Final Column: Making Dad proud

Former managing editor, Matt Zabierek, and his father, Mark, are seen after Zabierek's high school graduation in June 2012. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Zabierek)

So, as it turns out, college does not last forever, and, eventually, they make you leave (albeit not before sending that one last tuition bill).

Trying to sit and accurately reflect upon what has been the best, most demanding and most fulfilling year of my life just days after seeing my time as managing editor end seems like an absurd task.

Final columns like this typically read along the lines of, “I can’t believe I’m writing this... I’ve been dreading this for some time.”

The truth is, however, this column has been written in my heart since I began as managing editor. It was at that time that – though I initially pursued the position because I wanted to play a larger role in the paper’s continual improvement while working alongside some of my best friends – I also realized I cherished the future opportunity more as a chance to honor my past.

My love for journalism was initiated at a young age by my Dad. Saturday mornings were spent at the local diner over more plates of hot breakfast food than I’d like to admit while reading excerpts from the Wall Street Journal, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and whatever biographical book my Dad had recently finished.

When I was 13, I told him I wanted to become a sportswriter to become like my sports writing idol, ESPN’s weekly columnist Bill Simmons.

“Matt, there’s no reason that you couldn’t be better than Simmons,” he often told me with unwavering conviction.

My Dad was the only person who, even if only for a brief moment, could make me feel like I could do anything. Of course, deep down I didn’t truly believe I could become the most prosperous sports writer of my own generation. But what teenage boy wouldn’t do anything to make his dad proud?

As a junior in high school who never earned higher than a ‘C’ in any composition class, I followed my Dad’s encouragement and began to pursue a career in writing by beginning a sports blog. The summer leading into my senior year of high school was spent working alongside my Dad, seeking feedback from him on every draft I wrote before publication.   

It was during those months I realized that – though I initially created a blog to progress toward my career goals – the real reason I pursued a future in writing and journalism was to grow closer to my Dad.

I arrived at the University of Connecticut with every intention of studying journalism and getting involved at The Daily Campus to fulfill our shared dream of me becoming a sports columnist.

As a freshman, my Dad cheered me through moments of frustration and self-doubt, as it became harder for me to believe that I belonged with older, more polished writers at the newspaper, let alone that I could eventually write for a career.

“Just wait until you’re running the newspaper one day,” he would often say to me in moments of solace as I struggled to find the confidence to step out and apply myself early in college.     

On June 8, 2013, my Dad passed away unexpectedly from heart failure – just hours after I wrote to him on Facebook to say I’d be taking him to Pirates game for Father’s Day next Sunday.  

Since that day almost three years ago, I have tried to write about and reflect upon my Dad’s death on many occasions and come away unhappy with it each time. I’m not really sure how to talk about the following, so I guess I just will.

I loved my Dad. Although far from perfect, he was my best friend, most fervent supporter and closest confidant. The proverbial platitude of “so-and-so made me who I am today” does not justly characterize the depth of his continued influence on my life.

When my Dad passed away, he took the purpose and passion we shared for my career goals and left me lost with no direction or drive. I considered changing my major from journalism. I considered transferring to a different school, or even dropping out of college altogether.

A dark and difficult sophomore year at UConn following my Dad’s passing was crowned with a sliver of light. A text of encouragement from a friend led me to apply to become a copy editor for The Daily Campus. Somewhere, somehow, my Dad provided me the bravery to respond by stepping out and becoming what I was meant to be.  

Upon working my first late-night shifts in the Daily Campus newsroom, I quickly gravitated to the idea of coming together with friends and peers to create something meaningful every day while just maybe making some memories along the way. It wasn’t before long that I knew I had found a home and family at UConn.

Zabierek and Daily Campus colleagues are seen at the newspaper's annual banquet on April 30, 2016. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Zabierek)

When the opportunity came to apply for the managing editor position and replace my beloved predecessor, Katie McWilliams, I felt completely out of place and unworthy. As someone who had recently only spent a single semester at the paper and could barely manage to not lose my wallet or mismatch my socks, I felt thoroughly unqualified to lead and manage a staff of 100 peers and direct the editorial operations of a daily newspaper with an annual budget in excess of $500,000.

Apprehensions be damned,  I could not have imagined any better way to say goodbye to my Dad than by honoring and vindicating the confidence and pride he once held in me. I wanted to become managing editor, in part, to know that I would have made him proud by accomplishing what he believed I could.

With the help of many, this year at The Daily Campus has gone better than I could have ever hoped. One year ago, our newspaper did not have anything resembling a satisfactory website through which to reach audiences outside of Storrs, Connecticut. In some ways, The Daily Campus was failing to survive as a student media organization in a modern news landscape.

In the past year, with the help of our extraordinary digital editor, Jack Mitchell, who single-handedly constructed the website you are staring at, our newspaper has attracted over 1.6 million page views in eight months of publishing content, while, in turn, improving our social media to attract a college audience. Our reporting staff has exploited these evolved platforms by dramatically improving the way in which it breaks news to contend with professional newspapers across Connecticut.   

In short, we’ve grown up as a real news outlet in today’s age.  

The future is now for The Daily Campus. The paper is in a position to become one of the premier collegiate newspapers in the country, and I am fully confident that next year’s excellent group of leaders will continue to push the paper to that potential.  

The immense amount of day-to-day work required to print a 12-page newspaper and produce online content daily (while remaining as full-time students) is an extraordinary effort in itself, and I cannot understate how proud I am of everyone who has contributed to our daily product and improvement.  

But it hasn’t been any published story, snazzy print design or online traffic statistic that has made the last year so entirely fulfilling for me. In between the printed sheets we spent many late nights forming are the memories we made en route to each final product.  

It’s the jokes, the pranks, the awful (and awfully loud) Spotify playlists, the parties, the games of catch with a football, the Snapchats, the quote wall, the f-bombs, the piled up pizza boxes, the moments of doubt and frustration, the times we leaned against each other laughing, the 4:50 a.m. nights, and the 5 a.m. deadlines.  

Those memories are at the heart of any worthwhile experience at a student newspaper, and what has made my time as managing editor nothing short of a yearlong dream. Stepping into a position that paid me to spend weeknights with my friends while affording me a creative outlet with which to bring hundreds of people news was an absolute privilege. And I don’t use those words lightly – an absolute privilege.

I am forever indebted to The Daily Campus for providing me with a place in college where I could thrive and grow every day both personally and professionally. To the many people who have contributed in making the last two years the best of my life, you know who you are and I am wholly grateful for your friendship, support and character. I cannot imagine a better group of people to work alongside. Regardless of how my future unfolds, I will never forget my time here. 

To my mother: You are the hardest worker I have ever known. Twenty-one years of watching your exemplary work ethic and diligence prepared and inspired me to conquer the workload that was handed to me this school year. I will forever think of and attribute you any time others make note of my work ethic. I can't thank you and Craig enough for working tirelessly to provide every opportunity to me. I love you.  


Zabierek and his mother, Melissa Conley, sister, Brie, and girlfriend, Bailey Wright, are seen following Zabierek's college graduation on Sunday, May 8, 2016. Zabierek graduated from UConn with a degree in both journalism and psychology. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Zabierek)
 

To my beautiful, loving, and, most importantly, patient, girlfriend, associate managing editor and successor as managing editor, Bailey Wright: I would not have been able to endure the last four taxing months without you by my side. Thank you for your endless support and for enriching my life every day.  You are much more qualified as you begin as managing editor than I was, and I have no doubt that you will do great things for The Daily Campus. You deserve the world. 

To my predecessor, Katie McWilliams: Your leadership had a bigger impact on me than you will ever know. Thank you for seeing potential in me that I did not always see in myself and pushing me to reach that potential. Upon being hired as managing editor, I sought to just be a fraction of the leader to others that you were to me, and, hopefully, never let you down.  

To my friend and colleague, Jack Mitchell: Without your encouragement, I would have never made my way to The Daily Campus and had the best experiences of my time in college. Working alongside you this year to direct our daily content has been as good as it gets. I sincerely hope we cross paths and work together again in the future.  

To my editor-in-chief and yearlong work wife, Kayvon Ghoreshi: Thank you for being there every night for the last eight months to support me through the demands of making 60 newspaper pages weekly as a full-time student. You instilled faith in me to direct our editorial operations and, for better or for worse, allowed me to be myself, and for that I will always be grateful.  

And, finally, to my Dad: Thank you for your everlasting impact on my life. There have been few newspaper pages I’ve checked or decisions I’ve made in the past year as manager without reflecting on your encouragement and wisdom. I know you are somewhere overflowing with pride with a cold beer in your hand and a brimming smile on your face.

Thank you, Dad. We did it.


Matthew Zabierek is the outgoing managing editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at matthew.zabierek@uconn.edu. He tweets @MatthewZabierek.