you never forget your first time in charge

Sunday is Easter, when Jesus allegedly rose from the dead. (I’m Jewish, so I have my doubts.)

At many college newspapers, the end of April is also editor selection season – when the careers of a few student journalists are similarly resurrected.

Melodramatic? Sacrilegious? Maybe. But here are some stats that should put the fear of God in you…

Only 46 percent of journalism grads will find media work right out of school, and 10 percent of them won’t even land a single job interview, MediaBistro reported last summer.

Yet every year, a couple of students get media jobs after getting their diplomas from the mediocre university where I advise the weekly newspaper. What’s so special about them? They served as editor of that newspaper.

Even so, there’s never much competition for our top spot. It’s the same around the country. Whenever I chat with my fellow advisers, they’re always fretting about their staff’s apathy – or even antipathy – toward seeking the editorship.

“Why doesn’t anyone want to be in charge anymore!?” one of them emailed me last year. “What’s wrong with students today?”

My answer: “Nothing’s wrong with them today that wasn’t wrong with them yesterday.”

Being the editor has always been a bitch – a full-time job for part-time pay, the staff challenging your authority at every turn, and readers blaming you for any mistake they find in the paper. And you still have to go to class.

In fact, the job is tougher today than when I was a college editor back in the 1980s. Tuition seems to rise daily like the sun, the classes you need to graduate are scheduled as often as your birthday, and now there’s a daily website on top of a print edition.

But if you want a media career, you should do it anyway. Here are five good reasons, although you can probably guess only the first one…



1. It’s one hell of a resume line.

Most student newspapers elect editors only once or twice a year. So it’s a title that instantly separates you from the thousands of other j-school grads who flood the job market every December and June. (See 7 mistakes that doom a college journalist’s resume.)

It doesn’t even matter if you were a good editor or the worst one in your paper’s history. Because…



2. You win even if you suck.

Some student journalists don’t run for editor because they’re afraid they’ll screw up and scar their career. What a crock.

Unless you burned the newsroom to the ground or got yourself sued in a high-profile libel case, only the hiring editors at the media outlet within spitting distance of your campus will be even vaguely aware of the actual job you did.

And even then, they won’t give a crap.

Remember, you work at a student newspaper. You go there to learn how to write, edit, shoot, design – and lead. No one expects you to channel Ben Bradlee, H.L. Mencken, and Jonah Jameson. (Google the first two; the third is the editor from Spider-Man.)

In your job interview, if you’re asked about being editor, say this: “It was the hardest job I’ve had so far in my short life, and I made some big mistakes.” If the hiring editor silently leans forward a little bit, explain your blunders in all their gory details. You’ll probably get the job.

Why? Because you’re not going to be hired as a senior editor right out of school – you’ll be handed entry-level work, not a staff to supervise. So if your clips are strong, your editorship matters only for what you learned, not for the quality of the work you did.

Speaking of job interviews…



3. You’ll ace every job interview for the rest of your life.

Most student newspapers hold public interviews for editor. (Some private universities do this behind closed doors, which smacks of hypocrisy. Since when do journalists demand openness from everyone but themselves?)

Just contemplating the interview process is enough to scare off some students. At the paper I advise, I hear this all the time: “I don’t want to put myself through that.”

But the more brutal the interview, the better – for you and everyone else.

In the mid-’80s, I was editor of The Alligator, the University of Florida’s student newspaper and still the largest by circulation. I ran for editor four times, losing twice before winning twice. Each time was edifying and terrifying.

While I’m not sure how much it’s been sanitized since, back then an Alligator editor selection was a public spectacle – only a tad less bloody than the ancient Romans in the Coliseum feeding Christians to the lions.

Imagine…

You’re sitting in front of 30 staff members and a selection panel that includes the chairman of the journalism department, a professional adult, the current editor, and a grad student and undergrad student who aren’t journalists at all.

If you answer a question lamely, you get called out in front of everyone.

“What would you do to increase diversity in the newsroom?”
“Well, diversity is really important and –”
“Yes, and crime is bad. Just answer the question, please.”
“Well, I’d talk to minority groups and recruit –”
“Which minority groups?”
“Uh, all of them.”
“You don’t really have any fresh ideas, do you?”
“Uh, I guess not.”

For 12 years, I advised the University Press, the student newspaper at Florida Atlantic University, and I mimicked The Alligator editor selection as best I could.

But Student Affairs deemed it “emotional terrorism” and last year changed it to the standard, boring Student Government-like selection process – you know the kind, where the toughest question is, “What’s your definition of leadership?”

Problem is, no real-world job interview operates like an SG interview. To be fair, none are as bloodthirsty as an Alligator selection, either. But which one better prepares you?

Since 1987, I’ve never feared a job interview. I hear all the time from UP editors who tell me the same. My favorite story: In 2008, a former editor named Jake applied to work at PETA in Washington, D.C. The interview lasted all day, with different configurations of bosses and employees peppering him with questions and scenarios. I asked him how it went.

“A breeze.”

Really?

“It reminded me of editor selection, and I just drew on that experience. No problem.”

He got the job.

Jake later emailed me…

Running for editor prepared me for every job interview, blind date and social confrontation I’ve ever walked into. I have actually been surprised at how calm I am when being interviewed for a new job. The tedious process of being grilled for an hour and having every editorial flaw you have committed shoved in your face makes the awkward handshaking with a potential employer out to be a nice day at the beach.

One last point: If I’ve convinced you that running for editor is good for your future, let me now reassure it’s even better for your present. Because if you survive a rigorous editor selection, you’ll instantly command the staff’s respect.

Let’s face it, being editor sucks when you suddenly oversee a bunch of your peers. It’s no problem exerting your authority over newbies who stroll into the newsroom after you’re elected editor. As far as they’re concerned, you’ve always been the editor.

But what about the staffers who went drinking with you last weekend and saw you throw up on your car? Even the Army moves a new officer out of his unit, because it realizes you can’t lead people who remember you as just a soldier.

No such luck at a student newspaper. You don’t get transferred from FAU to Medill.

But if you endure a trial by fire like an editor selection – one that your peers maintain, “I don’t want to put myself through that” – you’ve earned their loyalty as a leader.

In fact, the FAU staff I advise so relishes the “emotional terrorism” of our old editor selection that we’re still doing it – it just doesn’t count.

On Friday, three candidates are running in our “fake editor selection.” They and the staff asked me to do this, because they all see the greedy value in it, Student Affairs be damned.

Which leads me to this…



4. You’ll embrace the Dark Side.

Most hiring editors I know – and I was one myself – feel a little more comfortable around a young journalist who’s sat in the big chair. We figure you’ve confronted, at least for a semester, some of the same problems and crappy attitudes we do every day.

That’s because employees who have never run anything bigger than their own lives tend to be self-centered. They also hate their bosses for decisions they don’t remotely understand. It’s even worse with journalists, who are notoriously hyper-sensitive.

For instance, reporters feel slighted if their editor doesn’t recall the details of a pointless, protracted conversation they had two days ago – even though that editor has a staff of 12 time-sucking prima donnas doing the same insipid thing.

But you’ve been there before, and being the boss can make you a better employee. In this case, you might be a tad more forgiving and understanding of your editor’s burden. And speaking of burdens…



5. You’ll learn some serious shit no professor can teach you.

Being editor of your student newspaper is the first time you’ll ever be in charge of something substantial without an adult wielding veto power.

At FAU, that means you oversee an $80,000 budget. You hire the staff. And if any adults try to fuck with your freedom of the press, you call other adults who defend you (like the UP editor did last year).

This is heady stuff, and you’ll learn through osmosis some really big Life Lessons…

1. Delegate or die. Up until now, you’ve kicked ass by doing instead of delegating. Group project for a class? You picked up the slack for the losers who did nothing. Waiting tables for collective tips? You out-hustled everyone for your share. But a student newspaper has too many moving parts to handle deftly by yourself. You’ve always harshly judged those who don’t work like you do, but now you’re forced to train and motivate them. You’ll become more compassionate, or you’ll fail.

2. Dish it out and take it. Nothing makes you appreciate presidents Bush and Obama quite like being editor. No one ever tells an editor, “Thanks for all you do.” And if anything goes wrong in the paper or in the newsroom, you’ll get blamed even if you had nothing to do with it. You’ll become a lot more nuanced about your criticism of others after you’ve faced unfounded criticism yourself.

3. Save some or none at all. Being in charge means doing your best with scarce resources. Ever heard of the word “triage”? It’s a military term meaning to save as many wounded soldiers as you can – by letting the worst-hurt die. Likewise, you have neither the time nor money to save your entire newspaper. Some sections and some staffers will perish so you can excel where you deem best for your readers. It’s easy to rip leaders who make such tough calls. It’s hard to be the one making them – and explaining them.

4. Size doesn’t matter, decisions do. As editor of a large student daily and now an adviser at a small student weekly, I can tell you this: It’s better to be the editor at a crappy newspaper than a reporter at an award-winning newspaper. You’ll learn more about journalism and life being big in a small pond than being small in a big pond. And you’ll be forever skeptical of artifice – if someone tells you they graduated from Harvard (as my grandfather did) you won’t assume they’re a genius (my grandfather sure wasn’t). You’ll judge them on what they do, not on who they are.



6. If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you.

Surviving a term as college editor is like surviving cancer. As someone who’s done both, I can tell you: You’ll no longer sweat the small stuff. You’ll become just a little bit braver about your decisions and a little bit bolder about your journalism.

Winston Churchill once said, “There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without incident.” He would’ve made an excellent college newspaper editor.

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