I spent a few minutes at my alma mater this week. This is not newsworthy in and of itself; I’m on campus a few times a year for various reasons. But this time I was there at the invitation of the current editor-in-chief of the student paper there – a position I held in 2004-05 after spending most of my undergrad years there in the late 90s and early 2000s (I took a couple of years off between stints, just so we’re clear. I didn’t spend six years doing my undergrad).
We’ve met a couple times during his tenure, actually, and exchanged a few emails too. He’s really interested in the history of the paper (depressingly enough, I’m a historical relic now) and I’m more than happy to oblige. But this is the first time I’ve been in the office in a few years.
Man, what a flood of memories.
Chris has made some nice changes to the office but it’s still the same old pit of awesomeness. The couches are still of suspect hygenic standard, the carpet still sets new benchmarks for threadbarity and the industrial strength desks-cum-fallout-shelters are still hideously orange.
But more importantly, it’s still full of people who share a passion for their craft and the blessed naivety not to listen when people try to undermine what they do.
The Charlatan was, perhaps without exception (save for one as discussed previously), the single-greatest influence on who I am as a person and as a professional. In addition to building my portfolio and honing my writing, editing and design skills there, I also learned how to be a leader and a manager and, more importantly, formed many of the relationships I hold most dear to me. Of the three guys standing beside me when I got married, two of them had parked themselves on those grungy couches over the years (the other was my brother). Oh, and of course, I also met my wife there.
And as much fun as it has been to dig up old memories, the best part of connecting with this year’s editor-in-chief was discovering that the paper I love is in the capable hands of someone who shares the passion that kept us all plugging away on our ancient computers for pay that would be deemed criminal if it wasn’t nicely couched as an ‘honorarium’ instead of a salary.
So, in honour of all those who haunted 531 Unicentre before me, and for all those who will follow in our path, I present the top 5 reasons student papers are awesome.
5) You learn to fail. Gracefully, sometimes.
The thing about student papers? Yea, they’re run by students. And no matter how passionate and well-meaning these students are, sometimes they fail – hard and in the full view of thousands of readers. Which is great. Nothing teaches you about the awesome responsibility associated with producing content for the masses faster than botching that responsibility and eating a big-ass helping of humble pie. Sometimes you learn a lesson (if a cop tells you someone was arrested – verify it) and sometimes, well, sometimes there was nothing you could do. But either way, having someone chew you out on the phone and trying to find the words to write a correction help you grow up quick. Seems like a strange way to start a list of praise, I realize, but here’s the thing about failing. It has an opposite side. Namely…
4) You learn what success feels like. And how to get there.
Failing sucks. But it’s a by-product of working, for the most part, without a net. The other by-product of that is the realization that you really can do good things. Some of my proudest professional moments stem from work I did at the paper. Writing class assignments is nice, of course, but the very same things that keep you from bombing too badly in class limit the sense of pure pride and accomplishment you get when you just nail something. Holding up an article that absolutely and in every way knocks one out of the park is one of the best feelings in the world. Second only, perhaps to #3.
3) You learn how awesome teamwork can be too.
I don’t know of a student paper produced by a team of one. My paper, for example, was run by an editor in chief (me!) who relied heavily on an amazing team of 12 section editors who in turn relied upon dozens and dozens (hundreds?) of eager volunteers. We were all supported by a kick ass production manager (my wife!), dedicated ad sales folks (Hey Kat!) and a board of directors who managed the business side of things (a headache in and of itself, right Matt?). And if holding up that article in #4 is a great feeling then holding up an article written by a first-time volunteer writer, edited by an over-worked and underpaid editor, reviewed by more volunteer copy editors and published by a helpful production manager is pure bliss. The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. And it’s a beautiful thing to behold.
2) You’re part of a network without even realizing it.
The fun by-product of contributing to something like a student paper is it attracts a certain type of person. And those people, as it turns out, are everywhere. The Charlatan might be a bit of a rare beast in that it has been around for 60 years. But even if your local rag isn’t quite as long in the tooth as mine was, odds are its alumni are out in the wider world. I’ve pitched stories to former Charlahacks and shamelessly used our connection as an opener (most times they’re thrilled to hear from you – the downside is they’re more interested in the condition of the couches than whatever story you’re pitching); I landed one contract based almost entirely on my experience at a student paper – the hiring manager had worked at his own paper (from a rival school to boot) and decided he wanted to work with others like him. The Charlatan has a fledgling alumni network that includes heavy hitters in all walks of life. And if and when I cross paths with any of them, I’ve already got something to talk about.
1) You build relationships that last a lifetime.
By now, this one is probably a no-brainer. But I can’t say enough about the friendships (not to mention a marraige) I forged on the fifth floor. It’s tough to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it but once you’ve gone to the wall with a group of like-minded and passionate people, they stay with you forever. I hesitate to be so crass as to liken it to the brothers-in-arms effect many soliders experience but, for us at least, it’s not entirely dissimilar. Running a paper is a stressful, stressful job. We faced massive budget crunches (to the point that we had to discuss dropping a section at one point), two lawsuits (we came out on top in both) and countless angry and slighted sources, volunteers and members of the public at large. We had more than our share of 5s, 4s and 3s. Same thing when I was a section editor and volunteer. And we all lived to tell the tale. Over and over. Every time we meet. Which is often. My production manager is now my wife. A fellow section editor (from my first run through the paper) curls with me every Saturday. My best man on my wedding day used to be on the board of directors. Two former colleagues came to town with no notice and we dropped our plans to spend an entire evening talking, laughing and catching up with them. I flew to Edmonton and spent hours with Charlahacks I hadn’t seen in years and it was like we were back on those sketchy couches.
This post probably reeks of sentimentality. If you’ve never worked for a student paper you probably think I drank a little too much of the kool-aid (or Charlapop, as we called it). But if you have, I hope you can see yourself in this list. And if you’re still a student, give your paper a shot. It could end up being the best decision you ever made. It was for me.