My experiences writing for a college newspaper

One of the most interesting things about blogs is how they can offer detailed views on the minutiae and inner-workings of aspects of civilization that the reader has never experienced first-hand. For instance, did you know how much automation goes on behind the scenes at a major Internet retailer? I also read a fascinating blog written by a mortician (unfortunately I forgot the URI). It may seem like a morbid thing to read, but I’ve never before seen such a detailed description of what goes on between death and funeral — possibly the most enigmatic time period in life. Everyone seems to understand what happens at birth, but very few realize what “preparing a body” actually entails (or should I say entrails).

I figure I have an inside glimpse at an industry that not many have experienced first-hand, but that many are at least semi-interested in, so I might as well share my experiences. Lots of people read newspapers, but few know what is involved in writing them. I’ve never personally been inside of a newspaper plant (I just know that I submit my column one day and another day it’s written on dozens of dead trees), so I can’t really say anything about the technical process of actually printing the newspaper, but I do know a bit about the editorial process, and especially about how opinion columns are written, edited, and published.

I’m a paid staff columnist for my university’s daily independent student newspaper, The Diamondback. I’ve been writing for them for two semesters now. My column is published once every two weeks, and I’ve had twelve published so far. The column is published in the Opinion section, which is a single page located behind roughly four pages of news in the paper. The staff column goes down the left, a guest column down the right, the editorial in the upper middle, the editorial cartoon in the middle, and the letters to the editor in the middle bottom. There are about ten or eleven other staff columnists besides me (every other Tuesday there’s a special two-page opinion section, hence there are more than ten staff columnists total). The newspaper has a daily print circulation of 17,000 and an online circulation of several thousand more. Even being pessimistic and saying that the majority of the people who pick up the newspaper don’t read the Opinion section (which I don’t suspect is true), each of my columns is read by thousands of students and faculty.

I first became a staff columnist during the spring semester of 2006. One of the staff columnists had been forced to resign (it turns out he worked as a lobbyist and wrote a column in support of his cause, which was a major conflict of interest). The Opinion Editor of the paper happens to be a friend from high school. He needed a replacement quickly, and he also knew that I had lots of strong opinions and was a good writer. So he solicited a trial column from me. I wrote one that ended up being published, and after that, I basically had the job, and wrote a new column every other week after that.

This past semester my columns were published on Fridays, which means that I was actually getting them in to the Deputy Opinion Editor by Tuesday afternoon. After that it went through a sort of queue of up to four editors (first the opinion editor, then copy editors). By the time any of my columns were published in the paper there had been many sets of eyes looking at them. I never caught any of my columns being published with a mistake (simple typo or otherwise), although I don’t recall ever submitting one with a mistake, either (I’m a good editor myself). There were always numerous edits, of course, some of which were rather irritating. The style guidelines for the newspaper seem a little bit arbitrary, and I was never quite able to figure out exactly what to write such that none of my sentences would have to be edited. But that’s just how the industry is, and if you can’t come to accept it, you’d best move on.

I typically start thinking of ideas to write my next column on as soon as my previous column is published. Sometimes I have a queue of ideas to work off of, and I knew what I want to write about immediately. Other times, I’m really at a loss for ideas, and end up broadening my horizons a bit by searching on campus for inspiration to write about. For example, one time I went to a racist, homophobic, bigoted rant by an ultra-conservative preacher just to have something to write about. Other times I would base my columns on things I heard about from friends (though of course doing more research on my own). Picking topics to write about is a bit tricky, as my editor pretty much requires that they be related to the school, as we already have enough columnists who write about non-Maryland-related issues such as the Iraq War. As a result I don’t always have the strongest topics to write about, but I like to think that they always have that intimate University of Maryland flavor.

I think about my columns for awhile, doing research and taking notes, but when it actually comes time to write the column itself, I handle it all in one short burst, typically lasting no longer than two hours. That’s just the writing style that works for me. I typically write the rough first draft within thirty minutes, and then spend the remaining amount of time picking at it, massaging the language, evening out the paragraphs, correcting any errors, making sure ideas flow, and making sure I’m presenting a coherent argument and not focusing too many of my precious 600 words on any one minute point. I occasionally show it to a friend over IM for an second opinion, especially if something just isn’t working. Then once I’m satisfied with it I email it off to the Deputy Opinion Editor, who I haven’t even seen in person since the start of the semester. The newspaper, or at least the Opinion section, is written pretty much entirely electronically.

Most of the time the column is good and it is published with minor style edits. Rarely it gets sent back and I have to make some changes. Frequently I’m trying to write a column on an idea I’ve had and I find that it just isn’t working, and I end up having to go with something else entirely. For example, one time I was trying to write a column in support of constructing the proposed Purple Line addition to the Washington D.C. Metro System. Thirty minutes into researching various facts and statistics backing up why this would be a good idea I realized how utterly boring the whole thing was. I was losing interest just trying to write it, and the readers would certainly have even less interest. So I scrapped it and wrote about something else.

I’ve also had some ideas that failed to materialize into a coherent opinion column. Opinion columns are supposed to have a thesis; they are supposed to argue a point. I had some columns I worked on that simply failed to materialize into any sort of coherent argument that I just dropped. One such column was about the world’s largest strawberry shortcake. I basically ended up turning it into a humor piece, making fun of how ridiculous everything was. It was funny, but not an opinion column, and I ended up writing that week’s column on a different topic. All in all I have six to eight of these half-written columns laying around somewhere. I suppose this blog will give me an opportunity to publish some of the better ones.

Also, I will admit that I have not mastered the art of the newspaper headline whatsoever. I submit most of my columns without a headline, and the Deputy Opinion Editor figures out something to title it. The choices aren’t particularly good, but then again, neither is anything I’d come up with, either. My favorite headline that I’ve picked out would have to be “No true Christians”, which is an allusion to the No true Scotsman argumentative fallacy. I just find it very hard to write newspaper headlines. All of my ideas end up being long, whereas the newspaper headline has to be short and pithy.

I’ve been having a good time working as a columnist for the paper. Even though I’m a computer science major rather than a journalism major, I’m still interested in writing, and this job gives me a great opportunity to write to a large audience. It’s always cool being recognized by someone around campus who’s seen my picture on the Opinion page (incidentally, the picture of me they use isn’t very flattering). And it’s always fun dealing with my friends who are always confused by what major and year the paper is claiming I am this week. It’s just dumb errors, but a significant number of my columns have been published listing either the wrong year (e.g. “Junior” when I was a Senior) or the wrong major. For the record I am not and have never been an astronomy major, although I am an astronomy minor.

I’ve also gotten to know a bit about the rest of the Opinion section. The guest columns are sent in unsolicited, and somehow there always seem to be enough of them around to publish one good one every day. There’s basically a queue of guest columns, sorted by quality and time-sensitivity. Great columns will be published almost immediately, and columns of a time-sensitive nature will either be published while they are still relevant, or discarded. Some columns that are merely average but not time-sensitive are kept around for awhile in the queue, waiting for their day to shine as necessary.

The editorial cartoons work in a somewhat similar manner in that unsolicited ones are accepted and published. However, there is a smallish cadre of repeat artists who account for the vast majority of cartoons. I get the feeling that the Opinion Editor is frequently talking with the artists, calling them up to request cartoons as necessary when they’ve run out of ones to publish.

The editorial is written daily by the Opinion Editor (with input from the other higher-ups at the newspaper). This represents a large amount of work. The editorial is almost always on some news that was just published in the paper either in the few days before or on the same day. The editorial presents the paper’s views on a wide variety of school issues, everything ranging from the new meal plans to state funding for education to fan misbehavior at sporting events. The Opinion Editor gets together with the other Editors and they hash out a common position on the issue that is then written up and published. By and large, the editorials get it right. Also, since this is an independent student newspaper, the editorials can always be trusted to vehemently and accurately represent what is in the students’ best interests. They catch a lot of flak for this from non-students who say that their repeated calls for increasing funding for scholarships and other student issues are fiscally impossible, but these critics are missing the point. It’s a newspaper for the students by the students. They’re never going to suggest something that isn’t in the students’ best interest; on this point, you can consider them a student lobbying group.

So that’s my look into the insides of the college newspaper business. I’ve had a lot of fun doing this and I’ve gained lots of valuable experience. My writing skills have improved significantly over time, especially as I adapted to the 600 word format and learned the art of short paragraphs. It now takes me a third as long to write columns as it did when I started. And compared to writing for an audience of thousands every other week, writing for an audience of one on class essays doesn’t even make me blink. I would definitely recommend looking into writing for college newspapers to any other college students out there, especially if they’re interested in blogging. Opinion columns are just meatspace blogs, after all.

8 Responses to “My experiences writing for a college newspaper”

  1. tina Says:

    I was wondering how one would get into the official university’s newspaper? Do you need to know someone? Who should I ask?

  2. Cyde Weys Says:

    Tina: Well it’s important to note that The Diamondback is an independent student newspaper. It is not “official”. It is, of course, also by far the largest paper on campus, and is distributed in the majority of academic buildings, and its offices are located on-campus. But it is still independent, which is the way that the vast majority of all college newspapers are handled.

    The way I got in was because I did know someone. I went to middle school with a guy and then ended up reconnecting with him in college. He ended up becoming the newspaper’s Opinion Editor. He knew I could write, and a situation came up where he had to fire a columnist in the middle of the semester over a conflict of interest and he needed a replacement. So he asked me, I submitted an example column, they ran with it, and it just continued from there.

    The way the majority of the columnists end up writing for The Diamondback, however, are through two other major pathways: the journalism school and guest columns. Yes, it’s not secret that people in the Journalism major have the necessary connections to become columnists if they have the skills. For the rest of us, the paper publishes a guest column every day. The easiest way for a non-Journalism major to become a regular columnist is to write and submit a few good guest columns, then ask the Opinion Editor if he needs any new staff columnists for the upcoming semester (which he almost always does, because turnover is high).

  3. Learn by doing (on the importance of undergraduate research) | Cyde Weys Musings Says:

    […] was an opinion columnist for University of Maryland’s student newspaper The Diamondback for three semesters before I […]

  4. Less money, more problems at University of Maryland | Cyde Weys Musings Says:

    […] was an opinion columnist for University of Maryland’s student newspaper The Diamondback for three semesters before I […]

  5. Curse the whole damn flawed system (housing at University of Maryland) | Cyde Weys Musings Says:

    […] was an opinion columnist for University of Maryland’s student newspaper The Diamondback for three semesters before I […]

  6. Lessons from Blacksburg (the one year anniversary) | Cyde Weys Musings Says:

    […] was an opinion columnist for University of Maryland’s student newspaper The Diamondback for three semesters before I […]

  7. Sin city (College Park, to be exact) | Cyde Weys Musings Says:

    […] was an opinion columnist for University of Maryland’s student newspaper The Diamondback for the three semesters prior […]

  8. Some excellent advice for budding writers | Cyde Weys Musings Says:

    […] than an inability to spot them. I believe I acquired my eye for these guys during my time as an opinion columnist for The Diamondback. When you’re limited to 600–650 words and you have a lot you want to say, you get good […]