My journey into the crazy world of college newspaper publishing

Apr 6th, 2009 | By | Category: Commentary

Zach Becker

Editor-in-Chief

I lost my job. My friends betrayed me. And I couldn’t participate in my favorite (and only) activity.

To top it off, they keyed my just-repainted truck.In this May 2005 photo, Zach Becker works on the first issue of The Edge independent student newspaper at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas. Becker would operate the paper for over 2 years.

But through it all, I kept my integrity intact.

And as bad as that day was, it gave rise to one of the most fulfilling and enriching experiences of my life. Let me explain the details of how I got started out in this crazy independent college newspaperin’ business.

It started my freshman year at Barton County Community College, where I had served as editor-in-chief of Barton’s student newspaper.

The newspaper was special at Barton. We were consistently one of the top community college papers in the state and won many awards.

It was a student paper, but we aimed to be as professional as possible. In fact, in my one short year at Barton, we had conducted a successful investigation into fraud in the athletic department.

I guess we were a little too successful as investigative journalists, which led to an administrative attempt to censor our newspaper.

At the end of the year, they fired our faculty advisor for not blocking our investigation.

By the end of that year, I was disillusioned with the whole school and I just didn’t want to stay at Barton any longer.  I decided to transfer to Fort Hays State University, an hour away from my hometown of Great Bend.

First order of business was joining the school newspaper, The University Leader. I signed on as a copy editor and staff writer, earning a small salary.

Unfortunately, The University Leader was nothing like I hoped. The paper was probably at an all-time low in its 100-year history.

Sexual innuendo. Inside jokes. Obvious typographical errors. Erroneous reporting. Poor layout and design. And that was just in one issue.

From my first day on the job, it was painfully obvious – the majority of the staff just plain didn’t care what was printed, as long as they kept getting paid.

While I respected the chain of command and tried to fit in as best I could, I frequently clashed with my superiors and co-workers over just about every area of the publication.

It all came to a head when our editor-in-chief decided to write a now-infamous (at least in Hays) opinion article entitled “What is proper penis etiquette?” It was an amazingly vulgar attempt at humor that, frankly, had no place in a college publication.

I argued vehemently with the editor-in-chief against publishing the article. I even told him I thought it could get him fired as editor. It turns out I was not far off.

Over my objections, the article made it to print and boy, did it cause a backlash. Readers were appalled, and several advertisers pulled their sponsorships.

Finally, the pitiful record of the school publication got the attention of the administrators. They found a technicality for which they could demote the editor-in-chief from his position.

At last, I thought, my chance to make things better. I would apply for the top position and hopefully turn the Leader around. I was the only person on staff with experience leading a newspaper.  My chances looked good.

But things didn’t quite work out that way.

Before the student publications board had time to start screening applicants for the position, our advisor summarily named an interim editor-in-chief.

His first move as interim editor… eliminate the competition. He knew I’d be applying for the job and he wanted to cut me off. We’d disagreed in the past, but honestly, I considered him a friend.

Actually, I thought I was friends with almost everyone on staff. I was wrong.

They eventually found a trumped up reason to get rid of me. I had information I promised to keep confidential, and this interim editor wanted me to violate that trust.

When I took my dinner break during that same newspaper production night, I got a phone call from our new editor. He told me he never wanted to see me back at the paper until I told them what they wanted to know.

I told him I wouldn’t breach my integrity and that he was an idiot.  I was the most dedicated person on staff and he would regret this decision.

So, our interim editor – in his first week in the position – didn’t even have the guts to let me go in person.

Since they didn’t actually have a real reason to fire me, however, I continued getting paychecks for doing nothing for the rest of the semester, so there was some upside, I guess.

But here was the real topping on the cake.

I had to go back to the college to work on a group project for a class that same night I got “fired.”
I parked near the library, which happened to be close to the Leader office. As walked in, I passed one of my former co-workers at the Leader, who obviously noticed me.

When I returned to my truck, which had just been repainted a month earlier, someone had keyed it. Whether mere coincidence or not, it put an exclamation mark on a horrible day, so much so that I considered transferring again to another school.

A week or two later, I was at my grandparent’s house eating dinner and discussing the whole situation. Then my uncle made a suggestion: why not start your own student newspaper? No way. Not possible. It’s a crazy idea…

But then, I started looking into it. Printing costs weren’t as much as I thought. I had money saved up that the Leader was paying me for not coming to work. And I knew how to produce a newspaper from start to finish. Most of all, I was thoroughly motivated to kick the competition’s butt.

Then, it needed a name: The Edge: The voice of integrity at Fort Hays State University. Best to put the intentions of the paper right on the top of page 1.

Now all I needed was a staff. Since I didn’t have any money, they had to be volunteers. Underground contributor Nathanael Bassett, right, debates the finer points of journalism with assistant editor Jason McGill during production night for this issue of the paper.

I put up some fliers around campus and was amazed by the talented people that came forward to help out in many different areas without any financial compensation.

For the next two years, we kicked the Leader’s behind and forced them to improve in the process. They actually have a decent product now, at least last I saw.

The Edge and its staff won numerous awards from the Kansas Associated Collegiate Press, including a Bronze award for the overall publication, competing head-to-head with all the four-year, fully-funded college newspapers in the state.

It was an awesome ride. I met and worked with a lot of great people. And let’s face, it was nice to get sweet, sweet revenge.

You may wonder if I have as interesting a story to tell about starting The Underground.

Not exactly.

I had no axe to grind with The Standard. In fact, I do not even know anyone that works there.

My only interaction with them was at the beginning of the semester when I applied to be on staff at The Standard. Someone called me back and said they didn’t currently have any open positions.

Bummer.

Then I started to think… Why not try it again, for old times’ sake?

And so I put up some fliers, found some more talented, dedicated volunteers, and a new independent student newspaper was born: The Underground.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it.

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