Last week, we got word that The Gatepost Editorial, our weekly unsigned column on all things Framingham State, won a national Society of Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence Award. We’ve won regional SPJ awards (Region 1, ours, is made up of New England and the mid-Atlantic states), but this is the first national prize in our history.
As EIC, I’m responsible for writing the Editorial week after week on behalf of The Gatepost staff, but in no way do I pretend to be responsible for making the column as successful as it has been. The student newsroom operates like a
well-oiled haphazardly functional machine – it has to – and basically nothing happens without significant support, input, back-breakingly hard work and more than a fair share of “shoeleather” along the way.
I’ve been thinking a lot about just how much work each and every editor puts into the Editorial, and all the related support I just mentioned notwithstanding, the Gatepost Editorial is a collaborative process in the following ways. By my count, it’s a six step process, and I’ll use our Pathways story as an example.
Step one: Cover the campus attentively and aggressively, following every lead and asking the tough questions – therein lies editorial gold.
Example: We dispatched one editor on what we thought was a simple story – answering the question: how does our school recruit students? What we discovered was the Pathways story – an expose about what we discovered to be a veritable abomination of a recruitment practice and a deathtrap for under-prepared admitted students. Here’s the story – Half of Pathways students failed “challenge semester – and the saber-toothed editorial that accompanied it – A Pathway to failure, which was one of our three award-winners. Had we not pursued that story and reported it fully, we never would have had something to write about.
Step two: Take the temperature of the campus, determine what students would care about and what they would want to change. We do this at our weekly e-board meetings – time we spend sitting around a round table determining the big issue of the week. Everyone contributes, people agree or disagree, and we come up with an angle together.
Example: We knew that Pathways was not a good move for the school, but needed to think about the student angle. The program allowed students who didn’t meet the school’s admission requirements to attend FSU, but those students could only stay if they could meet drastically more difficult GPA requirements their first semester. I won’t dive too deep into the issue here, but what we confronted was the possibility that our readers would think we were attacking fellow students, and critiquing them for being less qualified. We decided that we needed to make it clear that it was administrators’ decisions we needed to criticize, not students themselves. They couldn’t help it now that their grades weren’t quite there in high school, but the fact that they were setting up for, as we said, “failure,” was a serious problem, so that’s where we focused.
Step three: Write down everything everyone has to say, and work their ideas into the final product.
I can’t remember specifically who said what, but in our discussion about Pathways, everyone had something to say – some angle they found particularly disturbing about the policy. And at e-board, we wanted to make sure everyone had a chance to share their views, and have them discussed out loud. Our advisor calls the product of these discussions – the best-phrased sentences and points – Gatepost Editorial-ese. Sometimes, we’ve learned, the strongest sentences are ones uttered almost by accident – fiery critiques, pithy asides and snarky digs – and if the EIC isn’t there to catch them and scribble them on a steno pad, they could be lost forever. Every week, I made sure I got every bit of insight written down. The best stuff printed on Friday.
Step four: When necessary, put the most controversial issues to a vote. The unsigned Editorial is written as the majority opinion of the Gatepost e-board, and when we don’t have that majority, we can’t, in good conscience, run it.
This came up in the weeks before the November elections last year. Support for Obama’s second term was nearly unanimous, but the Warren-Brown race for the U.S. Senate was too close to call. So, we passed around paper ballots, and asked editors to write their picks anonymously. The result was a slim majority of Warren supporters, but when we talked about it, that really didn’t feel like enough to dedicate an editorial to her. So we didn’t. Instead, we invited editors to write signed pro Brown or Warren editorials – two of whom did, which you can read here and here – and retained the paper’s impartiality on the Senate race, and our integrity, in the process.
Step five: Invite editors to write grafs or chunks of text for consideration and inclusion. I did this every week, and sometimes, I’d get several emails worth of opinions to include. Other times, I would get few or even none. The best Editorials, though, were the ones that got editors fired up enough to opine about them out loud or in print.
Step six: Write! And hope for the best. We did that every week, and couldn’t be more happy with the result.
Just a general note, by the way: Before you graduate, write a letter to your student newspaper! Never let a good idea about how to make your campus better die at the cafeteria table, so to speak. The power of the written word is not to be understated – administrators read student newspapers very closely – or, at least, they should. When necessary, let ’em have it!