A trio of unconventional convention sessions

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Teaching mindsets instead of skills in Dallas

By Michael Koretzky

Having presented at CMA conventions for 12 years, I’ve learned as much as I’ve taught. The biggest lesson: Students seek survival skills more than technical skills. The reason is simple: Before they can excel, they must cope.

In other words, survival means gaining control of inner demons before mastering InDesign. Running a college news outlet is the most stressful extra-curricular activity on campus, for two big reasons:

  1. It’s the only one constantly on deadline, and deadlines equal stress. If Student Senate can’t meet quorum, who cares? But if the newspaper doesn’t print or post on time, there’s hell to pay.
  2. It’s the only one that hires anarchists on purpose. Reporters need to question authority, which means they tend to do so with their sources – and their bosses. Arguments in college newsrooms can easily escalate from professional to personal, because everyone is new at managing conflict.

That’s why three sessions at the newly rejuvenated CMA-ACP convention in Dallas impressed me so much. They had nothing to do with a particular skill and everything to do with a general approach to life…

Coffee with the Elderly

About 40 percent of college and university students are 25 or older, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. This statistic can make for interesting dynamics, especially in community college newsrooms: Oftentimes friction occurs when older students try to manage younger ones. And it’s even worse when younger editors supervise older staffers.

Joe Pye is a 28-year-old EIC with a 20-year-old ME. In Dallas, he led a blunt, early morning discussion with a room full of older students while they sipped coffee.

Recalls Pye…

The discussion wasn’t just aimed towards older students in the newsroom – because many in attendance were younger and had an older student on their staff. During the presentation, I had to admit some of my own faults as an older student in the newsroom. Admitting my own self-conscious feelings from when I was new to the paper, with an editor five years younger than me, I believe gave those young editors a better understanding of their older staff members.

To the students who were older, all I could say was to take advantage of their age. Be responsible and look out for your younger staffers. One way or another, they eventually will look to you for guidance – and odds are it won’t be over a story.

I’m Sick, Not Stupid

College news outlets cover students with disabilities, but may do little to acknowledge the disabled students on their own staffs. A managing editor with a serious digestive issue – who can’t eat or drink with her peers, which is when most of the bonding happens – led a discussion that featured both uplifting and tear-jerking moments.

Kerri-Marie Covington is an EIC who eats little but beans and fruit, because anything else will cause debilitating stomach aches. It’s a rare condition few have ever heard about, and she says she didn’t think many would care to hear more…

At best, I expected 10 students to attend my session, thinking disability awareness was supported by many but practiced by few. So when I walked into the room and saw close to 25 men and women, it hit me how important the next hour would be.

Following a discussion of how I’ve learned to manage my health condition while running a college newspaper, I opened up the floor to questions and encouraged those in attendance to share their stories. Within seconds, a dozen hands shot up. Students who suffered from Crohn’s disease, had lost their vision, and/or dealt with mental health issues expressed their struggles facing deadline stress while sick and confronting newsroom discrimination.

I’ll never forget the intense and emotional moments experienced by myself and the crowd that day. It taught me how much students craved a safe space where they could not only be heard, but understood.

Women’s Work: How to Rule the Media

Panel discussions on sexual harassment and discrimination are nothing new – and they’ll probably proliferate at the next few college media conventions. But this was a practical discussion with three women in senior positions at totally different places: an NBC investigative producer, an international media association’s senior editor, and the digital media director at the nation’s wealthiest resort.

This session was less about lecturing and more about specific advice for real-life scenarios. And that advice often involved gentle psychological manipulation for good instead of evil. The moderator was Emily Bloch, a recent grad and a new reporter for a Top 50 daily who has stared down bullies in her own short career. She summed up the session like this…

We knew we wanted to treat this session like an open discussion and not a lecture. Everyone on the panel was in a different point of her career. But we’ve all dealt with the hurdles of trying to be taken seriously in a male-dominated industry – whether it was in a college or pro newsroom. In our session, we talked about personal struggles, scenarios we dealt with and takeaways that could apply elsewhere. Open chats like this are important. Especially now, with sexual assault finally falling into the forefront of our attention. I still can’t believe how many times we were told after the session, “Thank you for doing this, I didn’t know how badly I needed it.”

Conclusion

We often advise our students: The most powerful stories are the ones that mesh facts with people, data with impact, emotion with numbers. Maybe we should consider the same for our convention sessions.

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