Joining the paper

Excited that my story made the front page of Mustang News.

Excited that my story made the front page of Mustang News.

Not only did I not write for my high school newspaper, but I didn’t even read it.

It wasn’t as though the news didn’t interest me — I regularly perused the LA Times over my morning Cheerios and, when surfing the Web, was just as apt to click on breaking stories as my friend’s Facebook page. However, the high school newspaper was legendarily bad, so much so that the freshmen recruited to hand it out had to beg students to take copies. Consequently, the idea of writing news never crossed my mind.

Then I arrived at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. It was bizarre to see people voluntarily reading the school paper. My brain had to rearrange how I saw the universe to accommodate for the startling yet pleasing fact that school journalism could be good! And people liked it!

I e-mailed the Mustang News editor-in-chief and set up a meeting, intent on joining the paper staff and confident they’d be grateful to have my — well, if not expertise, then writing talent.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. There’s a strong journalism department at Cal Poly, and the editor had already received many e-mails from enthusiastic freshmen like me. Except these freshmen had written for their high school and local papers, giving them a significant advantage. I was given a barely reassuring “maybe next quarter” and sent packing.

A little bit after this reality check, I learned Mustang News was trying out a new program called The Day After, which was described as “a crash-course in journalism.” The goal was to take green first-years and have them write follow-up articles about breaking news stories. They’d get experience in pitches, deadlines and writing, all within one quarter. I decided to try out.

If this second journalism opportunity had fallen through, I probably would’ve stopped pursuing the profession. Thankfully, I was accepted into the program. My first story, which examined the on-campus effects of a minimum wage hike, was quietly published on a little corner of the site. I don’t know if anyone read it besides my editor and my dad, but I won Reporter of the Week, and that was gratification enough.

In the weeks following, I learned not to use an oxford comma, how to abbreviate dates and what a nut graf was. More importantly, I learned how to chase down a difficult source, how to gain a subject’s trust and how to recognize a good story. I wrote eight articles for The Day After. Meanwhile, I had started going to the weekly staff meetings, even though I wasn’t technically invited. The news editor would debrief her underlings while I hovered quietly on the fringes, trying to figure out the structure of the newsroom. My persistence paid off: after a couple of these meetings, I was asked to write articles for the main paper, articles that were at first small and inconsequential but became more serious as I proved I could write.

The highlight of the quarter came when one of my stories made the front page — above the fold, too. My roommates cheered whenever we passed a newspaper vending machine, and I inconspicuously snapped pictures of people reading the article when I saw them in the library or cafeteria.

At the end of the quarter, I was asked to become an official member of the staff.
“Sorry, I can’t pay you,” my editor said apologetically. I couldn’t have cared less. Just getting the Mustang News shirt had made me a little giddy.

In the future, if I do become a journalism, compensation would be nice. But for now, it’s just enough that people actually read what I write.

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