On Deadline

“I think we got room for 20 inches on this one. Give me a killer lead.
By the way, you got three minutes.”
–    Henry Hackett (Michael Keaton) in “The Paper” (1994)

It started with a computer disk. A turquoise, now-ancient, three-inch, plastic computer disk that contained my very first story, each word lovingly selected, each sentence carefully completed. As a new staff writer for my college newspaper, The Gateway, I was equal parts elated and fearful at my editor’s pending response. The 600-word story was on the college’s marching band, and I was overtly eager to impress the newspaper staff with my prose. With just a year of journalism experience under my belt working at my high school newspaper, I thought I knew everything I needed to know about AP Style and writing a lead that sang.

I walked into The Gateway offices that afternoon during the fall 1997 semester and was baptized immediately into the Church of Journalism and Late-Night Writing. Working with such creative and passionate people, I would later learn, made me hungry for the printed word and I would do anything I could to continue writing. A fire ignited inside me as I savored each assignment, celebrated each interview, and truly delighted in writing every story. It was as if a hunger inside me would soon be sated, akin to the feeling after a gluttonous Thanksgiving feast. You don’t always recall all the meal’s details, but you know when you are full. The feeling is unmistakable and wonderful.

A few weeks before my first article even appeared in print, I visited The Gateway’s offices to pick up an application and learn the selection of stories the editor would assign me. As I nervously attempted to appear calm and reporter-like, I took a mental inventory of the space located on the first floor of the college’s student union. The entryway was cluttered and messy, with piles upon piles of dated newspapers spilling onto every imaginable surface. Newspaper ink is no delicate substance and seemed to find its way on to tables, desks, and even walls in the form of greasy fingerprints and unidentifiable smudges. I would eventually notice on my hands, as well as the hands of fellow staffers, that the ink caked all too easily on our palms and our appendages like those belonging to children who played in the mud on a summer afternoon; or even adults who too sloppily used cooking oil when preparing a Sunday dinner at home.

A wall mounting of wooden mailboxes served as archaic communication portals between readers and the newspaper’s staff. Each aged box was labeled with a staffer’s name, usually slips of paper with handwritten first names and last names taped to the mailboxes’ chipped tongues, like open mouths waiting to be fed. I secretly imagined where my name would soon appear. Ugly, tattered couches whose aged appearances belied their supreme comfort were grouped together, all facing toward a tiny television that got poor reception. This was a college newspaper office that had seen many late nights, evident by the empty pizza boxes, candy wrappers, and soda cans that littered the room. On countless occasions the newspaper office looked like the aftermath of an outdoor concert, cluttered with indeterminate debris scattered about, but evidence enough that a good time was truly had by all. The lived-in feel here immediately put me at ease.

Using a typewriter at work the next day, I completed the newspaper’s homemade application, careful to ensure each nugget of information was accurate. I then faxed my application to the newspaper, along with a cover letter and my resume. Finally – I thought to myself as I used my index finger to dial the phone number on the fax machine’s dirty keypad – I have discovered what it is I’m supposed to be doing. I am a storyteller and a writer. I must do this.

A few weeks later, the editor in chief called to inform me he received my application and that he would pass my name on to the news editor.

“We’d love to have you write for us,” said Jonathan, the newspaper’s editor in chief. He was a philosophy major in his last semester of college, known for his crazy, unkempt hair, his messy office, and his affinity for going shoeless when working on the paper. “I’ll have one of my section editors get in touch with you soon.”

“That’s … great!” I replied, trying to sound both enthusiastic and professional. “I look forward to working with you!” Again, ending my sentence with an unnecessary exclamation point.

I could barely contain my excitement as I envisioned my name in print and the story assignments that would soon come my way. I was eager to get working on articles. Sure, this was my freshman year of college and, sure, many new experiences would be had via classroom discussions and homework. But the newspaper world excited and intrigued me. I succumbed to a geeky thrill each time I had an opportunity to use my words to craft an article that, most certainly, others would read.

And so I threw myself into the Church of Journalism and Late-Night Writing. I spent countless hours at the newspaper, working on stories and interacting with other members of our mostly college-age staff. I would head to the rear of the office, finding comfort in one of the Macintosh computers that sat clustered near a bank of large windows. As I paused while writing, I would gaze beyond the windows to the campus below, watching students of all shapes and sizes walk about. Our office (and it thrilled me to so quickly obtain such ownership of this space) was sectioned off in different pods of activity. There were the two tables of computers, where us staff writers could craft our prose. The newspaper’s publication manager and mother hen, Carol, fashioned creative nametags for the section editors, affixing them to their desk/shelf units. These desks were often cluttered with papers scattered about, and personal effects usually adorned the upper shelves: framed photographs to stacks of CDs, celebrities cut from slick magazines, even some text books. The newspaper’s editor in chief, advertising manager, and systems manager had their own offices, complete with windows and a door that locked. For a college student, having an office on your college campus was the supreme luxury. Not only did you have a place to safely stash your textbooks and other class files, but you also had 24/7 access to a space all your own. As someone who still lived at home, the space sang a siren’s song to me.

As I typed away on my stories each week, I lusted after those desks and those offices. I looked down at my fingers flying across the keyboard, silently wishing and willing each story to be my absolute best. I hoped my attention to detail and dedication to the newspaper would pay off, the number of free hours I spent inside the office a testament to my love of the printed word and my aspirations for a larger role. And it did: the next semester, I was hired as the paper’s news editor.

I often found joy in stocking up on reporter’s notepads from the newspaper’s storage closet. It was a tall, multi-shelved cabinet with double gray doors made of metal. Inside were stacks upon stacks of new notebooks, their clean, vertical pages the perfect size for the palm of my hand, the perfect color white to securely keep my notes and thoughts. I hoarded these notepads and still have an affinity for their unmistakable style today.

Although my roles at the newspaper changed, from lowly staff writer to editor in chief, my love affair with the office never weakened; it only grew stronger. When I wasn’t at the newspaper, I was thinking of the work to be done, the people with whom I would debate important journalistic topics. Within months of hanging around the office, a pride of ownership found itself inside me, and I came to love everything about the space.

The tiny kitchen area I recall fondly. Its barebones, often sparsely stocked refrigerator hummed along both day and night as we worked into pre-dawn hours every four days laying out our beloved publication. The refrigerator often smelled horrible, like sour milk gone bad, and contained far more bottles of condiments than plates or bowls of actual sustenance. Few realizations were as painful and torturous as strolling into the kitchen, in stocking feet and with an empty belly, to find only a multi-month-old bottle of ketchup and disposable containers of leftover pizza sauce that most certainly would never be eaten by anyone. Even today none of my newspaper pals can recall how an oversized jar of apple butter found its way to the fridge; yet it had. And in a hurried moment one evening I reached too quickly inside the refrigerator, sending the jar crashing to the floor, its gelatinous contents slowly oozing across the weathered and now dirty linoleum.

“T.O., what’s with this sticky shit on the floor?” yelled Chris, our photo editor. “It’s gross and you need to clean it up.”

(I adopted two nicknames during my Gateway tenure: Townley and T.O. The latter was the result of the first two letters of my last name, but to a stranger the two initials meant nothing. Regardless, I was in love with these nicknames.)

I remained silent at first, editing a story well past 1 a.m., when Chris yelled a second time about the apple butter. Then, I lied.

“I don’t know how it got there,” I said. “But it’s not important right now. I’m on deadline!”

That phrase “on deadline” quickly became a favorite of mine. I could almost always quickly brush off an unwanted question or idle conversation by breezing past the person.

“Can’t talk now. I’m on deadline!”

The truth was, I was on deadline for the entire two years I worked at The Gateway. It was exhausting work I absolutely loved.

A year later, though, at 19 years old, I was hired as the newspaper’s youngest-ever editor in chief my sophomore year. And my “new” office needed a facelift. With my dad’s help I repainted the walls the identical pale blue color, carefully covering any dirt or signs of previous management. With framed photographs and scented candles, I decorated the space to my particular taste. Posters and random artwork was hung on the walls and cereal boxes and other bad-for-you snacks filled the wooden bookshelf. I found that pesky hunger pangs surfaced in the early morning hours of Mondays and Thursdays, as the staff worked furiously to put both the paper and ourselves “to bed” at a reasonable hour.

We worked together in the newspaper’s production room on two Macintoshes with large monitors, appropriately named Woodward and Bernstein after the two Washington Post reporters who uncovered the Watergate scandal in 1972 that, two years later, led to President Nixon’s resignation. Bob Woodward described Watergate as “an immensely complicated scandal with a cast of characters as varied as a Tolstoy novel.” Perhaps that’s why journalism schools at universities across the country saw an increase in enrollment following the Watergate scandal. The excitement surrounding the historic events sent budding journalists to college classrooms, with the hopes they, too, would uncover such wrongdoing through their work.

One of my favorite aspects of my editor-in-chief office was the middle drawer that held my notebooks, pens, and any other random supplies that found a home there. Not until I moved into my office did I discover the historic significance of my desk. The wooden drawer contained handwritten notes of encouragement and advice, passed on from one editor in chief to the next. Discovering these words was like uncovering ancient hieroglyphics inside a long-hidden cave. My eyes widened when I discovered the archive, running my fingers over each message dating back more than ten years. I delighted when I discovered the sentiment intended for me.

“Wendy,” it read. “Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead!”

drawer

The signature belonged to Christine, the editor who served the paper before me. As our editor, Christine had an unbelievable patience and an unwavering knack to prepare this 19-year-old kid for the newspaper’s top job. I forever remain grateful to Christine for the help she offered and her guidance as I moved through my two semesters as editor in chief.

The production room adjoined to the photographer’s dark room, a space that became obsolete a few years prior when digital photography replaced film. The room was cluttered and filthy and wonderful. Despite my ardent pleas to listen to alternative rock on our production nights, the stereo lived in the dark room; which meant, to my displeasure, classic rock is all we would hear. At first I hated the dated sounds, rough hooks, and confusing lyrics. But as each week passed I developed an unexpected friendship with Led Zeppelin, Lynrd Skynrd, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Queen. To this day classic rock remains my favorite genre of music, a preference I’m certain resulted from those long nights with my newspaper pals.

Some of my best writing was born during those years at The Gateway. But there were plenty of difficult times during my tenure as editor. And there were the mistakes. Incorrect spellings were the worst and something I continually lost sleep over even after the newspaper returned from the printers. So it seemed only natural that my last newspaper as editor in chief should be perfect, without flaw and a testament to my year of leadership.

You can imagine how shocked, sickened, and deliriously amused I was when I learned a dummy headline on the sports page made it undetected in the newspaper. A story about the UNO baseball team implored readers with its sexy headline, “Baseballs Baseballs Balls That Are Hard.” My production editor at the time figured a nonsensical and irrational headline such as that would catch my attention – and it did, but not until it was much too late.

For whatever reason, I caught and changed the other sports headline he wrote, Softballs Softballs Balls That Are Soft.

I’m not sure which headline is more offensive and humorous so many years later.

The Gateway offices have since moved to another space inside the school’s student union. I’ve only visited the old home once before, and being in the office felt uncomfortable. So many of my most beloved memories lived in a space that now looked completely different and felt foreign. I occasionally drop by the newspaper’s new home, which formerly served as a small arcade. The furniture is cramped together, but the couches, television, and even fingerprints of newspaper ink still remain. And even though the staff I worked with have long since graduated and moved on to full-time jobs, aspects of their personalities can be found in the current staff – and, like the legend of the phoenix, will most likely surface in future staffs in years to come.

# # #

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6 thoughts on “On Deadline

  1. Darlin, the comment I wrote on the drawer was “DAMN the torpedoes, full steam ahead!” not “DON the torpedoes.” Still, the sentiment seems to have had its intended effect. Always – Christine

  2. When I contacted you “a few weeks later,” what I said was, “We love to have you wait for us.” But I guess it’s OK that you misunderstood. :) Just kidding.
    Nice memories. The description of me made me laugh. Still acurate, sans the voluminous hair.

  3. JP, I certainly misunderstood many things my first year (or more) working at the paper. I’m forever grateful you gave me the opportunity!

    And look where the experience brought me: right back to UNO. Go figure :-)

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