Lessons learned from my college newspaper

CAREER, JOURNALISM, NOTRE DAME, PUBLISHED WORK

Late nights. Early mornings. Not enough coffee in the world to keep you awake during that morning calculus class. It’s a story most college newspaper editors know well but would never change. We’re willing to put in the hours not only because of the close-knit community, one of the biggest draws, but because the skills you learn working for a college newspaper are invaluable across professional industries. Here are five reasons why.

You meet a wide range of people.

College is a bubble, but working on the paper exposes you to a wide range of people and viewpoints. During my four years on The Observer at Notre Dame, I interviewed a British literary scholar, the Chief Marketing Officer of Subway, the University president and the only Orthodox Jewish student on campus. Reaching beyond the bubble has huge value later on in the working world.

You get used to criticism.

Most professors at Notre Dame weren’t outwardly critical of my writing, focusing on what I could do better instead of what I did wrong. While I appreciated this approach in my classes, criticism is an unavoidable aspect of the professional world and life in general. My freshman year, I remember the first article I received back from my editor was completely covered in red ink, entire sections crossed out. I probably went home and cried that night, but soon learned not take things so personally (and that criticism helps you improve).

You master the art of succinct writing.

I used to think the phrase “writing is an art” meant I could use an unlimited number of words to make things sound beautiful. Now I believe that regardless of the writing form, every single word needs to have a purpose. Working on the paper taught me to boil down stories to their very core, write conversationally and include only the most powerful quotes. All of this prepared me well for a career in digital media.

You get comfortable leading conversations.

Most people love talking about themselves. Once you learn that, asking questions and leading conversations isn’t all that hard. When I started out as a reporter, I was scared to even place a call to a stranger. I read and reread my emails 10 times before requesting an interview. But with experience, I gained the confidence to assert myself during interviews, pursue contacts and ask the tougher questions.

You learn to work well under pressure.

Some of my most stressful days in college, I was under deadline for an article on the same day I had a major test. I spent free moments calling sources and writing while simultaneously trying to memorize history or statistics formulas. The Observer demanded everything of you, and you had to figure out how not to let your grades slip. It took years, but I learned to stay calm and trust that everything would get done (and that the world wouldn’t end if it didn’t).

I loved being an English major at Notre Dame. But truthfully, none of my classes stand out to me years later the way my days and nights spent in The Observer office do. While I nurtured my love for literature through my major, the newspaper that gave me the hands-on, practical education I needed to jump into the real world after graduation.

In the end, I’m thankful for the sleepless nights and overconsumption of chocolate. The Observer was the best (free) course I took at Notre Dame.

*This column was originally published in The Observer 

Advertisements

The 42nd Street Hawker

NYC, PUBLISHED WORK

mcdonalds

Author’s Note: This essay received honorable mention in Notre Dame Magazine’s 2013 Young Alumni Essay contest. It was first published at magazine.nd.edu.

I have walked past Geoff nearly every day for a year.

After getting off the bus in Midtown Manhattan, I need to cut two avenues east and seven blocks north. I always choose the path that goes down 42nd Street that passes Geoff.

Forty-second Street at 9 a.m. is one of the black diamonds of New York terrain. Commuters and tourists alike unload from buses at Port Authority — the busiest bus terminal in the world — and mix like oil and water on the streets. They mostly move in one direction, streaming through the city’s concrete arteries towards Times Square, its thumping heart.

I hit my stride as I walk down 42nd, expertly swimming through the crowds, spying then slipping into open pockets of space. I pass a glorified McDonald’s with a glittering golden arch, breakfast lines spilling onto the sidewalk. Pop music blasts from the “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!” museum and larger-than-life video screens compete with the morning sun.

pics2

But as I approach the corner of 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue, a single man’s voice soars above the drone of music, cars and construction.

“Haaaave a great Monday! Enjoy that job!”

It’s Geoff, standing there in his usual spot beside the 42nd Street subway entrance. He’s handing out AM New York, a free daily newspaper popular with commuters. Geoff is a hawker, stationed at this high-traffic location and paid to deliver the paper to anyone who walks by.

“Enjoy your work, young lady! Have a great morning on your job!”

Geoff is different from other hawkers, though. He’s never aggressive, never thrusts the paper at your face, and always tells you to have a good day.

Geoff puts his entire body into the greeting, first making eye contact, then smiling and bouncing on his feet before shaking his fist in a way that says go tackle that day.Sometimes, I wonder if he thinks his job is getting New Yorkers to smile.

“Happy hump day! Knock out your work!”

Geoff looks to be in his mid-forties. He wears a red vest and baseball cap and sets his eyeglasses perched precariously on his forehead. He’s never fazed by the swarms of people coming out of the subway or the pounding music from nearby tourist traps. For hours he yells over it all.

“Only eighteen hours till Friday! Come on, you know it. That’s all we got.”

The smiles Geoff gives often go unrequited. Once in a while, someone will emerge from the subway and greet him. How ya doin’, my man? How bout them Giants? But many ignore him — absorbed in phone conversations — or take a paper without saying anything at all.

Months after I started passing “the man who hands out the papers,” I finally asked his name. It was one morning in August when the clouds hung thickly overhead but the crowds on the street were thin. People anxiously gripped their umbrellas, prepared for the oncoming downpour. It seemed like the right time to approach him, but I felt nervous for some reason, nervous to go from just another young lady to an acquaintance.

He handed me the paper.

“Thanks,” I said. “Excuse me, what’s your name?”

“Geoff,” he replied, a slight questioning tone in his voice.

“Geoff, thanks for being so…” I didn’t immediately have words to describe what I was thanking him for, but he understood. He smiled and fist-bumped me. After a few moments I turned around and looked back through the bustling crowds, catching Geoff’s eye. He was still smiling and waving at me from 50 yards away.

The scene is so absurd. It’s 9 a.m. in New York City and thousands of people rush, straight faced, to wherever they need to be. And then there’s Geoff, relentlessly happy, sending sparks of enthusiasm to anyone who walks by. For the most part, those greetings fall short of passersby, evaporating quickly on the hot, hostile concrete. But every once in a while, someone turns and smiled.

One day, a little old man, no taller than five foot four, struggled to make his way east down 42nd Street. Surrounded by Times Square lights, this man’s life just seemed dim. Briefcases, heels and tourists in matching T-Shirts rushed by him — yet he and his wobbling cane seemed to exist alone in the crowd.

“Have a great day, young man!” Geoff called out from beneath the subway awning.“Have a great day!” The man didn’t look up. He didn’t react. He just kept pushing forward, step by step by step.

I waited to see if he would turn around. He was likely a veteran New Yorker who had long ago learned to ignore the white noise of hawkers.

New Yorkers like him don’t believe in acknowledging hawkers. Street salesmen are everywhere, calling the same things, blending into the drone of the city. Maybe he feared letting in one hawker meant letting in them all, and he was too old, too weak to fend off these intruders of personal space.

He never turned.

I wondered how many people like Geoff I pass each day, but disregard in my hurry — how many faces and voices get lost among the city’s sights and sounds.

Farewell, Toledo.

LIFE, NEWS

On May 25 I arrived in Toledo,  Ohio, a city where I knew no one and didn’t remotely know my way around.  On August 12 I left, knowing the city more intimately than I could have imagined, but not coming close to feeling like it was “home.”

From the rooftop of my apartment building in Toledo. Photo courtesy of Enoch Wu.

When I first arrived in Toledo I had a difficult time getting a sense for the city. I saw oversized banks, tall buildings, and wide streets. I saw litter rolling through the roads and candy wrappers melting into the tar. I saw crooked “For Sale” signs hanging in dusty windows.

I did not see people.

I soon realized that downtown Toledo is a divided area. People who arrive in suits at 9 a.m. are privileged. People hanging out at the bus stops, on benches or in front of the library are not. The downtown empties out after 6 p.m. — the suits file into their cars, turn down the road and go off to their respective suburbs. In an hour, the banks are just looming, vacant towers, too big and strong for the city. The parking lots are open spaces filled with broken glass — like no one was ever there.

Parking lot between The Blade and my apartment building.

Since my apartment was downtown, I straddled the boundary between those who work in Toledo and those who actually live there. Sometimes after working a late shift I’d walk the two blocks home, past people with ripped backpacks sitting indefinitely on bus stop benches. I walked briskly but couldn’t escape the stares — my pencil skirt and heels gave me away from the moment I stepped onto the sidewalk. It was pretty clear what “side” I was on.

Here are some things I didn’t expect from Toledo:

Safety issuesBefore coming to Toledo I knew it wasn’t the safest of places. My mom had done her fair share of research and her fair share of worrying. But I knew I wasn’t as naive as she thought — as long as I was careful everything would be fine.

While everything was fine, and I lived in the nicer area of downtown, I didn’t expect to have to be on guard every time I was walking alone after dusk or early in the morning. I’ve lived in places with crime before, but I usually felt safe as long as there were people around. The lack of people in Toledo was pretty unsettling.

A major street in downtown Toledo at 8 p.m. No cars in sight.

For some time my roommate would go on runs outside our apartment — in broad daylight during the work day — until a complete stranger approached her in the apartment elevator and told her to stop. It was too dangerous. We were pretty shocked the woman had gone out of her way to say that. After that we rarely walked anywhere within a few blocks of our apartment, and definitely did not walk around at night.

No grocery stores. I lived in the downtown, the center of the city, and there was not a single grocery store within walking distance. The closest things were little shops that sell candy, soda, bread, and canned goods.  These mini marts don’t have meat, produce, eggs, or milk, are only open during weekdays, and have kind of irregular hours.

“Real” grocery stores (Walmart, Meijer, Kroger, and Target) are all a fifteen minute drive away.

The mini mart across the street from my apartment.

While living in Toledo I saw firsthand the irony of  “food deserts,” or areas lacking healthy, affordable food. Northwest Ohio is one of the agricultural centers of the country, yet some Toledoans living just miles from the farms had no access to fresh food, surviving off high calorie, processed foods and 95 cent Burger King burgers. At 29.6%, Ohio has the 13th highest obesity rate in the country, according to an annual report put out by Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Food deserts like Toledo’s certainly don’t help that situation.

Boredom. My definition of “bored” is not being busy. I don’t think I understood what true boredom was until I had to drive through poorer parts of Toledo, where I saw that boredom wasn’t a state of mind but a state of being. People live for each day because there isn’t a future . The swimming pools in Toledo were closed a few years ago to prevent gang violence, but now young people have nowhere to go in the thick of the summer. Instead they drink outside mini marts and walk leisurely right in front of cars. They sit on their front porches in silence, shirtless and shoeless, watching the sky change from blue to gray to black.

Taken while on assignment at an arson fire in Toledo. Arson flared up in East Toledo this summer but also has spread to other neighborhoods.

In the newsroom, the scanner day after day called out shootings, robberies, and arson fires. The cops reporter was constantly running in and out of the office. There were 27 shootings during the month of June alone.

It’s been a hot summer. There are no jobs. Sweat and boredom are a deadly mix.

So much news. Toledo may feel like a small city but there was always something going on. Working for the City Desk I covered a range of stories, including robberies and shootings, a poetry festival, car show, gay pride march, controversial city investments and school board meetings. My job took me through bad areas, nice areas, to beautiful islands, the shores of Lake Erie, and sleepy towns I’d never heard of. I drove through miles and miles of  flat land and cornfields. I got lost, but my GPS always took me back.

I may have been out of my comfort zone, but that only made me a better reporter. I was homesick but would never trade the experience.

Sunset from the rooftop of my apartment building.

On May 25 I arrived. On August 12 I left. Lots of articles, interviews, coffee, crime, heat, hamburger joints, farmland, and a pretty cool newspaper experience in between.

Thanks to all the wonderful people I met along the way — you’ve given me a lot to write about.

You can check out my Toledo Blade story archive here.