Thursday, March 5, 2009

Extra! Extra! Bonus Piece from Feature Writing!

On the panel without a paddle

I snapped the latch of my watch open and closed; a nervous habit. I felt a drop of warm sweat slide down my torso like a speck of rain on a car window, as the sweltering San Diego heat shouted my panic to the hundred pairs of eyes staring down on me. I tried to stay cool, but the task was an impossible one.

“Why don’t we start down there on the end?” said Ted Powers, a scruffy, white-haired man sitting four spots to my left, serving as the panel’s moderator.

“Poor guy,” I thought to myself. “I wouldn’t want to be the one kicking this thing off.”

Then, it occurred to me. Wait a minute; I’m on the end. Gulp. A few more warm drops slid down my sides. Was it too late to run?

There was no place for me to go. I swallowed a few breaths of heavy air to calm my nerves. And then I spoke.

Reporting the reporter’s convention

The 25th annual Associated Collegiate Press National College Journalism Convention was held at the Marriott Hotel in Mission Valley, Calif., just outside downtown San Diego, from Feb. 26 to March 1. More than 850 students registered for the conference, representing 130 schools all over the country from 36 American states and two Canadian provinces. All of these budding young journalists glanced through other college publications and sat through a variety of seminars throughout the weekend, in an effort to try and obtain more information and bring it back to use in their own papers.

I served as one of the four students speaking about and taking questions for a seminar titled “Covering Intercollegiate Athletics,” which allowed student sports editors and writers to find out how to improve their sports pages for each issue. I could feel my heart pounding in my throat for the session’s entire hour but I came to realize that these were simply my peers quizzing me. They weren’t experts either. And with that, I had a second wind. They had just as many ideas and questions as any of us sitting at the front. The only difference as panelists was that we had the experience as editors and the fame of heavily funded athletic programs to help provide them with valuable answers for their specific situations.

There was no way for any student to attend each hour-long discussion, as there were more than 80 scheduled throughout the weekend, but with such a variety of options, students were able to look for areas that they wanted to learn more about or any of those that drew their interest. Speakers ranged from editors to writers to professors, with credentials from prestigious universities and popular newspapers, like the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism and the Los Angeles Times.

While students couldn’t attend every lecture they wanted to see, everyone had a chance to see the daily keynote speakers. Each one presented their ideas and gave advice about how to stand out in a competitive market and how to handle the difficulty of looking for a job in a dying trade, but it was Andrew Donahue who made the biggest impact.

Donahue proudly spoke as the editor and founder of his product, the online publication, and how it should not be just an interesting and successful aberration, but a new model for modernizing how the public receives its news. is a nonprofit organization that has been widely recognized since its inception in 2005 for its paper-less advances in the newspaper industry and is considered a pioneer for all of the emerging online daily newspapers in the country.

Donahue’s colleague Kelly Bennett, who has been a staff writer at for almost three years, supported Donahue’s ideas in her seminar “Online News Sites: the Future is Here.”

“Embrace values over the name brand,” said Bennett, who added that she originally wanted to work at a print newspaper but ended up at when she decided to pursue whoever would hire her to write about her interests. “Evaluate what you’re doing in terms of tasks rather than who you’re doing it for.”

Bennett also emphasized how important ambition and dedication are in the world of news. “You have to work harder in a competitive environment to get the stories you want,” Bennett said. “Call more people; look up more information than you think you need to.”

She stressed the fear that all journalists should feel when they are researching and reporting a story, and her editor, Donahue, even used a funny anecdote about Bennett to accentuate the point. According to Donahue, Bennett was in the midst of a project she had been working on for months and came into work one day frazzled and freaked out. She had dreamed that she had woken up and someone at the San Diego Union-Tribune had released her story first.

“You should be afraid that someone’s out there who’s going to scoop your story,” Donahue said. That panic only makes journalists better because it pushes them to reach more sources and find the essence of a story, he added.

For students who are entering such a tough economic period, every suggestion could be imperative to success. Ink flooded onto notebook pages in each session, and from newspaper design to managing a staff the different speakers provided counsel on every aspect of working for a college newspaper.

“It is important to be liberal with designing but conservative with typography,” said Ron Johnson, a professor and adviser to the Indiana Daily Student at the University of Indiana. Johnson talked about how many papers struggle with readership on campus because they can’t stay consistent with their design. He said many papers use too few or too many new ideas at once, and the secret lies in keeping an open mind and maintaining a reliable and steady product.

Kit Alvear, an editor at The Candor, the student publication of Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill., served on a panel about managing a four-year newspaper and suggested that executive editors “avoid micromanaging and let the ego go; allow for other ideas to come in and be valuable.”

On the same panel, Jeremy Bittner, the editor-in-chief at The Bottom Line, the college newspaper at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Md., added some guidance from his own experience.

“Try not to be a perfectionist,” he said. “Go into the job knowing you’ll have to work with conflict and problems.”

Most of all though, the San Diego conference as a whole preached that young reporters, editors and designers need to help shape newspapers and make them better for future generations. Donahue urged against the idea of a newspaper solely as a business that needs help or needs a government bailout. In its place, he made his best point and argued for more creativity and novelty from everyone in the industry.

“The discussion has been, ‘How can we save newspapers?’ instead of, ‘How can we save journalism?’” said Donahue. “This is a tremendous era of efficiency and innovation and we need to be original.”

Moving forward with a pen in hand

I didn’t acquire an internship and our paper didn’t win an award for “Best in Show,” but I finished off a great learning opportunity in San Diego by taking a chance and serving as a panel member. It was intense, exhilarating and nerve-wracking. But I managed to convey my ideas clearly and helped to inspire other journalists to devote more time and effort toward their newspapers.

As my feet left the carpet of that conference room and touched the shining white tile outside, I twirled a pen around my fingertips smoothly, like a parade leader spins a baton. Confidence swelled out of every pore; I took in a few deep breaths of fresh air.

There’s no place or profession I’d rather run to.

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