PreCon Editorial Leadership: 3 things I learned from Mark and Kenna

By Christina Maxouris

There was no better - and more refreshing - way to kick off the College Media Association Conference of 2017 than Mark Whitherspoon's (Iowa State University) and Kenna Griffin's (Oklahoma City University) 4-hour bootcamp on passionate leading and accurate journalism. 

Danny (dubbed 'Mr. Shoes' by Kenna for his impeccable fashion sense) and I sponged-away at all the information thrown at us, absorbing every single piece of advice that Spoon and Kenna had to offer. And while it would absolutely be worthwhile going over all the lessons we learned -- you should probably have paid $50 to do so yourself. 

But here's the most important and most transformative bits of information I gathered and that we ad journalists, tend to forget the most often. 

1.  EDUCATE YOURSELF - MARK 

'You don't know shit,' Witherspoon told us, in a Socratic-reminiscent tone (the Ancient Greek philosopher lived by the motto, 'The only thing I know is that I know nothing'). And here's why that was important to remind ourselves: it's easy to slip into the journalistic black hole of thinking we know everything (I plead guilty). Got the Sunshine Laws down, know all five parts of the First Amendment, and probably know a whole lot more about Georgia State University Police Department procedures, than most people in our university. But you're right Mark, that's nearly not enough. We should be educating ourselves on ethical, legal, state, records, medical, business issues on the daily.

We gotta know what we don't know. And then we've got to learn what we don't know, so we can know it. And then do that again, and find what else is missing from our chamber of knowledge. And it was much bette phrased in the panel and sounded so much easier, but no matter the wording, it's hardly difficult to understand why we -- the fourth branch of government educating our citizens -- should never be satisfied with what we know, and seek to find out more. Complicated, but crystal clear. 

2. SAY 'NO THANK YOU' 

This was a highlight. I've personally adopted a charity-like mentality when it comes to new staff members.

Me: They're going through stuff, their rat just died, boyfriend broke up with them, project and exam overload, it'd be unfair not to cut them some slack. Besides, we could use all the staff we can get.

Kenna: Nope. 

A point well-made, and well-taken. Ten dedicated staff reporters are better than 150 permanently full of excuses. And why work at the student newspaper... if you don't want to? I've certainly seen the difference between potential and eagerness, from one recent reporter who has pushed out a breaking news piece, event coverage, feature, and a news story all in one week. And then there were those that were 'having a difficult time'. And I understand and respect that, but honestly, who isn't having a hard time? Kenna and Mark harmonized on the importance of getting stuff done. If you've got a family emergency, that's understandable, but if you're always having family emergencies, maybe it's time for us to have an uncomfortable conversation. Plan ahead, spread your work, do whatever you have to do to make sure you're meeting deadlines. And that's hardly a harsh requirement, as you'll be asked to do the same in, you know, the 'real world.' I don't think anyone will be sympathetic to you missing out on a breaking news piece because of your cat's concerning cough. 

As EIC, or for anyone holding a leadership job, learning to let people go is a skill to be mastered. We do not need volunteers who don't have the time of day to do their jobs. We should not be asking for stories in every week, when you clearly know your deadline. You can be human, and go through things, but also be a responsible adult and DO things -- and by 'do' I mean 'turn in on time' and by 'things' I mean 'your story.' I'm not sure what part I was misunderstanding before, but Kenna rings loud and clear in our ears now, if they don't do their job, they gotta go. 

And a lesson to help with that is what Kenna called 'teaching people to deal with controversy.' Tough conversations aren't fun, but they are necessary. Telling someone they've repeatedly missed their deadline will probably not be news to their ears, but you've got to tell them anyway, and make them understand it will not fly.

You can be sure, after the panel, first thing I did is I ran through the list and made a phone call to all reporters late on deadline, and I think that'll be my new hobby of the year. 

3. DECIDE YOU WANT TO BE EXCELLENT 

Oh Mark, you make it sound so simple. What does excellent look like? What does excellent feel like? What does excellent sound like? I'm proud to say the term must look a lot like my editorial staff, which makes me proud every rolling week. But we must do better, and to do better, we must know what we're not doing and do it, and we must let go of people who will not walk through the road of excellence with us. 

I know The Signal has great potential, and our priority should be reinforcing that message to every new member of our staff. We are all full-time students, with part-time jobs, pets, parents and somewhat of a social life, but that is not an excuse to keep our paper anything other than a 10/10. If you're out on a date, or with your favorite friend, while a story is breaking two streets down, your heart should be floating there before your running legs can take you. And if you find that that's not you, then maybe you need to reconsider where you are and why you're here. If you don't want to give 150% like the rest of us do, you need to step out of the way of the ones that will give our student paper the priority it deserves. 

Like Mark said, we'll do whatever it takes to get there, to be excellent. We'll work hard to make sure our journalism is fair, accurate and complete. 

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Two outstanding advisors, I strongly recommend everyone hunts them down for a chat, and if you don't run into them at this year's CMA, a plane ticket to Idaho or Oklahoma would not be a waste of your cash -- I promise.