There’s a legendary assignment in UConn’s newswriting classes called “sudden death”: starting from your journalism lab on Oak Hall’s fourth floor, you’re given just about an hour to run out, find a story—almost any story—and give your lab instructor a working draft.
Sometime last spring, my first sudden death was a features assignment: ask people about their crazy roommate experiences. After a couple of polite rejections, a kindly graduate student humored me. He said—
It pains me to admit this… but I don’t remember what he said. I turned in the assignment and did well enough, but I never thought to save it. The story, now, is lost to my poor memory and poor organization. Except I think it involved a plate of cold banana bread, a plaster wall and some pastry-based rage.
Alyssa Hughes was a WHUS radio host, another person willing to humor me and let me sit in on one of her Tuesday night shows. At the time I was a Daily Campus feature writer, and I wanted to profile Alyssa because she was constantly excited to be telling stories.
Her show was called “Wake Up America.” She played hip-hop, soul and R&B, but it wasn’t just about music. All the songs came with stories.
“I wanted to play my mom and dad’s songs,” Alyssa told me. “She would stay up late cleaning while listening to Maxwell’s ‘Fortune.’ She loved R&B. My dad loved straight rap.”
The show absolutely was about music, but it was also about her family, love, soul and social justice. She talked about what rap meant to her, about discrimination she faced on campus as a black woman and about art as a force for positive good. Every story she told left room to tell several stories for a follow up.
I was a little bit in awe by how easy it seemed for one hour to generate so many vivid moments. Profile features taught me, in simple terms, that if you demonstrate you’ll actually listen, people will love to tell their stories. And my time at the Daily Campus has left me in awe there’s a craft to study how we better observe, question and explain stories.
And that craft comes with a mission too. We serve the community by doing everything we can to make sure these vital stories are not lost to history or poor memory. Not every lost story is about banana bread focused conflicts; some are about the ways our lives are run. Every story is about people, and how they’re treated.
One of my first assignments as news editor was to cover a College Republicans meeting dominated by talk of Donald Trump’s nomination. Pro-Trump and anti-Trump members argued about the very identity of their party, as was happening across the country. A tiny subset of history was playing out in that ITE classroom.
And Nov. 9 was history as well too. As the results rolled in early that morning, Eric Crúz Lopez, a undocumented UConn student and community organizer, felt that his family’s lives threatened. He started planning a reaction.
Over 500 demonstrators from the UConn community showed up to Eric’s “Rally for the People”< http://dailycampus.com/stories/2016/11/9/after-trump-election-organizer-demands-uconn-make-statements-supporting-undocumented-students>. They were scared; they were angry. And also in the crowd, were a few Trump supporters.
The attendants marched across campus chanting, they shared their experiences and their concerns. Eric demanded (and received) a promise from UConn’s chief diversity officer to put out a statement announcing the university’s support for undocumented students, people of color, LGBTQ students: all the groups they felt would be threatened
I told that day’s events as one story, but the attendees and speakers shared enough to make very clear there are always more stories to be told, more people to listen to. There was work to be done.
And I remember too, it happened to be sudden death day: there were students with notebooks here and there chasing the moment, asking questions, trying to find the human story.
Journalism is about people, and more specifically, it’s about other people. It’s about listening to other people. It’s about checking our own egos and realizing there’s a limitless cache of human stories out there just waiting to be told.
We can’t measure the Daily Campus’s successes (or failures) in angry comments or page likes; we measure it in trust. I knew we were doing something right in the moments that sources trusted us enough to reach out with their sensitive stories, when both sides of a conflict told us we reported on it accurately or when I heard students talking about the community using DC reporting as a talking point. Those were my proudest moments as an editor.
We can’t always accomplish the projects we set out to do. We can’t always play the watchdog we hope to be. We’re students; everything we do at UConn is a learning experience. The Daily Campus’s first mission is educational. Part of that is educating students outside of the paper on what journalists do and how a newspaper serves a community. That means we as reporters have a mission to earn the student body’s trust.
My time at the Daily Campus made for the most formative experiences of my years at UConn. We’re privileged to have the resources and the editorial freedom that we have. We’re lucky to run an organization and work alongside our friends, and we’re lucky to learn the ropes covering the complicated, dynamic communities of UConn.
The lessons that the Daily Campus has taught me are simple: Let your stories surprise you. Your most important methods will be persistence, humility and curiosity. Remain in motion. Remain in service. Remain in wonder.
Christopher McDermott is the news editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.