once had the conversation about who they wanted to offend least: Jesse chose students; Mandy, administrators. I looked at them dumbfounded. If the facts are right and it’s written correctly, it shouldn’t matter who you upset.

That semester, we had a scandal come out: one of the professors had lied about finishing his dissertation. He had acquired tenure and all the good stuff that comes with it, but he technically wasn’t a doctor. Mandy wrote the article and felt horrible about it the entire time. We never addressed it again. That would have been good fodder for a piece on the opinion section: they’re trying to teach us to be honest, respectable people, and this professor is lying to everybody and cheating the system.

At the end of the semester, the final paper is a deluxe edition that features a special “Year In Review” tab. It’s basically just a collection of articles from the school year. I designed the news section’s review. I felt the top article was the professor scandal. I put that at the top of the page. I finished it and Mandy came in right before deadline. She looked it over. She was shocked. “You can’t put him in there!” Why not, it was news? “People don’t want to look back and remember that!” She got on the computer and took it off. What she should have done is make the whole thing over, because I had an unofficial ranking system; the bigger stories of the year were at the top. Instead, she grabbed a random story by Jared Tice and put it in there. She also forgot to change the byline, so she got credit for his article.

I was never a fan of doing stuff like that. Why would we hide something just because it was bad news? I used that as a lesson to never become that kind of journalist. I wanted to tell the truth and inform everybody.

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