Here’s the scenario.
Twenty-four hours before 12 students are to arrive at the SPJ National Convention to produce its daily, three-edition newspaper, word comes that there is no printer. Instead of 12 students, 11 show up, with no word from one of the two staff photographers.
A printer is found, but the drop-dead deadlines for the 12-page tabloid are next to impossible – 7:30 p.m., 7 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. – when some convention events happen late in the afternoon and evening.
That was part of the experience in Tampa, Fla., this past September when SPJ held its convention there. It was the first time the convention had both a print and Web version of the The Working Press, a mainstay and official record of SPJ’s annual convention.
In 2002, when the convention was held in Fort Worth, Texas, glitches in the electronic sending of pages forced the staff to burn the photos for each issue onto a CD which was then delivered by taxi to the paper’s printer.
That kind of delivery was nothing compared to 2001, when the convention was held in Bellevue, Wash. The staff needed a boat. No part of the paper could be sent electronically, so the pages were burned to a CD and literally shipped to the printer. That’s because the printer was a ferry ride away from the convention site. The final product was delivered each morning the same way – by boat.
Never mind transportation. In 2000 with SPJ in Columbus, Ohio, it was electricity that was needed. The staff coped with electrical outages in their hotel pressroom because the computers drew too much power. Electricians were called in and an improvised power source, connected by a long extension cord, was set up.
Those are just some of the technical problems The Working Press staff has faced. Every year, the newspaper starts from scratch. It’s been described as being similar to going into a town and deciding to start a paper, but having only a day to do so.
The staff is not local; doesn’t know each other; designs a newspaper from scratch; learns topics on the fly; conducts interviews with and writes about the toughest of audiences – fellow journalists.
Who in their right mind would want to do that?
“The Working Press is a serious newspaper staffed by serious student journalists,” said Amanda Young, who was on the staff in Fort Worth while she was a graduate student at Arizona State University.
The students, chosen in a highly competitive national search, come from journalism programs – large and small – across the country. There are seven reporters, three designers and two photographers. Most are undergraduates.
In a Sunday morning debriefing session after all the work is done each year, the staff routinely expresses satisfaction with the experience, despite the early mornings and late nights, compact newsroom and the pressure. Some rate the experience higher than summer internships because they are more involved with the success of the final product. And their work gets immediate exposure to potential employers, whether it’s for a future internship or job.
“I was blessed to work with an amazing and talented staff of college journalists,” said Kevin Martin of Eastern Kentucky University. Martin was on the staff for the second year in Tampa as one of its photographers.
Beth Francesco from the University of Texas at Arlington also returned for a second stint. The first time, in Forth Worth, she was a reporter; in Tampa she was a designer.
“Don’t call me a student journalist,” she wrote last year for a staff notebook in the paper. “I’m a journalist – plain and simple.”
She said part of what she learned from The Working Press experience was to “have fun.”
Having fun and learning at the same time are part of the staff’s journalism education, which alumni of The Working Press describe as invaluable. They get immediate and multiple feedback on their work, especially reporters. Guest editors, who are journalists attending the convention, help edit stories and coach the writers through the process.
Running the show are two, and sometimes three, adviser/editors who help develop story ideas, make story assignments, designate stories to pages, help choose photographs, edit stories, proof pages, coach writers, photographers and designers, and generally try to keep the process moving as efficiently as possible while watching the clock.
“The benefit students get is like being dropped behind enemy lines on D-Day,” said Robert H. Bohler, who has been adviser to The Working Press for two conventions and will be again next year in New York City.
“They know nothing about their beats. They don’t know each other. They’ve got to find sources. There’s no wire. It’s all local copy. And they’ve got to produce stories under pressure in an environment they have never known before. There’s no net. They simply have to produce to get the paper out.”
Bohler said being an adviser to the paper has its benefits for him as well.
“It puts me right in the middle of what the students are experiencing,” said Bohler, who is director of student publications at Texas Christian University. “It helps me for the long haul when I go back to TCU. I can relate to what their experiences are.”
Bohler described The Working Press experience as “three solid days of disaster reporting where everything is done on the fly.” He said students, generally, will not experience that feeling at their school papers, where most coverage is planned, unless there’s a tragedy on their campus.
“It’s a good exercise in learning how to maintain control in a chaotic situation,” he said. “Nothing is planned for them. There’s the greatest margin for error. They have no background information. They don’t know if they can get sources. There’s no wire to fall back on. They manage to rise to the occasion and that’s not a cliche. They meet the expectations of the toughest of audiences.”
Paul Kostyu, who is the Ohio statehouse bureau chief for Copley News Service, has been an adviser to The Working Press for the past four years. He’s signed up to do it again next year when SPJ takes its convention to New York City.