Pre-semester jitters

For the past few weeks, I’d been applying, researching and preparing to run for editor in chief of The Independent Florida Alligator, which is billed as the nation’s largest student-run newspaper.

As of Aug. 1, I have the job. I’ve been looking forward to this since I started at the Alligator, and I’m surprisingly feeling a lot of mixed emotions now that I’ve got it.

When I started, I knew I would stick around out of loyalty to the paper and hoped to one day head the organization. However, as I started getting more involved with online journalism, the burning desire to take over grew from frustration with editors who ignored or looked down on our Web site from their high horse.

Some past editors saw the site as nothing more than a way to archive print stories and occasionally scoop The Gainesville Sun. As a student at a college newspaper, I can see the potential for our Web site to take risks and do some truly great journalism – with less bureaucratic oversight than a traditional news organization.

And knowing the types of people we’ve had on our online staff (i.e. Brett Roegiers and Megan Taylor), there’s no reason we shouldn’t be producing consistently stellar online content.

One concern I have is the content management system our site is running on. After some severe miscommunication, our well-meaning general manager signed a two-year contract for a very rigid and outdated CMS. The online staff should not have to spend most of its night shoveling stories onto the Web site.

It’s been a year, and I don’t see why we should continue dealing with the problems this CMS is causing. At the same time, it’s a matter of weighing the penalties of breaking the contract and switching to an open-source CMS with keeping the contract and letting the same limitations persist.

I know what I want, but I’m not a dictator, and I need to involve others in the decision-making process.

In the mean time, I’m getting these great online ideas from people who are returning for the fall, and I get so excited to hear them. Then I wonder how long it would take to make it happen or if we can even do them on this CMS, and I worry.

I just want the best for the Alligator. I want to make Alligator.org a journalism juggernaut. I lose sleep over potential setbacks.

All this time, I’ve imagined myself as being the one who could better the online product while maintaining the integrity of the print product. Now, I feel frustrated that maybe I won’t be the one to get the staff or administration to change their print-centric mindset.

I get discouraged, and I worry about my qualifications. I only know multimedia basics, but I guess it is a matter of mindset over skill set. At the same time, I know it’s going to be long and arduous process and that I have to keep my chin up.

I have so many ideas to start improving our Web site, but now I’m starting to feel overwhelmed. There is a big mess to clean up. It’s like I’m Ty Pennington on Extreme Home Makeover, except he’s not sure how many volunteers are going to show up.

Then when I feel down, I think of past editors who did a great job with the paper yet were rigid when it came to innovation and an understanding of the Web site’s potential. That’s the difference. I can see that, and I’m open to so many ideas.

As I’ve been telling prospective staffers, this is the semester for innovation and ideas. I don’t care how crazy it sounds; I will try any idea once. The way I see it, if we try something and it flops, well, we just won’t do it again. This semester is our chance to experiment.

My spirits have been picking up this week, though. One of my section editors agreed to stick around even though it meant turning down an internship.

“I just knew I would be leaving at the wrong time,” she said. “I didn’t want to look at the paper and Web site every day and wish I had been a part of it. I know you’re going to do a good job.”

Those were words I needed to hear.

30 Responses to Pre-semester jitters

  1. May I ask what CMS you’re using currently at The Alligator? Any descriptions of what it lacks?

    What kind of features are you looking for in a new CMS?

  2. Very cool! From what I’ve heard about you, I think you’re going to do a great job. -Tina

  3. Jessica,
    First I’d like to say congratulations (again) on getting the editor position! I recently finished my tenure as editor in chief of a small community college newspaper stuck where I tried to innovate and improve the online product with limited success.

    The CMS is a giant hurdle to overcome — especially if you have a contract. Also if it’s causing that much of a headache with uploading content you can’t get breaking news updates or extra content published throughout the day. It’s a tough call and I’d suggest discussing a new CMS with your editing staff.

    One of the biggest things I’d say is go with your gut. I know this is a cliche and it’s annoying but college newspapers need to be the breeding ground for innovation and you can’t innovate if you’re afraid to fall on your face.

    Sounds like you have good staffers, ready to jump in feet first and all that stuff.

    Can’t wait to see what you’ve got cooking,
    J. Silfies

  4. Holly Setter says:

    Jessie, hun, just the fact that you’re worried about all of this is a great indicator to me just how well you’re going to do in your position. You’re open to hearing what others have to say, willing to try new things, passionate about your organization and your work… and that’s what it takes to make great changes.

  5. Kate Martin says:

    Jessica,

    Man I wish I were 20 again. This sounds incredibly exciting! What CMS is the open source one that doesn’t suck? Quite honestly it sounds like my paper could use it too :p

    Keep us all updated on how it’s going.

  6. Rich says:

    You know my vote is going for Django, but if you can’t swing the programmers, ExpressionEngine is what I would choose. I would stay away from WordPress if you’re serious.

  7. Greg Linch says:

    I came into my term as editor of The Miami Hurricane with the goal of moving our site away from College Publisher, a process that will be complete when the new site fully launches later this month. I had discussed this with the previous editor, art director and webmaster after my election in spring 2007, as well as the incoming business manager (we’re all students and don’t have a general manager).

    Having a consensus in the newsroom for such a big change is important. From what I’ve seen in the back-end of TownNews (Megan showed me once) and heard, that should be the easy part. Convincing the business/administration side will likely be the most difficult part.

    Would the general manager let you break the contract? What would the penalty be?

    Hopefully, you can find a way to move forward. Even if you’re stuck with the current CMS for your term, you can start work on a new site for the next year.

    Good luck!

  8. Meranda says:

    Part of me would love to be in your spot today, only knowing what I know now. I was just telling one of my co-workers (she actually worked for me as a copy editor when I was in your spot two years ago beginning my term as editor of my student paper) how differently I would have approached … everything.

    But it isn’t so. I had to take chances and make mistakes to know what I do today. You’ll do the same. Learn from them and move on. Some of your chances will work out great. Others, notsomuch. There will be nights where you can’t sleep because you’re wondering if you made the right decision to publish, or not publish, something, or where you mull over a decision a hundred times looking for something you may have missed. It will be hard to hold back the times when you want to just do it right yourself but have to rely on and trust the people you hired. (Sometimes they’ll surprise you; sometimes, they will let you down.) You will answer more calls from more strangers angry about more things than you ever imagined could possibly upset someone in one day’s report. Just listen, be polite and be honest. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a few calls and e-mails telling you when you did all right, too. And if you hear from people who commend you, take it to heart.

    Although I loved my term as editor and felt I really helped move my paper from where it was to what it needed to be, the most important lesson I learned was actually about myself. That was simply I never want to be EIC again. Ever. I wasn’t bad at it, and I definitely have the potential. But I just felt like I was too far from the actual decisions and reporting that made a real difference. I much prefer the ground level. That was a hard lesson to learn, I mean who doesn’t want to lead? But it’s one I’m glad I learned early on.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is: Have fun. Take it seriously, but don’t take it too seriously. Take risks, with who you hire and what you cover and how. Don’t regret what does or doesn’t work out, or lament later what might have been. This could be the first and last chance you have to lead an organization like this. Just absorb everything you can — even the hard to swallow bits — and learn from it. Good luck!

  9. Hey guys,

    This is the current online editor (who’s inexplicably missing from this post — thanks, Jess). I’d be the one actually implementing any of “Ty”‘s changes here, so here’s my take:

    1) We use TownNews. It sucks. Apparently, when it was written, the concept of a database had escaped the developers there. It compiles static pages when you hit a global “publish” button (how quaint!). It literally just shovels all of the static content out exactly like publishing a newspaper for the day. If I’ve, say, left a video from the previous day in the multimedia folder, it then republishes that video with a different date.

    I’d like to explain to you all how many files require manual editing (try the 2 front page templates, every night, for starters), but I don’t want you all to break down in tears at your desks.

    2) Django — ah, Django. I love it. I’m in the process of getting a Django server up and running at the Alligator right now. It just needs a static IP so I can SSH in and start working. It’s going to be running a separate and supplemental site to start, but who knows where it will be going from there. It’s definitely something you should watch.

    @Patrick I just followed you on Twitter, so get in touch if you want to talk CMSs — I’ve dabbled in laying out a rough draft for a Django CMS, so I’ve thought a decent amount about it.

    -Ken

  10. I will say, however, that it’s refreshing to have an editor who’s very Web-first. The last I worked under was a fine print editor, but between him and the other M.E., not much online thought really wandered through their heads.

  11. Looks like you will do just fine. Your Web site is already ahead of the curve compared to many college newspapers and you obviously know what you’re doing.

  12. @Ken – Sorry for leaving you out of this post – not cool on my part, especially considering this is all going to be stuff you have to do, and I’m sure you feel just as overwhelmed.

    To make another bad TV analogy, I’m like Pat Sajak and Ken is like Vanna White. I’m running the show, but he’s the one actually making things happen.

  13. @Ken

    Yes, and I just followed you as well. I’ll send you a message soon.

    Scripps Interactive Group, where I work, uses Ellington (and thus Django) across all of our properties. I can give you some insight into how it comes together, and what might be the useful pieces should you go this direction.

  14. Greg Linch says:

    Shameless plug for a Ning group I started in the spring, co-founded with Megan Taylor and Kevin Koehler:

    College Content Management

  15. Tired says:

    Will you ever learn? In your posts about the Tampa Tribune, you alluded to the idea of how you learned from your mistakes in those posts, how you have to watch your words better. Obviously, you need a really, really strong copy editor going over your blog because there are statements in here that show you have learned nothing and are still an arrogant brat who wants to play in the real world but doesn’t have the skills, tact or professional decorum. What can you expect from someone who is so arrogant to call herself the “lovely and talented” and who posts a photo of herself vamping with her blog? That photo looks more like it belongs in a lineup of stupid things I did when I was drunk than it does on a blog that attempts to write about serious issues. Notice that I said attempts. I think you are failing miserably.

    You wrote:
    However, as I started getting more involved with online journalism, the burning desire to take over grew from frustration with editors who ignored or looked down on our Web site from their high horse.

    How is telling people that they are looking down on the Web site from the “high horse” going to get you cooperation and respect? Why don’t you get down from your know-it-all high horse? You have a lot to learn about getting along with people, motivating people to work for you and building a great team. As one who has been a leader of newsroom teams, you are off to a really awful start.

    You wrote
    Some past editors saw the site as nothing more than a way to archive print stories and occasionally scoop The Gainesville Sun. As a student at a college newspaper, I can see the potential for our Web site to take risks and do some truly great journalism – with less bureaucratic oversight than a traditional news organization.

    You will find that even at college newspapers, there is bureaucratic oversight. The college paper is a microcosm of what you will find if you ever land a job in the real world (and from what I’ve read on these posts, I find it doubtful that you’ll have an easy time of that). Learn to work with that bureaucratic oversight to achieve your goals. Fighting it and slamming it publicly won’t get you far, if anywhere.

    You wrote:
    After some severe miscommunication, our well-meaning general manager signed a two-year contract for a very rigid and outdated CMS.

    Hope you don’t have to work with that general manager, who you most likely just pissed off. Again, you must work on your tact and people skills. If you are going to lead a newspaper, you will have to learn that people need to be managed and you can’t do that from behind a computer screen. You have to interact with them.

    You wrote:
    Now, I feel frustrated that maybe I won’t be the one to get the staff or administration to change their print-centric mindset.

    Good luck, and that was written sarcastically. From all of your posts, I get the impression that you are a 20-something who thinks you know it all and you can fix everything because the rest of the journalism world is stupid. In fact, the opposite is true. The rest of the journalism world has been dilligently working on its problems while you’ve been busy billing yourself as the lovely and talented.

  16. @Tired.

    Making personal attacks while hiding behind your mom’s skirt of anonymity is pretty damn cowardly. I’m not going to bother with more of a response than that because your comment isn’t worth my time.

  17. @Tired: Wow, bitter much? Let me guess: you’re a “really, really strong copy editor” who dabbles in fiction? Yikes.

  18. @Tired, which I can only assume is your real name, which is totally awesome: You are so right about bureaucratic oversight and the importance of tact and people skills on the part of bloated, calcified newspaper management! Learning to get along and work within bureaucratic oversight is exactly why all that diligent work on the part of the existing newspaper industry has led to our current and indisputable financial and editorial success.

    Why, more people read the printed paper than ever, our digital products throw off cash like nobody’s business and there haven’t been job cuts in ages! Steady as she goes, I say. Business as usual is the winning formula! And that was absolutely not written sarcastically, because the future’s so bright I’m buying shares in sunglass manufacturers right now, as I type these very words.

    Your problem, Tired, is that you got no fear of the underdog. And as the lyrics say, that’s why you will not survive. (Bonus round: Name that tune.)

  19. @ Tired.

    I felt like you offered a few nuggets of solid advice, but the snark and nasty tone that run throughout your post, as well as your unwillingness to disclose your identity, suggest that you also might have a thing or two to learn about leadership, mentoring and constructive criticism.

  20. Tired says:

    No, tired is not a copy editor, does not dabble in fiction and is just tired of this 20-something thinking she knows it all. Snarky and nasty tone? How about the snark and nasty tone of the original post. Remember what it is in reply to before attacking the reponse.

  21. As a friend of Jessie’s and one of the managing editors at the Alligator this fall, I can say that she is one of the best-liked staffers at the student paper and one of the most respected. She recruited staffers to come back for another term who swore they were done with the Alligator once and for all. She’s liked by the journalism faculty and people who actually work with her — assuming that you know anything about her leadership skills from her blog posts is beyond arrogant.

  22. Tired says:

    Well, isn’t Hilary Lehman the pot calling the kettle black (assuming that you know anything about her leadership skills from her blog posts is beyond arrogant.)? How the heck do you know if I know jessie or not? You are basing your “opinon” solely on a comment, so you too are “beyond arrogant.”

  23. John Welsh says:

    What better evidence of Jessica DaSilva’s leadership qualities than the fact she has so many people to defend her.

    Please keep us up to date with some of the ideas in the new job. They will undoubtedly be great.

  24. Robert Lowe says:

    I don’t understand how everyone has just had a long discussion about which CMS is best and Drupal hasn’t been mentioned once!?

    It’s a seriously amazing bit of code that goes beyond your average CMS. If you want flexible, powerful and extensible (who doesn’t!) then you want Drupal. Don’t take my word for it. Check out the huge list of organisations that use it:
    http://buytaert.net/tag/drupal-sites

    People are waking up to just how amazing this software is. Serious amounts of investment and contributions are flowing towards it. Nothing else comes close
    http://drupal.org

    Would imagine my fellow web consultants would agree with me. Word Press is a nice blogging tool but if you’re building a proper website, accept no substitute. Install Drupal.

  25. Average Joe says:

    Tired’s acid tone, I think, undermined any wisdom his criticism might have possibly communicated.

    But that tone, I’m afraid, is indicative of the hostility that Miss DaSilva inspired with her poorly timed criticisms of other professionals in her field.

    As a Tribune intern, she added a great many insults to injuries being felt in the Bay area during a period of layoffs. Combined with her relentless fawning over the paper’s top editor, Miss DaSilva managed to fuel much pain and anger.

    (I am not, incidentally, among the Tribune’s — or the country’s — many reporters who lost their jobs this year, though I know several who did. At least two of them had contributed aggressively to their company’s online platforms, prior to getting the axe. Both reporters had excellent reputations. And one was among those let go by the Tampa Tribune.)

    That said, it’s clear that Miss DaSilva is energetic and very passionate. And according to other posts on this page, she is well liked by her young cohorts. That bodes extremely well for her future; I hope that she goes on to do great things. By all means, I would encourage her to keep on questioning authority and precedent; the world needs it now more than ever.

    But for her sake, ours, and especially that of Miss DaSilva’s future sources, who may encounter her during painful and difficult times — I also hope that she develops a greater capacity for empathy over time.

    Or barring that, at least a little more diplomacy.

  26. @Average Joe

    I realize my original post came off as being insensitive, but as I wrote in my follow-up post, I never meant to praise the fact that layoffs were being issued, but that they were being approached with a plan of action.

    I tried to express this in the post “Comment Wars: A New Hope” and in an interview I did with Creative Loafing, which you can read here: http://tampa.creativeloafing.com/gyrobase/the_incredible_shrinking_newsroom/Content?oid=477338

  27. Robert Lowe says:

    **** comment wars! Acknowledge the awesome force that is Drupal! 😛 If your colleagues are unaware of this software, might I suggest a brief article exploring it’s continued success.

  28. Miriam says:

    Super late response as I’m catching up on blog posts. But I just wanted to say hi, as a fellow j-student interested in digital media. I’ve been following your ‘story’ with interest.

    While I see your detractors’ points, I generally feel that they are misinterpreting your tone and intentions. And I also deeply admire your thick skin — I’m not sure I would have handled this sort of attention as well as you have.

    We’re doing our online masthead this term, and I’m very much hoping that I can convince the other students and the professor to do something interesting with it. That’s why this post struck a note with me. I’d love to see someone in charge of our online publication who is forward thinking. I’d be happy to be that person, but really, I just want to see some serious online innovation.

    Of course, in terms of being the editor, I’m at a distinct disadvantage; there are only six students including me from the masters program working on the website, and perhaps twice that many from the undergraduate program. If this is a popularity contest, I’ll undoubtedly lose.

    Good luck!

  29. […] pay period. I’m working on a new budget that meets our needs. We’re still trying to get a CMS. I’m still frantically trying to get people to take their press pass photos and give me two […]

  30. […] of the editors started out this semester bright-eyed and ready to go. Our editor in chief had a game plan, and everyone was ready to follow […]

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