Lessons from The Greyhound

Last week I finished my tenure as Editor in Chief of The Greyhound, Loyola University Maryland’s student-run newspaper. During my time there, I served as columnist, copy editor, news staff writer, Opinions Editor, Copy Chief and Managing Editor, all before taking over as Editor in Chief in April 2010.

I inherited a paper that completed the bare minimum to put out a print product every week, an aggravating fact given the extremely privileged position in which college newspapers nationwide find themselves. (They’re niche markets, for chrissakes–no advertising falling off there.) Our stories were stale; we covered lectures, and reports on campus events were boring re-tellings of what happened. Our website was stagnant and one-dimensional; it was, essentially, an article dump. We had no social media strategy, no policy on how often staff writers needed to contribute articles, no copy editing standards (no attention to fact checking as an integral piece of copy editing), and seemingly no interest in producing articles of feature length or quality.

In a year’s time, with the help of a dedicated and talented staff, we implemented significant changes at The Greyhound, including:

  1. A website redesign and relaunch, facilitated by College Media Network and College Publisher 5 content management system.*
  2. Social media presence–Facebook, Twitter–using HootSuite’s excellent dashboard interface.
  3. Ticket giveaways to concerts via our PR contacts at Rams Head Live! in Baltimore; we started off giving away two pairs of tickets to see The Roots.
  4. Full-page, color front pages, which effectively removed columns of text from the front page of our print product. (An aesthetic choice, admittedly, but one we made–despite the “tabloid” feel and association–because we didn’t think students would be more apt to pick up a large photo than columns of black and white text.)
  5. Several feature stories, in various sections of the paper, that broadened our content and coverage, and allowed us to view the print paper less as a round-up of the week’s events and instead treat it as a weekly magazine. (In other words, lectures were now online-only content, and we reserved paper space for more interesting, more in-depth coverage of other stories.) One such story, printed as an insert, was our Greyhound Guide to Baltimore.
  6. One of these feature stories, a profile on basketball player Jamal Barney, was subsequently picked as a Mark of Excellence Award winner by the Virginia Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
  7. Better management of our budget, a sore spot among Greyhound staffs of old. There was no soliciting or courting of advertisers; that ended this year, as we worked with our contacts at advertising “clearing houses” like Alloy Media to pull in advertising, in addition to our own proactive efforts to contact local businesses. (For instance, after reaching out to clothing store South Moon Under with a media kit, they began an advertising campaign with us.) Beyond that, we partnered with CampusAve to streamline classified advertising placement and to take the entire process online, which allowed advertisers to use their credit card to purchase ad space. (A first at The Greyhound.)
  8. Actual copy editing, with a Greyhound style guide outlining our house style.

I make these points not in a self-aggrandizing effort, but rather to highlight the opportunities college newspapers have to truly be laboratories of journalism. Like their professional counterparts, college newspapers oftentimes stay mired in the status quo, unwilling or unable to implement substantive, innovative change.

That has to end. The new Greyhounders coming in need to view the paper–in both its print and online forms–as an incubator for journalistic creativity and innovation…

It begins with putting a premium on your online content. Divide stories into online-only and print stories. Seek to publish at least one new article each day on the website. Hire bloggers who are feisty social media junkies to write online-only content. View the website as a means by which readers can be more involved in the campus conversation. This means encouraging people to check out the site, and then being open to commenters and engaging in dialogue with them.

Photos and videos. Rinse. Repeat. All digital cameras have a record function. Thirty-second video clips of live events go a long way in enhancing a reader’s experience; iMovie software is simple enough to understand, and it’s available in the Mac labs on campus. Photo albums–ones rife with photos, and not just three or four additional shots–should assist a reader looking to grasp a better sense of the surroundings in a particular story.

Everyone is a web editor. Everyone should be on Facebook and Twitter. Every editor should be running a section blog. Every editor–and all the writers–should take their cameras to each event they attend. The new “New New Journalism” places greater emphasis on having a conversation with readers. No longer can newspapers see their audience as people they are speaking to; social media and online commenting have broken those boundaries. Get online, and get to talking to people who read The Greyhound.

Take chances. Think of stories you want to cover, and then cover them. Working for a college newspaper gives you a unique chance to mess up and not ruin yourself professionally. That isn’t to say be unethical, plagiarize, or manufacture a story or information. But it is to say that you can try out various story ideas and see if they work. You’ll never learn otherwise.

Finally: have one editor learn WordPress, teach it to the other editors, and then make the switch. Because WordPress is open source, newsrooms have greater flexibility to create, manipulate, and transform their online operations, without the hassle of negotiating through a third-party organization. That, and WordPress is simple enough for everyone to use and infinitely more cost-efficient given College Media Network’s new pricing plan. Look for newspaper WordPress themes online, and let the gears start churning.

As pithy as this sounds, making the above changes isn’t going to easy, but it will be rewarding in the long run. Not only will you put out a better Greyhound, but you’ll cultivate skills on a level of creativity that is absolutely vital to the newsrooms of today.

And always remember: When the going gets tough, you can always keep drinking. If it’s spring, get the gin and tonic. In the fall, stick to Jack and Coke. And the winter? Hot toddy.

*While I’m on the subject of content management systems… After some slight technical upheaval with my blog here, I am back to posting. The post I promised for Monday will be uploaded tomorrow. On Friday, I’ll rant on what being a section editor at a newspaper means.

Tweet time

I had a fairly engaging conversation the other day with a Baltimore media professional regarding how to draw and drive traffic to media websites. (Particularly, how to do so for print media with complementary and supplementary Web platforms.)

Invariably, the conversation trended toward employing social media for the aforementioned purpose: Twitter, Facebook, throwing laptops at unwitting bystanders while zooming down St. Paul Street, windows open, chanting “Look at our site! NOW!” And while the magazine this person is editor of has taken great strides to embellish and improve its web presence–a site redesign, an entire social media platform where there was none*–some critical components are still missing, components that can apply universally to multiple print media with complementary websites.

1. Twitter needs to be a conversation. Think of Twitter as a face-to-face conversation, except done online. (Yeah, yeah, social media and texting is tearing our world asunder. On Monday, look to ‘The Sound of My Own Voice’ for necessary counseling and guidance.**) You wouldn’t have a conversation with a friend saying, “Andrew magazine published an article on how to wear a bow tie. Read it here: [insert link].” (No, there is no such thing as ‘Andrew magazine.’ Unfortunately.) You shouldn’t do that on Twitter. Engage with other users. Embrace the @ tag. Use hashtags. Conversations on Twitter need to be just that–a dialogue, not a one-sided monologue (or diatribe). And while there is a time and place for shameless self-promotion–the time, all the time, and the place, well, Twitter–readers want to know why your article is so important for them. On Twitter, you can do that.

2. Blog every day…especially if you run a media website. Your online platform should not be seen as a dump for all your print content. That defeats the purpose of having a website. Make some content Web-only; make some content for Web and print; and make some content print only (and then release it one month later on your website).

3. Digg yourself a hole: Create a niche for your publication on the Internet. Show people there is a reason you exist. You can do that through Digg (or Reddit, or StumbleUpon, or a variety of other sites with similar functions). Today, media is segmented, parsed, and picked by readers. So saying you are a music and arts magazine, for instance, is too broad. But showing online readers that you have extensive coverage on a specific new band gives people a reason to gravitate to your online articles. (And it’s a great way to more narrowly define the scope of your print product so that your articles are more focused.)

Admittedly, none of this is overwhelmingly new. Especially in 2011. But a social media strategy of any kind should have a deeper purpose than just, “Everyone else is doing it.”

*As of this Sunday, my tenure as Editor in Chief of The Greyhound comes to a bittersweet ending. I’ll be offering reflections, advice and tips I’ve learned–some of which speak directly to my experiences crafting a social media strategy–on Tuesday.

**Read the blog Monday, but make no mistake, we’re all doomed. Time to embrace, in the words of my good friend Anthony Gerolamo, post-modern existential nihilistic tendencies.

Repeat after me

In August 2010, after I had finished writing the first draft of what would ultimately become my College magazine cover story on Mike Posner, my boss, Amanda Nachman, sent the draft off to Brian Cognato, a former editor in chief of College and a high school colleague of mine.

In his edits, Brian zeroed in on things like my using the word “pleads” as a substitute for “said.” At the time, I thought I was bucking an annoying journalistic trend while being genuinely inventive by describing Posner’s speech as pleading rather than boring saying.

For as much praise as Brian had to bestow–praise, I still think, given the final version of the story, I don’t fully deserve–what I learned most from his careful editing is a mantra I carry with me today, and try to employ in everything I write:

Write economically and write precisely.

Writing is an exercise in concision and precision. Always simplify. Always cut. If you can use one word to say what you’re trying to say in three words, lose the two extra words. This is overwhelmingly important in all journalistic writing, because word counts are finite. Not a single word can be wasted.

What, then, are the tenets of writing economically and precisely?

1. Prioritize description: When you’re writing with limited space, you must understand that not every single detail needs describing. Forget what your writing teachers of old taught you. Description is indeed good, but too much of it wastes space. Remember–if you used three words to describe the leather jacket someone wears, those are three fewer words you have to describe how raspy someone’s voice is.

2. Avoid cliche: Self-explanatory. At one point in my initial Posner draft, I used the phrase “newly minted” to characterize him as a musical artist. Brian shot that down quick, pointing out to me that “newly minted” gives the impression that Posner has just come off a coin press in some factory. “Newly minted” is a cliche (and a horrible one at that, if we assume there are any good cliches). When have you ever heard anyone say “newly minted” in conversation?

3. Check your ego (or, Simplify, simplify): As a writer, it is your job to find the word that means precisely what you’re trying to say. Don’t get grabby with a thesaurus because using big words inflates your sense of self. If you mean to say new, say new. Also, don’t over-write a situation. At one point in my Posner draft, I wrote that Posner prodded Kanye West for an impromptu review. Brian, again, singled out what he saw as shoddy writing: did Posner really “prod” Kanye for an “impromptu review,” or was Posner just curious as to whether Kanye liked his song?

Always simplify. Always cut. All writing is an exercise in concision and precision.

Reconsider this: you cannot “return” players

It has been roughly two months since I began my foray into the world of semi-professional copy editing at the Baltimore Sun. (I say semi-professional because I’m just an intern.) But, despite my intern status, certain points of journalistic writing and style nevertheless aggravate the hell out of me.

The latest literary agitation comes to me courtesy of sports writers. (No, I don’t hate sports writers or sports sections; I just hate how sports writers sometimes write.) The following is a classic example of the type of “journalese” that John McIntyre—witty, bespectacled, curmudgeonly veteran of the Baltimore Sun‘s copy desk—verbally trounces. (At least, I think…)

“The [insert team's name] return [insert player's name] for a second season.”

E.g.: The Eagles return Mike Vick for a second season.

Two points to note here:

1. Invariably, in journalism, writers should always look to write more colloquially than “journalistically.” Saying “Sen. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.)” is always more clunky than saying “Democratic Sen. Steny Hoyer,” or “Maryland’s Democratic Sen. Steny Hoyer.” As a journalist, your job is to disseminate information in a logical, organized and easily digestible format.

2. Nonetheless, I have never heard even the most avid sports-buff friends of mine use “return” as a verb in the above context. People will say “Mike Vick is coming back for a second season,” or “Mike Vick returns for a second season,” or “Mike Vick will be returning,” but never do I hear people say “The Eagles return Mike Vick.” My next question, upon hearing that, is to ask where they are returning him. To the supermarket? The department store? Outside the NFL draft, is there a special store that houses players in hermetically-sealed packaging before throwing them on an AstroTurf field to live their lives in states of football-induced concussive bliss?

Call it a pet peeve, but this is my blog, dammit. So for the sake of all of us, please return “[Team name] return [player name]” constructions to the depths of the journalese vault.

Marks of excellence

I learned Friday that I am the recipient of two, Region 2 Mark of Excellence Awards for student journalists. These awards, bestowed on aspiring journalists by the Society of Professional Journalists, recognize student journalism in a variety of categories.

The first award is for a non-fiction magazine article, which I won for my College magazine story, “Getting Under Annmarie Nitti’s Skin: It’s More Than Swimsuits and Lingerie for This College Model.” Read that story here.

The second award is for feature writing, which I and co-author Rich Conforti won for our Greyhound newspaper profile, “Who is Jamal Barney? From the Blacktops of Baltimore to the Hardwood of Reitz Arena, Jamal Barney is on His Game.” Read that story here.

Does it go with tobacco? (Part 2)

Zero other option.

In case you had any doubts—yes, knives, swords, and airsoft guns ALL go with tobacco.

What doesn’t go with tobacco—or camping, for that matter—is rain. Both our attempts at camping during this Southland excursion have been foiled by Mother Nature and her insatiable thirst for relegating us to Travelodges. (Which, according to Sean, only maintain two shower settings: Molten Lava Hot, and Holy-Crap-I-Think-My-Manhood-Just-Ended-Up-In-My-Stomach Cold.)

Camping canceled due to lack of hustle . . . and dry ground.

I’m glad I’m still in Dixie

Today marks Day 5 of our Tour de Force through the former Confederacy. We’ve drunk moonshine at 11 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, Jack Daniel’s sippin’ whiskey at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, and have bathed in more foreign showers than should be legally allowed (at least, at the Federal level).

Thus far, we’ve had to fill up Seanny G’s Honda CR-V four different times, but we’re averaging roughly 27 miles to the gallon. (Not bad for a gas guzzler.) And at the 1,244-miles-driven mark, we’re finally making our way out of the Volunt(eer)-ary (Association) State and heading to sweet Georgia . . . Geoorrgiaa.

Naturally, to get to Savannah, we’re driving into North Carolina, and then traveling south on I-95. I knew there was a reason I loved Google Maps. . . .

Also, be sure to check in tomorrow for Part 2 of our ongoing road-trip series, “Does it go with tobacco?” For Part 1, head here.

(Traveler’s Tip: If you take your own road trip to Tennessee, we strongly recommend a stop off at Gatlinburg. Not only will you be treated to three complimentary shots of moonshine at 11 in the morning—“Burns all the way down, fellers”—but you’ll have the opportunity to drive through the Smoky Mountain Range. Why is that important? Consult Exhibit 1, below.)

Exhibit 1

(N.B.: Pay attention to the fact that we said drive through the Smoky Mountains. Not hike through. Drive. The reason? Well, consult Exhibit 2, below.)

Exhibit 2

Ole Smoky Moonshine

Moonshine. It’s not illegal. That’s all I really have to say. It’s not illegal, and if there is a heaven out there, it’s located in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Try Ole Smoky’s Apple Pie moonshine, and you’ll forget it’s only 40 proof. (No, really.) But the White Lightnin’ is 100 proof, and it burns all the way down. Nothing like the smell of napalm in your throat in the morning….

Jasper Newton Daniel…

…was such a stubborn badass that he went out because of a nasty case of gangrene. The man who registered the U.S. of A.’s oldest (registered) distillery in 1866 couldn’t open his safe one morning, and so all 5-foot-2 of him threw his left big toe into the safe.

Too bad his toe broke.

Poor old Jack couldn’t face the embarrassment of telling anyone he had broken his toe on his safe. So he didn’t. Then he contracted gangrene. Then it spread to his ankle. Then to his leg. And then he died in 1909.

But let not your heart be troubled! The grand old Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee, still mashes and charcoal distills the best Tennessee sippin’ whiskey in the world. Of course, Moore County, the distillery’s home, is a dry county, and the distillery is the only place in county where purchasing a little Gentleman Jack isn’t illegal. But that’s just an excuse for you to drive 13 hours to a whiskey distillery.

(And the Federal government collects $14 million in taxes from them each year. So drink more Jack Daniel’s, and let’s get this economic recovery rolling.)

Does it go with tobacco? (Part 1)

The fourth day of wreaking havoc this week across America’s Southland commences. As of this morning, the road-tripping guru, Sean, and I have traversed some 1,200 miles: thirteen hours from Baltimore to Nashville; two days in Nashville; and then a stopover at the Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg before heading to Gatlinburg.

To commemorate the occasion—that is, getting to another stop in Tennessee with all four of our tires still intact—we bring you part one of a three part series on what in the South pairs best with, yes, tobacco.

Cowboys from Kalamazoo

You just spent 13 hours in a car. You had to spend 20 extra dollars per night on your accommodation, ‘cause there was no way in hell you were camping outside Nashville on rain-soaked soil. You had to resort to a Howard Johnson . . . “resort.” But wait! Howard Johnson’s personal driver, Hakim, comes and picks you up in a black SUV with leather-upholstered seats. And just before you leave the parking lot, Hakim gets a call from these two guys—blue jeans, khaki shirts, belt buckles, 10-gallon hats—who hop into the vehicle just before we head out…

Cowboy 1: “Joachim! Joachim, we gotta get some p-ssy!”
Cowboy 2:
“Man, I wanna f–k!”
“Are you guys drunk?”
Cowboy 1:
“Well, we were drinking earlier. Then we came back and sobered up.”
“Well that’s debatable.”
Cowboy 1:
“Yeah, but now we’re drinking again anyway. Hey, Joachim! Get us some p-ssy! And some cocaine!”

[One of Hakim’s “women” calls him. Cowboy 2 reaches for the phone, grabs it, and starts spitting game.]

Cowboy 2: “Hey, girl! Give me some p-ssy!”
Phone girl:
“Who is this?”
Cowboy 2:
“My name’s Gator. You know, like alligator . . . I wanna f–k!”

Cowboy 1 and Gator went to Coyote Ugly. Supposedly.

So, drunken cowboys from Kalamazoo who shout sexist slanders indiscriminately and somewhat indecipherably? Definitely goes with tobacco. Try an Ashton Cabinet No. 13.

Jack and Coke

Too easy. Jack and Coke always goes with tobacco. In Nashville, stumble your way on over to the Flying Saucer. The first thing you’ll notice is that you can smoke inside this restaurant’s dining room (well, the dining room that shares space with the bar area). The second thing you’ll notice is a glass-paneled cabinet protecting a fairly impressive selection of smoking implements that may or may not give you cancer. For one night, it’s a risk you’ll have to take; buy a tedsmadebyhand Churchill, and you’ll forget you have the Jack and Coke in your hand.

Bacon Old Fashioned

Anything with bacon goes with cigars. If you’re drinking a Bacon Old Fashioned, you might as well be double-fisting . . . cigars. Tucked away near 18th Avenue in Nashville sits The Patterson House, a posh, swanky gem of a watering hole that possesses so much turn-of-the-century class that I’m ashamed to use the tired cliché of “watering hole” to describe it. Wood paneling, muted lighting, bartenders wearing waistcoats and ties, and the best damn grilled cheese you can buy to go along with an 11-dollar cocktail. And while you cannot smoke in The Patterson House, everything about the place goes with tobacco.

Oh, and they deliver checks inside volumes of the Tennessee Law Code. That’s real southern.

Taco Bell

Always a good decision the night before. Never a good decision the morning after. Taco Bell, I don’t care that your meat is 88% beef. You’ll never go with tobacco. (*However, this will not stop my eating taco bell. For that, I’d like to pre-apologize to my stomach.)

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