Lessons from the Press

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When I was a freshman at Millsaps College, I thought about quitting my role as news editor of our campus newspaper, the Purple & White, at least a dozen times. Probably more.

I would return frustrated to my dorm room on the second floor of Sanderson Hall late Tuesday evenings, after we sent the paper to the printer, knock on my best friend's door and proceed to spend the next 15 minutes or so venting about how I was ready to leave the paper and all its thankless responsibilities.

So how is it that I found myself Monday night, after working 10 hours in the JFP office, gobbling down a dinner of cold cereal and heading to Millsaps to advise the next generation of Purple & White staff members? I'm still not sure I know.

I have always enjoyed writing and, moreover, people always just sort of told me I'm good at it (although I often struggle to believe them), so I applied to the paper between fall and spring semesters of my first year at college. The editor-in-chief appointed me news editor.

The role quickly terrified me. Keeping up with everything on campus, being editor to students older and wiser than I, making sure that every single week my two pages were filled with content ... I was a big stress bucket.

Yet, every Monday I returned to the planning meetings. Every Tuesday I went to layout meetings, sometimes staying until midnight to get the paper done. And when my year was up, I did what I thought I would never do: I applied for another position, another year. And the year after that, too--in all, I went on to serve in four different editor positions over the years. In that way, the Purple & White became one of my longest-lasting college activities. In fact, it shaped my future, as I applied to journalism school after graduation and, after finishing my master's, came to the Jackson Free Press.

Members of the P&W became like my weird, quirky family. Years later, the bond we formed still means the world to me, and the inside jokes and YouTube videos we laughed at in an exhausted haze on those Tuesday nights still crack me up.

This week, the latest staff of the Purple & White publishes their first issue, which is also the first issue since the paper took a nearly six-month hiatus. After several years of budget cuts and declining staff interest, the former editors hit their breaking point and ceased producing the paper.

The demise of the paper made me--and many of my contemporaries--sad, possibly more so than those on campus seemed to be, because we saw a bit of our legacy dying. I was proud to be a part of the paper. Yes, even if half the campus only picked it up on the way to the Caf' so they could scan the photos and see if their sorority sister or fraternity brother made the Features page. Yes, even if some weeks the staff had to write all the content. Yes, even on weeks we were in that room at midnight on press night.

It made me scrappy. It made me strong. I am thankful for it.

Luckily, with almost a whole new staff and a new adviser (yours truly), the paper is returning and finding its feet again as a biweekly paper rather than the weekly it once was.

Monday, as the new staff plunged headfirst into the chaos of putting out a first paper, I couldn't help but laugh, remembering all the things we went through those years ago. And it occurred to me that if more community groups resembled newspaper staffs, we might get a lot more accomplished in Jackson.

Putting out a newspaper--a good newspaper--requires different personalities that work together, respectfully. It requires folks who are organized enough to plan ahead, while still being flexible and creative enough to solve the issues that pop up suddenly. It requires left-brained people to manage the money, the numbers and the deadlines, but it also needs right-brained people to put together a compelling story and a visually appealing look.

It takes a strong leader with both vision and command, who can keep everyone on the same track while respecting them, listening to their input and allowing their individual talents to shine. Good newspapers have diverse staffs, with people from different backgrounds and social groups. Those people can offer insight, brainstorm ideas and give feedback that benefits the whole, rather than simply agreeing statically. They can introduce each other to folks and ideas they might not find otherwise.

Most of all, it takes people who care. In today's media environment, the vast majority of people who put out quality news will never become millionaires doing it, no matter how smart or creative they are. (Trust me, no one at the JFP is drafting plans for the next Hearst Castle.)

Rather, a good paper (or online news outlet) needs people who want to do it because they think it is important. Because they see the value even when no one else seems to.

Fixing the ever-pothole-ridden roads is a similarly thankless job--no one is going to put up a statue of the guy that smooths the roads, even if he deserves it. Bettering the schools without a huge influx of cash requires a similar meeting of left-brained and right-brained minds.

An effective leader working with and respecting a contributing population? Well, if that doesn't sound like what we need in a governor, a mayor, city officials and the public at large, I don't know what does.

We don't all have to be newspaper people. But we can all find that niche, that way to contribute. Do it because you care, not because it will bring you money or notoriety (it probably won't).

Years from now, no one on campus will remember that I was on the student newspaper. No one will remember that I came back to advise. But, maybe the changes I help instill now will make the paper better for years to come, and that will make 
it all worthwhile.

When the new staff of the Purple & White left Monday night, some of them well after midnight, a few may have gotten back to their dorm rooms, knocked on their best friends' doors and vented about quitting the paper, just like I did years ago.

But even though this first attempt was rough--and the result may be flawed--I hope they come out of it with the attitude to make things better, to tackle the next issue with vigor, a little wiser than the last time. Because some things--newspapers, fixed potholes, schools and communities, to name a few--are worth the long hours.

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