As another semester starts, the vibe on campus, as students come back from winter break, is always a little different than the vibe when school starts in August. The pep in the step of students is not as noticeable as it was when we head back to school at the end of the dogs days of summer.
We are heading back to the grind at UCM in shitty, cold weather, and optimistic bright eyes will be replaced by those who look like they have a date with a firing squad, or the Gulag, or Auschwitz, or maybe I’m just doing some projecting based on how I feel. No, I don’t graduate this spring, but graduation is within sight.
To be honest, my college experience hasn’t measured up to what I envisioned, and as I think about the future, I find myself thinking about the recent past, as I reflect on what it means to be a student journalist.
After three years of writing for the student newspaper, the Muleskinner, my efforts are being noticed. It really dawned on me last semester, as a I came to a greater understanding of the impact I have, even if it’s on a micro level in a small Missouri town. The impact was brought to my attention through the words of others, going to Wal-Mart and having a clerk I’ve never seen before ask me if I write for the school paper or having someone with a well established position at the university telling me he’s enjoyed my work throughout the years and what I do is important in a democratic republic.
I: Small Town Journalism Doesn’t Mean Shit:
That’s right I said it. The location of where I’m getting my feet wet practicing my chosen profession doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, and I have no desire to stay here after graduation, and I have no desire to work in any community/market that resembles this one. To write about that which is newsworthy, one must live in a place where there is actually something of note going on.
The news editor I work under said there is a disconnect from the “community” I report on, and it shows in my writing. I thought no shit: this is a small town, and I don’t have a small town mentality. I have a full understanding of where I’m at, and to be honest, I’m not White; I’m not a Christian, and I’m not simple-minded, so how could I feel a connection to the “community” at large? I live here, but when I go to work on a story, I keep my mind also focused on that which is outside of the area.
Allow me to explain…
I could care less about what goes on in the “community” of Warrensburg, I could care less about a church chili cook off, the opening of a new fast-food hot dog restaurant, or the homecoming parade. How much bankability do stories on such horseshit like that have outside of the area? How much appeal would something like that have in a major big city market? (which is where I’m trying to go)
A lot of the stories I do are assigned to me; others are the result of me keeping my eyes open for events happening on campus, and I’ll ask permission to cover them. With the stories that are my idea, I keep in mind that which could appeal to a major market. It’s not even about that which is pleasing to a small town audience, but more about building my portfolio/resume. I’ll give you an example…
In September of 2011, Larry Sabato came to speak on campus about the presidential election. Sabato is a nationally known author who was labeled as “the most accurate prognosticator”( when it comes to political matters) by MSNBC, CNBC, and Fox News. He briefly appears in a documentary about Larry Flynt called “The Right To Be Left Alone.” Shortly after I did my story on his presentation at UCM, I heard an interview with Sabato on National Public Radio. By focusing on a national figure speaking about national issues, the story has appeal that expands beyond the campus. The story becomes like a chip I can cash in later. That’s one that’s definitely going in my portfolio.
II: Something I Refuse To Do: (A Few Words On Declining Literary Standards)
When I took Copy, Layout, and Editing, it was hammered into our heads to write at an 8th grade level, because that’s supposedly the level the average American reads at. This is something I refuse to do. I refuse to lower the bar of my writing to accommodate those whose literacy level is stuck on a sub-par plane. Why should journalists facilitate declining literacy standards? Shouldn’t public educators do their best to try to raise up a higher national standard? Many complex global situations can not be properly explained or analyzed using 8th grade language.
I spent my late teens and early 20s surrounded by musicians, and I feel I’m able to do with words on paper what they did in the studio and onstage. In my hands, the word processor becomes the equivalent of a guitar. Words are not “just words.” They have context, connotation, even feel and texture. I feel I ‘m able to use words on paper like how a guitarist uses notes and chords and a drummer uses rhythm and timing. If words like vernacular, lexicon, or amalgamate will fit perfectly with the tone of what I’m writing about, I’m going to use them. I’m not going to stifle myself.
With a declining literary standard in effect, I often wonder if another Hunter S. Thompson, William F. Buckley, or Christopher Hitchens came along would the mass populace even take notice. These men of the letter did not write at an 8th grade level, and today someone needs to pick up the torches they set a blaze.
III: When A Rebel Picks Up A Pen:
I’m not the average UCM student, on so many levels, and I stop and think about how much of my writing and approach to journalism was informed and influenced by the punk rock sensibilities of my teen years. When I say punk rock I’m talking about Black Flag not Blink 182. My appearance is not the same as it was in my teens, and I next to never go out to shows anymore, but the rebellious spirit of my past never died, and it’s not thoughtless rebellion as a phase. If I have an issue with the status quo or a societal convention, I’m going to be able to explain to you just what my source of contention is, usually after long deliberation about the issue in question.
I was once told that there is a sense of ego all over my writing. My best friend Mike said he doesn’t see ego in my work, but rather a certain style and bombast. He once said “even the way you write is aggressive.” “It has the the cadence of machine gun fire, like being hit over the head with fact, after fact, after fact.” Mike said that I’ve found my voice and developed my own style. He said it’s so strong, so identifiable that if you took my name off of one of my piece’s, someone who was familiar with my work might be able to figure out who wrote it.
Going back to how a punk rock mentality influences my work. Part of it is that I am ready to lock horns with authority. (if, and when, necessary) I do not view authority in some sanctified, exalted light. Authority is to be revered when said authority is acting in righteousness. When authority is abusing their position, someone needs to say something.
When police departments run surveillance and wiretaps on law abiding citizens, when presidents give executive orders that violate constitutional law, or when pedophile priests molest kids, someone should raise their voice and say FUCK YOU! And now thanks to a college education, I have about 101 eloquent ways to say FUCK YOU! ( I really think I was so built for this)