When a Journalism Project Goes Terribly Wrong, by Mary Evans

Mary Evans is a junior at Manhattanville College. This is her final paper for my journalism class.

The story of my first traumatic experience as a journalist starts off not unlike any other Thursday evening. I walk into my Journalism II class in the not-so-enthused way most college kids entire their night classes.

However, this day is different, and I’m slightly interested. Today is the day we are assigned topics for our final article. It is what Jeff Pearlman, our high-spirited and unconventional professor, refers to as “The final draft.”

The students file in one by one and take our seats around the oval table in the classroom. Pearlman remains standing, encouraging us (in an almost pestering way) to take whatever
snack he has brought in on this day. He looks even more excited than usual, and we anticipate just what is in store.

Mary Evans

He explains that we will each select a number from a hat, ranging from 1-12. Whoever picks the lucky number one will get first choice from a list of interesting people to interview for our final profile. He writes down the list of available candidates on the whiteboard at the front of the classroom, and we begin the draft. I, as I will remind you later on, have a terrible memory, so I do not remember the exact number I drew although it was somewhere in the middle.

After a few of my top picks were selected by those who drew higher than me, I approached the list of remaining choices apprehensively when it was my turn. I knew that I had to choose wisely because this had not been my best semester in terms of academic performance, and this assignment was my last chance to prove to myself and my professor that I had the skills it took to be a good journalist.

I thought long and hard about which person I found most interesting and would make for a
great story. I finally decided on Randy Jones, the cowboy and founding member of the 1970s disco group, The Village People. I figured he had to be interesting, and it would make for a great piece.

I left class that day feeling good about myself, and excited about the assignment. I had never interviewed anyone like Randy and knew it would turn out to be a good experience and give me a chance to redeem myself.

Although we were given three weeks to complete the assignment I was determined to be
proactive and not procrastinate. I wanted to hand in my article knowing I worked as hard as I could. I went to my room, sent out the e-mail letting him know when I was available to
do the interview, and began my research.

When Randy finally responded two weeks had gone by. He informed me that he had been out of town and that I should send him my questions and afterward we would set up a phone interview. “OK,” I thought. “I still have a week. I can surely do my best work in a week.”

I sent my initial questions and waited a few days for a response. It didn’t come. This time my procrastination was not my own doing. Maybe it was bad luck, maybe it was bad timing, or maybe—a part of me felt—it was some sort of karma for all of the times I had put an assignment off until the last minute.

I sent out another e-mail explaining my situation to Randy and urging him to respond promptly. I felt as if I were nagging. I pictured myself in his shoes with bigger priorities than a journalism student and her measly article.

He finally emailed me back. One day … 24 hours … or, as my anxiety-filled brain looked at it, 1440 minutes before the article was due.

His response read as follows: “Please e-mail me your mobile number and I will call when I am out of rehearsal about 6:30 p.m.”

I looked at the time—5:14. I was nervous and, in my own eyesm unprepared. I went through my research and the questions I wished to ask him for the next hour as I awaited the call. This was my first phone interview, and I didn’t want to sound unprofessional. I practiced what I would say out loud to myself. “Hello Randy, first off I’d like to thank you for being available on such short notice.”

No. “Hi, Mr. Jones, yes, this is Mary.” Definitely no. “Yes, this is her, glad to finally get
you on the phone.”

You get the point.

After what seemed like years my phone finally rang. Hesitantly, I answered it. I put my always trustworthy cellular device on speakerphone and pressed record on my laptop. The rest came naturally. I asked whatever questions I had, and then some. We spoke for a couple of hours, and I was comfortable. Why, for a good deal of the time I found myself laughing at the awesome and real responses I was getting out of Randy. The interview went well. He even asked me for the recorded copy for his archives, a request I gladly agreed to.

Looking back, I found it humorous that I was ever nervous in the first place. I went to bed that night feeling confident; ready to tackle the assignment in the morning. Look out journalism world, there’s a new sheriff in town! And she’s ready to capture this cowboy!

The next morning I woke up, made a fresh pot of coffee and sat down at my desk. I pulled up the interview on my laptop and plugged in my headphones, ready to transcribe the interview. I pressed play on the voice recorder app, but something went wrong. My voice, and then his, came through the headphones incoherently. We sounded like if Darth Vadar and The Terminator had a love child, and his voice was recorded and put through a voice changer in slow motion.

OK, The Terminator-love child thing may be a slight exaggeration (as well as a sensitive topic for some) but my situation wasn’t good. I couldn’t make out a single word of the interview. Our voices were so distorted and sounded so odd that under any other circumstance it would’ve had me in an uncontrollable fit of laughter. Instead I wanted
to cry.
I remained as calm as one can given the situation. I thought, optimistically, that maybe it was just my crappy laptop going through one of its monthly malfunctions. I emailed Pearlman and gave him a general idea of what had happened. He reassured me that it was going to be all right, one way or another, though at this point I couldn’t see how.

In one last attempt to fix the situation I converted what I had recorded from my computer to my phone. This took a good half hour because my laptop is a little slow. It was
probably just the computer, I reassured myself.

To calm my growing anxiety I put my headphones in and put the Beatles on shuffle. Something about those four loveable English men always lightens my mood. But even they couldn’t help me; “Don’t let me down, Mary, don’t let me down”. I pictured my professor and Randy Jones singing these words to me as I stood before them with a blank sheet of paper and no interview.

Just before my thoughts could manifest themselves into anything else I looked at my
computer and noticed the sync was complete. It was the moment of truth. I pressed pause on the Pearlman Jones Beatles cover and pulled up the interview on my phone. As The Terminator voice played through my speaker in slow motion my heart dropped in the same way.

Unsure of what to do I took a deep breath and decided to e-mail Pearlman again and explain that the interview was as good as lost. While I was doing this all I could think is that my last chance to prove myself as a journalist to my professor and to myself was ruined. Defeated, I dropped into the chair at my desk as the words of Randy Jones began to echo through my head: I need a copy of the interview for my archives. Copy. Archives. Copy. Interview for my archives. You’re a terrible journalist.

Of course, his voice came to me in the Terminator-Darth Vader one I don’t think I’ll
ever be able to shake.

I sat frozen for a few minutes. We all know the feeling. So overwhelmed that nothing around you matters. I begin laughing, but not in the fun-soul-lifting-calorie-burning way. I sounded more like a dying hyena frying in the sun. It seems crazy but, if you’ve ever experienced a situation like this, you’ll know that for the moment, you are crazy.

Think, I told myself. “Just think.” Two whole hours of interview—gone. “But I remember it, right?” I asked myself out loud. “You can do this, Mare, you can do this. Just write what you remember”

“YOU CAN’T DO THIS!” I yelled again. “You have the memory of an amnesiac dog.”

“OK,” my voice is calm again, “relax you psychopath.”

Temporary schizophrenic rage aside, second me was right. The only way out of this journalist nightmare was to relax, take a deep breathe, and try the Beatles once more. Then I’d know what to do.

I let out one last ugly laugh, fell backward onto my bed and placed my headphones back in my ears. Closing my eyes I tried to forget about my situation. I found, with a sigh, that it was an inescapable one. “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away, now it looks as though they’re here to stay.” Paul was right—they were here to stay.

The moment I started talking to Paul McCartney like he’s some sort of God, that’s when I knew I needed to snap out of it. I was in a situation no amount of angelic harmonization could help. I ripped the headphones out of my ears and threw my iPod onto the windowsill beside my bed. I jumped out of bed, I gave my laptop one last dirty look before rushing out of my room.

Whenever I’m in a writing-major induced insanity phase, I always find it’s better to get some fresh air. I sat on the quad for a good half hour with some friends. I felt better temporarily but found myself too distracted by what had happened to participate or even listen to any of the conversation around me. So I decided to go back inside.

In my room I picked up my phone from the desk and saw an e-mail from Pearlman. In the e-mail he offered two options. The first was to write the article to the best of my ability without the interview, and the second was to write a piece on how a simple assignment turned into a disaster.

I breathed a sigh of relief and sit down at my computer. Calm for the first time since I woke up this morning, I begin writing. And that’s where I am now. No Randy Jones article, no interview for his archives, and, frankly, with nothing else to say on the matter except what I learned from the whole experience.

Not everything is going to go as planned, there are always going to be hopeless
situations that don’t work out, and at times you’re going to feel like you have failed. That’s life, especially for a journalist. This will always be true, but I also realized that in any predicament—no matter how crappy—there will always be something good that comes from it.

Like a life lesson, for example, or an over-dramatized lighthearted story. Sometimes, in the words of my favorite four, you just have to let it be.

5 thoughts on “When a Journalism Project Goes Terribly Wrong, by Mary Evans”

  1. Reminds me of a paper I had to do for my social studies class in high school. I spent hours on it and felt it was one of the best that I had ever written. It was eleven o’clock at night and all I had to do was print it out. I moved my chair back to get some paper and my foot got tangled up in the power chord, and bam, the word processor was turned off and my paper with it. These were the days before auto save mind you. I grabbed a soda and pressed on. Moral of story: Don’t give up when all seems lost

  2. I could feel Mary’s anxiety through her writing. We’ve all been in similar situations. If she’s not at this point yet, she’ll learn to laugh at this experience. As her writing in this story illustrates – she’ll make a great journalist.

    And kudos to Jeff for giving her this option. After a similar nightmare in college, I wasn’t given a Plan B.

  3. The Mighty Quinn

    The moral of the story is that technology is great, but technology fails.

    Always take notes when interviewing someone. Don’t rely solely on a transcript after the fact.

    (Also, and I hate to tell either the writer or Mr. Pearlman this, but it’s pretty easy to manipulate the speed at which an Mp3 recording can be played. Without knowing the specifics, it’s impossible to say, but the interview may well be recoverable.)

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