This deal is getting worse all the time
Quick recap from Monday: I’m a disabled vet. I got vocational rehabilitation. I took the next-to-last work study job on campus, setting copy for the campus newspaper. I’ve just been offered and accepted a “promotion” to staff reporter. Unbeknownst to me, my advisor has bigger plans.
That should just about get you up to speed. Now let’s fast forward to six weeks later.
I was asked to go to Omaha with my classmates for a journalism workshop hosted by the prestigious Poynter Institute. I had a lot of fun, and I learned quite a bit of good stuff. But on the way back to Boone, Jan apparently saw her next opportunity.
“So Bob, are you going to join us again in the fall?” she asked. I answered that I had given it some serious consideration. I had an offer to be a lab assistant for my biology teacher, but I really didn’t feel like cleaning up after dissection labs.
In the end, I told her I would come back to be a reporter the next fall.
“That’s great, but you’re not going to be a reporter,” she said. “Since you will be the only returning member of our current staff, I thought I would make you the editor.”
[Insert screeching record needle sound here]
“That’s a scholarship position,” I protested. “You have to apply for it, and to apply for it, you have to be a journalism major. I’m a computer science major, and I’m really happy where I’m at.”
So for one year, the position of editor at the campus newspaper (today it’s called the Boone Banner, but when I was there, it still went by its original name, Bear Facts) became a work study position, paying $7.50 per hour for 20 hours a week. I don’t know if it ever did again, but I do know I was the first.
When I got my first job a few months later, I worked 40 hours a week, but the wage wasn’t much more than what I was paid as a work study at DMACC in Boone. If you ever wondered why we do our job, I can assure you it has almost nothing to do with pay, although we do need some kind of compensation to keep the roof over our heads and food on the table.
You could say we do it “for the love of the game.”
To help get me up to speed on “how” to be an editor, and to give me a little more practice in general assignment reporting, I spent the next summer session putting out a campus newsletter — we called it Bear Facts Lite — with a staff of two. I certainly learned a lot during those eight weeks, particularly that perhaps I had it all wrong about journalism in general and journalists specifically.
The following spring, I had a bright, shiny, new newsroom staff of 12, consisting of 10 freshmen straight out of high school who knew everything and wanted to impart their knowledge on the world. Basically, I had nine wannabe columnists and one wannabe sports writer, along with two seasoned veterans.
The first veteran was my former boss, the most recent former editor of the newspaper. She was absolutely certain the way she ran the newspaper was exactly the way it should be done, and whenever I deviated from how she used to do it, she felt compelled to let me know.
The second was the real treat in the bunch: a thrice-divorced single mother with two teenage children and a deeply rooted desire to get everyone to “go green” even before Al Gore made it popular (I think he was still busy putting the final touches on the Internet). Needless to say she was unfailingly angry with men — in a militant sort of way — and there was no bigger champion of environmentalism — in a rabid sort of way.
Oh, and they both thought they were entitled to write columns, too.
If you have never seen the movie “The Paper,” starring Michael Keaton, Glenn Close, Marissa Tomei and Robert Duval, I highly recommend it. But at one point, Duval’s character, the executive editor of a fictional New York City daily newspaper, laments the glut of columnists on his staff.
“I hate columnists! Why do I have all these columnists? I got political columnists, guest columnists, celebrity columnists. The only thing I don’t have is a dead columnist ... We reek of opinions. What every columnist at this paper needs to do is to [shut up],” he said.
I could sympathize (said the guy who’s now writing columns).
But, somehow, that ragtag bunch made me realize I had ink (soy based, as it were) flowing in my veins. So I went back to the VA to explain the situation and why I wanted to change my major to journalism.
My caseworker actually laughed when I told her. Then she pulled out the bubble test I took so many years before. She showed me where, at the bottom of the list, I had ranked journalism, based on my personality and interests.
I decided to impart some of my grandmother’s wisdom on her.
“Remember when your mother used to say, ‘Try it, you might like it,’ when you were a child?” I asked. “Well, I don’t like broccoli at all. But I never would know that if my mother hadn’t made me try it first.”
I had “tried” journalism (Yoda fans out there, please; I know “there is no try”) and I liked it. I wanted to do more of it, but I needed the VA’s blessing, or an alternative source of funding, to make it happen.
My caseworker said no. And when I pressed the point, she suddenly became unavailable, somehow unable to find me in the 100- by 250-foot student center (which usually had 10 or 15 students in it in the afternoons).
In response, and mainly to force my caseworker to acknowledge my existence, I did the unthinkable and stopped going to all of my classes and focused entirely on journalism, hoping she would finally show up for one of our bi-weekly meetings. She didn’t, and by the end of the next semester, I was on academic probation.
I was panicking about what to do. I wanted a job in journalism, and I was pretty sure most newspapers wouldn’t look at you if you didn’t have journalism degree. To get said degree, I needed to go to college. To go to college, I needed a revenue source to fund it, and my savings were pretty much tapped out.
Financial aid was all but impossible when on academic probation.
Late in that last semester at DMACC, I had the chance to meet one-on-one with the Pulitzer Prize winning editor of a daily newspaper not far from our campus. So, I asked for a little advice. He noted I had all but completed a full year as editor of my campus newspaper, from which I would get a glowing reference from my advisor, Jan LaVille.
“You don’t need to go to journalism school,” he said. “Most of what you need to learn can only be learned on the job. I hire folks for what they can do, not what a piece of paper says they supposedly know.”
So I applied for my first job — blindly.
I sent out my resume and a cover letter to every newspaper in Iowa. And when I say “every,” I mean it. The publisher who eventually hired me had five copies of my resume, four of which came from sister newspapers. Ironically enough, it was a newspaper owned by the very same man who suggested I forgo college and get a job.
In the intervening years, there have been several times when I have beat myself up for not going to college. And, when I speak to high school students about my line of work, I have never recommended going the route I took; it was difficult, especially in the beginning.
Then I think about how difficult it would have been to live on the salaries I made early in my career while saddled with thousands of dollars of college loan debt. After that, I wonder if I would have learned as much on the job, which has arguably gotten me where I’m at today, if I had become a college educated know-it-all (trust me, I would’ve been, had I gone on to complete my degree work).
I think I did OK.
If you’re reading this, thank a teacher. If you’re reading it in English, thank a soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine.
Bob Eschliman is editor of The Newton Daily News. His “Common Sense” column appears each Monday and Wednesday. He may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 423, or at email@example.com via email.
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