Loyalty and affiliation, once earned and given, become a large part of who we are. It is for this reason that I still wear T-shirts from my student media days, root for the Cleveland Browns through every double-digit loss season and have never once thought about “Newting” my wife.
It can also be something that blinds us a bit to the reality of our surroundings.
I thought about this when one of my previous stops along “career highway” fell into my newsfeed this week. The editor-in-chief of a blog that critiques the Mizzou J-School was told to resign from her post because she would be working at the Columbia Missourian that term.
The Missourian is a unique enterprise, by the very definition of the word. The one-of-a-kind media outlet is owned by the university, edited by faculty members and staffed by students. The paper is Columbia’s citywide a.m. daily and competes with an independent p.m. paper. (It also has obviously expanded into digital outreach over the years since I left.)
The students land on staff as writers, photographers, designers, copy editors and more when they sign up for specific classes that focus on writing, photography, design and so forth. In other words, to graduate in this program, they have to work at the paper. In order to work at the paper, they must not work at other competing media outlets, as per a conflict-of-interest policy.
This clearly bothered the founder of J-School Buzz, David “Teeg” Teeghman, who took to JSB and lambasted the decision. Aside from calling the policy “antiquated,” he explained his views on how the policy does a disservice to student journalists:
(Kelly) Cohen would have learned a few things as JSB’s editor-in-chief that she will never learn at the Missourian. She won’t learn much there about analytics, what content generates traffic and buzz, the difference between stories an audience “wants” and “needs,” how to run a popular news blog, how to respond to critical commenters and tweeters you know personally, how to keep a site running when it gets a rush of unexpected traffic, and so on. We can talk about how all the sequences are becoming converged, or whatever, but JSBers learn a unique skill set no other Mizzou newsroom can offer.
Comments from the current Missourian editor, Tom Warhover, and current and previous members of the Missourian crew take issue with various points Teeghman makes. To his credit, Teeghman clarified his original aims, defended some of his positions and made amends when it was clear he was wrong, all things I’d expect from any good journalist.
The policy isn’t new and this isn’t its first challenge. In the pre-blog days, the conflict had always been between the Missourian and the Maneater, the student-run paper. Students hated that they had to give up their allegiance to a paper that allowed them to do great journalism and run their own show to come to what they viewed as a weaker place to be told what to do. Students I knew often planned their Missourian terms around their Maneater desires. One kid kept taking summer courses to “get the Missourian over with” so he could get back to the paper and eventually run the place.
It wasn’t the greatest way to view the education you were shelling out tons of money for, but I did understand it.
And I do understand Teeghman’s desire to keep his brainchild up and running. On occasion, I’ll check in on a few projects I started at various stops in my career to see if they’re still going or not. I still hate one J-school that took a decent idea a couple of us built, bastardized the unholy hell out of it and then declared it a “great thing” despite protestations from students each term. I was also saddened to learn one project I launched, involving high school students and press freedom, was discontinued.
Still, as Thomas Wolfe once noted, you can’t go home again.
I also understand that student media outlets often find themselves scratching and clawing for respect and dignity, desires most professional media outlets simply dismiss as “cute.” It always galled me when the pro papers got dibs on a story because sources would call them first. I’d have six kids working on breaking a story in a student newsroom somewhere, backchannelling the shit out of something, begging for interviews and pursuing the piece with the vigor of starved pit bulls. Once it became clear the sources couldn’t stop us from publishing the thing, they’d call up the pro paper and just give them the whole story, which they’d publish before we could. It was infuriating.
It was also infuriating that these “important” outlets never wanted to give the student media their due. They’d take info from the student stories and offer no credit to the paper as a source. They’d be snotty to the kids at press conferences. They’d pretend that student media didn’t really exist.
My first job interview at a pro paper involved sitting down with the city editor and going through my clips. He was polite enough before asking which of the six stories I submitted that I liked the best.
“That one,” I said, pointing at a piece about a house party being busted and $80,000 in fines being levied against the hosts.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because I beat you guys on it.”
He gave me this whimsical look and explained that his paper had bigger concerns than this and how this kind of thing wasn’t a big deal. In other words, “We didn’t lose to you. We weren’t even playing the game. It wasn’t worth our effort.”
Still, the guy hired me and a few months later, the paper did an “in-depth look” at how cops were busting house parties and handing out monstrous fines. I’m sure in his mind, he still wasn’t behind the story. He was working on something much bigger and more important that we little student people couldn’t understand.
Despite all of this, I get the reason for the policy.
The paper has to look out for its own interests, but also the interests of the students. Even without a direct link to JSB, I’m imagining life in the Missourian newsroom for Kelly Cohen will be a bit awkward. It always was for the Maneater “lifers” who were sentenced to the term at the CoMo. When the Maneater broke a story and left the Missourian in the dust, these kids got the stink-eye. The prevailing thought: “You probably knew about this and didn’t tell us.”
Or, worse yet, when things happened around the Missourian that led to news, if the Maneater covered it, look out.
One year, a kid who was a reporter for the Missourian was busted for theft of some pricy artwork after he and several friends broke into a historic home on campus. As the Missourian was trying to figure out how to write this, word got around that a Maneater reporter was working on this story. One editor was really ticked off and was wondering aloud which of the Maneater kids in the newsroom had tipped our hand.
None had. Shockingly, the Maneater folks knew enough to... (gasp!) check the police blotter and (swoon!) interview people.
And this is with a policy that prohibits working for two places at once. Without the policy, I’m sure the paranoia would have been worse.
We all have to make choices in our lives as to where our loyalties lie and how we let them play out. Sure, it sucks for Teeghman that he’s being shorted a staffer and yet, anyone who knows anything about the school and its policies could see this coming. No, this policy isn’t antiquated or stodgy or whatever descriptor seems easiest to fling when you’re losing a fight like this one. Companies all over the place have rules about what you can and can’t do as a member of their organizations. When it was time to take that pro media job, I had to quit my gig as the city editor at the student newspaper. I was as pissed about this as Teegham is about the Cohen situation. I kept thinking, “This is horseshit. These people just don’t get who we are and what we do.” Eventually, I was the one who figured it out.
If it’s any consolation to Teeghman, I peek in on my other old jobs from time to time, but I’m not horribly invested. When the schools I graduated from call and ask for money, I politely decline.
However, when my student newspaper does its annual alumni fundraising drive, my check goes out in the mail the very next day.
Loyalty, once given, remains long beyond the strictures of policies and the reach of time.