Monday, May 14, 2007

What I Learned In College

This weekend I’ll be attending a college newspaper reunion. My former college editor sent an e-mail, asking all of us to write personal stories of our experience at the college newspaper and how it helped shaped us for the real world.

I’m actually pretty stumped because I did learn a lot from the two college newspapers that I belong too.

My first college newspaper was called The Dome, at Widener University in Chester, Pa.

As a freshmen, I didn’t report on normal college stories about scholarships. No, because the university was in Chester, a little city known for its crime, I did stories about a student who allegedly (believe me, there was no “allegedly”) kidnapped his former girlfriend and drove her to a Motel 8 in Maryland and allegedly (again, no “allegedly”) tried to smother her to death with a motel pillow. And once she escaped, tried to run her down. Allegedly.

It was a good story because when I spoke to the girl, she was OK. I even spoke with the accused while he was in a Baltimore juvenile detention center. I admit, I was proud of myself. I beat out a few local media outlets with that story. None of them took the time to speak with the alleged (*cough*cough*) attacker. But one thing I’ll always remember about speaking to him was what he said to me. He said that the incident might be a life lesson, since he was a criminal law major.

After my sophomore year, I transferred to Rider University, in Lawrenceville, NJ, and became a staff member at The Rider News. Actually, Rider was my first choice but I wasn’t accepted but I was the spring of 1998. And who says you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression?

Rider was very different from Widener. For one thing, no one was kidnapping their girlfriends. Again, allegedly. But I had a lot of fun being the Op-Ed editor. And the fraternities, bless their drunken little souls, certainly gave all of us at the newspaper plenty of ammo.

One time, the school’s fraternity/sorority advisor called up the newspaper a week before Christmas, saying that one of the fraternity boys, who was a journalism major, wrote a story about a local Christmas tree farmer who was being victimized with pranks.

Well, your’s truly picked up that phone on that fateful evening and went over to the advisor’s office. I read the article, using the term so loosely it should fall out of this column. It was a small, one-sided story with a lot of holes in it. But a bell went off in my head and I decided to call this farmer up.

Boy, it was interesting to hear his side of the story. Someone stole one of his Christmas trees and he called the police, if I remember correctly. The farmer and the boys in blue followed the trail of pine needles from his farm all the way to the lounge of one of the frat houses. And guess what? That frat boy who wrote that article? Yep, you guessed it, he belonged to that fraternity where that Christmas tree was displayed.

Well, I wrote a little editor’s note under the story, which my editor decided to run as a letter since it didn’t have any qualifications of a real news story. (You know, objectivity and truthfulness.)

The guy called up the newspaper the day after the issue ran and once again, I picked up the phone. (You see, I spent more time in that office than I did in my classes.) Let’s just say he wasn’t happy with the newspaper and I told him what a disgrace he was for even being a journalism major.

So, here I am, trying to think which lesson or experience that really helped me in my career as a journalist. I guess there is one important lesson:

We had a female reporter whose beat was to speak with the dean of students at Rider University every week to see what was up. (At the time, we didn't realize how much she admired the dean.) When he was first hired, I interviewed him and he promised an open-door policy to all students.

Well, we found out a student had a list of complaints and wanted to take it up with the dean. Now, at college, every student complains about his or her campus but usually does nothing about it. So, this female reporter and I (and I don’t really remember why I went, since I was the Op-Ed editor by this time) wanted to sit in on this meeting. The dean said no and kicked us out, closing the door behind him.

I explained what happened with my editor and after a meeting with senior staff, it was decided the dean needed to be reprimanded with a fiery editorial, by your’s truly.

Well, all hell broke loose when the female reporter barged into the newsroom and yelled the riot act to me and the editor in front of the entire newspaper staff because of the editorial attack on her beloved dean. With tears in her eyes, she stormed out of the newsroom and slammed the door shut.

My editor and good friend taught me one important lesson at that very moment that none of my journalism professors ever taught me in four and a half years of college: He turned to me and said:

“Tony, there’s no crying in newspapers.”