My career is in digital media now, and I’m grateful for that. But my younger self romanticized the notion of being a newspaper journalist. Almost 20 years later, the university student I edited is celebrating 100 years of publication and digitization of its archive. Its tradition may not be yet be gone with the wind, but is certainly being buffeted by modern reality. Here are my thoughts looking back on that time.]
As a painfully introverted Northwestern State University pre-forestry major in 1990, I made one of those classic freshman errors that changes the direction of one’s life forever. In my case, it was taking Intro to Mass Comm class as an elective, a move that derailed any dreams of making a career among trees and not people. Following one class, instructor Tom Whitehead declared I should be writing for the paper and that he was sending me to meet the Current Sauce editor in the journalism suite.
I couldn’t immediately think of an excuse not to, which destined me to spend the remainder of my college life working in the “J-Lab.” It was a indeed a laboratory where an experimental tradition of combined curiosity, tenacity and vision manifested in journalism that reflected ourselves as much as the world around us.
My time as editor-elect was when I first discovered my life’s purpose, though the emergence of social media a decade later that would finally give form to it. It was a time of dreaming about what my paper might be like, and exploring the wonder of historical perspective by looking back through the archives dating back to the earliest Current Sauce issues —identifying the best parts of its legacy, and evolving them with a new generation of writers and editors.
Our “experiments” were published on Tuesday morning, usually after a bleary all-nighter. Still we all anticipated noon, when we could savor a printed copy of our creation. The savoring slowly turned to stewing with each typo found leading up to 3 o’clock. For that was the appointed hour we assembled on that stickiest of all wickets—Media Writing Class, which began with the gang …er,.. group critique of the paper led by Dr. Sara Burroughs. If you are familiar with the character of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice, you have a sense of Dr. Burroughs.
Indeed, a weekly beating with a cricket bat would have been the quicker and less painful experience than those critiques. They examined every possible element of journalistic decision making that went into the issue—style, tone, grammar, placement, length and even design. The most thorough contributions came from classmates who had not (nor even cared to) write for the newspaper. The experience introduced me to the nuance of three critical career lessons:
- Fight fearlessly for the things that matter.
- Recognize a stalemate and change the conversation if you can.
- Take it on the chin when it’s due but always keep moving forward.
The beauty of the critiques is that they inspired more determination than defeat. If there was one thing wish I could have done better, it would have been to learn these lessons earlier in my college career and express much more gratitude for my co-editors both as people and as journalists capable of leading the paper in their own right. The talent, work ethic and diversity we had on staff that year was a source of endless conflict, but a profoundly rare gift.
We blew off steam like all proper journalism nerds—with more work. On publishing a tabloid “April Fools” insert along with the regular 12-page broadsheet, Tommy congratulated me on producing the most expensive issue of the Current Sauce ever. I congratulated him on witnessing publication of the Current Sauce’s finest edition ever. Around that time the editorial staff road tripped to Atlanta for the SSPJ conference where the Current Sauce was in competition for the first time. For all our bravado, no one was more shocked that us when we took home several awards, including an honorable mention for best overall newspaper.
We were fortunate to share one more unexpected and gratifying moment that meant more than an award. It was the end of the spring semester and the editorial staff were visibly worse for wear when we assembled for one of our last meetings. Suddenly, Dr. Burroughs appeared in the office—the first time I could recall seeing her in the suite. “This was an exceptional year for the paper,” she said. “Certainly, we’ve torn it to pieces every week, but I just wanted you all to know that.” With a wink she was off, like St. Nick.
Nearly 20 years later, I’ve worked in the digital media space in Center City Philadelphia, and am about to embark on a new adventure in Miami Beach. Two very different cultural environments than where I came from, yet I still find the lessons from that time enduring and influential. The cycles of experimentation and evolution, and the continual refinement finding one’s place in the world can be painful, but they are the ingredients of a legacy that spans generations.
As part of the celebration of the newspaper’s 100th year, Northwestern State University scanned every issue of the Current Sauce and recently put them on archive.org. Here’s the newspaper from my year as editor of “The Sauce.” What wonderful memories!