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.

I was a college newspaper advisor

I am not one who likes to carry his anger.

When I’m mad about something, I write about it. Cliche as that sounds, it almost always works. For some reason, putting anger to pen is my release. Does it backfire? Sometimes. Mostly, though, it relieves me; sets my angst free.

I am angry.

I have been angry for, oh, seven months now. The anger has hung with me; followed me; tied itself around my neck. I’ve tried ridding myself of it—through conversation, through exercise, through positive mental imagery. Nothing has worked. So I’m here, at my laptop, on this blog, writing.

I am an adjunct journalism professor at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y. I’m in my third year, and make—I believe—$2,500 per semester. I don’t do this for (obviously) money or (obviously) glory. I do it because I’m genuinely passionate about journalism, and when I think back to the teachers I had at the University of Delaware (specifically, Bill Fleischman, Chuck Stone and Ted Spiker), I recall inspiring men who made me want to leap from my seat and report and write and express and expose and emote. Like those three fantastic professors, I see journalism as, potentially, something beautiful and great. Despite the doom and gloom of 2013, I encourage my students to enter the field. It has, after all, given me a blissful life.

Beginning in the fall of 2011, I took over as advisor to The Touchstone, the school’s student newspaper. As far as I could tell, Manhattanville had never had a regularly published paper. In my first year at the school, it came out, oh, three times. Maybe four. Having attended Delaware, where our paper came out twice per week, I knew (and loved) what a quality student newspaper brings to a campus. First, of course, information. Second, a priceless and invaluable outlet for aspiring journalists. Literally, college writers need college clips to land jobs. Third—and perhaps most important—a sense of community. Back at Delaware, the Review was like its own little ink-stained fraternity. We’d stay up in the office until 3 … 4 in the morning, eating cold pizza, blasting Ween and Nirvana, debating over headlines and jump spaces and ad placement. It became my home away from home; the ugly, soda-stained orange couch became my second bed.

I had been blessed with some wonderful students at Manhattanville, and it pained me—truly pained me—that they were not offered this. So I asked to take over as advisor (unpaid position). And the college agreed. They said they would provide office space and allow complete editorial independence. I told them the paper would, initially, rely on financial assistance from the school (for printing costs), with the long-term goal of generating enough advertising revenue to be self-sufficient. I also told them I would, for the first year or so, work close up with the students, in order to teach them not merely how to be student journalists—but how to be journalists. Everyone was on board.

The first new Touchstone came out in September 2011. It was (I believe) 12 pages. The editor in chief was a student named Marina, a wonderful Brazilian woman who came from a journalism family. The executive editor, Julie, was an aspiring teacher with a magnificent eye for newspaper design and layout. There was a staff of, oh, 15 or so students—strong for a new endeavor. That initial edition was filled with errors and blunders. Bad headlines, run-on sentences, misidentified photographs—and I was as proud as a new parent. The students worked hard. Really hard. On deadline night, they were up until 3 am, eating cold pizza, blasting Tupac. I sat alongside Marina and Julie, exhausted, but also thrilled that, potentially, they were getting a taste of the bliss. A couple of days later I drove out to the Long Island printing press and picked up the paper. I helped the students hand out copies; thrilled by the pride in their faces. This meant something to them and, of course, to me.

Over the ensuing year, the paper came out (almost without fail) every two weeks. There were highs and lows, ups and downs. One columnist wrote a line about, “eating like we’re in Ethiopia” (or something like that), and several Ethiopian students complained. There was an ugly college incident involving racial slurs and a school bus, and the reporters covered it well. Some of the columns were blistering—the food here sucks, this college doesn’t care about us—and I encouraged it. A college newspaper is supposed to be a vent; a place to tee off; to express oneself. It’s a learning tool; a very important one.

Come year’s end, three editors landed top-shelf internships: One at MSNBC and the Rachel Maddow Show, one at Sports Illustrated, one at a Wall Street investment newspaper. I was giddy. Beyond giddy. Another staffer, our sports editor, was hired by NBC Sports. Again—giddy.

I didn’t love 4 am deadline nights; I didn’t love driving 1 1/2 hours to get the newspaper; I didn’t love the exhaustion. But, really, things could not have gone better. It was a wonderful start.

Summer came

Summer went.

Two days into the Fall 2012 semester, I called Marina (the editor) to ask about the newspaper’s first meeting.

“Are you still the advisor?” she said.

“Of course,” I said.

“You may want to check,” she said. “That’s not what I heard.”

I told her she was, surely, wrong. I mean, who dumps a free newspaper advisor? Especially one who helped revive a dead newspaper? Especially one who works in the field and has lots of contacts and loves, loves, loves, loves, loves, loves journalism? I mean, who would do that?

I e-mailed the dean of students.

The dean of students e-mailed me back. He said I should come in for a talk.


I came in for a talk. He stammered and stuttered; lots of “uhhh” and “ehhh.” He said it wasn’t his decision and wasn’t his call, but that the college placed another professor in charge of the newspaper; a professor who has spent the majority of his career doing public relations and consulting. Not that anything’s wrong with public relations and consulting. It’s just not journalism.

The dean told me it wasn’t his call.

“Whose call was it?” I asked.

He didn’t know. Or wouldn’t say.

“So I’ve been fired from an unpaid position?” I asked.

“I’m not sure,” he said.

The editor, Marina, went to The Touchstone office. All the stuff belonging to the previous year’s staff was either removed or thrown out. Nobody told her about the change; nobody told any of the students about the change. A new editor was enlisted—without the new advisor ever telling the old editor she was, like me, dumped.

I was encouraged—by many—to quit the school. “To hell with them,” my mom said. “You don’t need it …”

“No,” the wife said. “You owe it to the students. And you love teaching.”

When I told the heads of my department about the happenings, they had no idea. We wound up having a meeting with the provost. She apologized, also said it wasn’t her call, but that the college was concerned about “the message.” What if prospective students, taking a campus tour, pick up the Touchstone and see a column about crappy food or bad policies? What then? I told her that journalism can’t be taught as public relations; that students must be able to voice their displeasure—and pleasure—in a free forum. A college newspaper is not a promotional pamphlet. A college newspaper is a newspaper.

To my great shock, I sat in front of her and my voice began to crack. Again, I told her, I made no money to do this; I certainly didn’t need to do this for my career. It was, 100 percent, about love, passion, developing journalists, seeing them published and, ultimately, hired. She nodded and smiled and empathized.

The meeting ended.

I was later told, by multiple college officials, that this came down to one thing, and one thing only: Image control.

I felt like I got over it. I really did. My class started its own online newspaper, The Pub Wrap, and that was fulfilling. I was told only my students could contribute; that it couldn’t compete with Touchstone. “Compete?” I said. “This isn’t a contest …”

I moved on; emotionally distanced myself from the college (I’m completing my final semester as we speak); tried to love my students without any of the lingering anger. I brought in some excellent guest speakers (Rick Jervis, a Pulitzer Prize winner; Amanda Sidman from the Today Show; Brian Mansfield of USA Today, Steve Cannella and Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated); had the students do a cool (well, I think it’s cool) final project; pushed the kids toward internships. My class evaluations were excellent. I am, I think, a good teacher.

I was fine.

Then the Touchstone came out. And it was brutal. A pamphlet. A PR pamphlet. Awful layout, no rhyme or reason; mugshots alongside every story. It looks like a bad high school newspaper, or a mediocre junior high school newspaper. (For the record, I don’t blame the students at all. At all. They’re new to this). I actually asked the provost for her take. “I thought it was quite good,” she said.

I was speechless.

And that’s when it hit me. The college doesn’t aspire to a quality student newspaper. It’s about safety. Easiness. Why have an established journalist advise students on journalism when you have a PR person advise students on journalism? Why aim for excellence when mediocrity is so comfortable? Hell, I could have helped my students put out a New York Times-quality product, and it wouldn’t have mattered. It was never about the journalism, per se, or the newspaper.

It was about mediocrity.

So now, Manhattanville’s student newspaper is back where it was two years ago. It’s come out two times thus far, with a dormant website, no Twitter presence, no sense of purpose. The clips are—from a career standpoint—relatively useless, because creativity and aggressiveness are clearly not encouraged. I read it and, literally, feel like crying. So much potential; so much opportunity.

So little interest.

What hurts most (and what, I suppose, inspires me to write this) is that this sort of stuff is going on everywhere. Journalism is, undeniably, under attack. Newspapers are closing. Corporate entities are stifling free press; colleges and universities are cracking down on student-generated publications. We, as a nation, are increasingly comfortable with the idea of limited voice.

It’s a dangerous path.

One, come semester’s end, I no longer want part of.

Division III love

Took my 6-year-old son to the Eastern University-Manhattanville College men’s basketball game today.

The details:

Admission for two: $0.00

Seat location: Front row, near center court.

Final score: Eastern 83, Manhattanville 63.

Time had: Fantastic.

I know … I know—I’m walking into the ultimate cliche: Sports writer dad takes his son to a Division III hoops game in a crappy little gym (indeed, Manhattanville’s Kennedy Gymnasium defines crappy) and rediscovers his love for athletics. Well, uh, yeah. I did take my son to a DIII game in a crappy little gym. And, yes, I was reminded why I dig sports. But, really, it’s more than that.

I often think about spoiling my kids with a Knicks or Nets game. Then I look at the prices (even the cheapest seats) and think, “Well … ahem … well … maybe next season …” It’s not merely the $60 tickets. It’s the $30 parking, the $8 sodas, the $4 snacks. The prices are, to go all Crazy Eddie on you, insane—and unjustifiable. Is Manhattanville star Jack Bramswig Carmelo Anthony? Eh, no. Is Eastern’s Anthony Parenti Deron Williams? Far from it. But, when it comes to sports, everything is relative. When elite players play elite players, the sorta-elite (Brian Scalabrine, Malik Rose, etc) look crappy. That’s why we boo them, even though—truth be told—the worst guy in the NBA is superior to 99.99999 percent of us.

Manhattanville-Eastern was far from a thing of beauty. The Valiants probably had the best three players on the court (Bramswig and guards Colin Campbell and Anthony Maestre, but the team rebounded like crap, missed 801 different open shots and committed some Pearlman-esque turnovers. Eastern, meanwhile, played hard. They’re a bad Division III team (five wins don’t lie), but a scrappy one. Throughout the game I was sitting alongside the parents of Anthony Bertolino, a senior guard from Glenolden, Pa. The couple had driven 3 1/2 hours to watch their kid (they knew they’d done something wrong when they found themselves passing Yankee Stadium), which spoke to me in myriad ways: A. I recall my folks driving four hours to watch me run cross country when I was at Delaware; B. They devoted that time/mileage to catching two bad teams in a bad gym on a frigid-ass day far away from home. That’s love; C. They seemed genuinely thrilled to be there.

As, again, was I. My son couldn’t have been any happier had we been at Madison Square Garden. The action was fast-paced, the six or seven obnoxious student fans were entertaining and the vending machine sold M&Ms for $1.25.

We’ll be back.