08. Rowback

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Can I say that I/we ran a tight ship, having never been in any position of power before (or since)? Well, at least once we figured out our dire financial situation my first year as an editor, I can say that we did our job without any (other) major hurdles. Having learned the history of the student paper, one that included early shutdowns, fired editors, conflicts among the staff, libel suits, and a short time where the editors were locked out of the printer and forced to keep the thing in circulation as as a single sheet they printed themselves, I think our time there could probably be seen as pretty boring. No one really sent us any complaints, let alone shut us down, which must indicate something (depending on how full or empty you want to see the glass.)

Or maybe if people had a problem with what we were doing, they decided to keep it to themselves—maybe they all subscribed to the “if you don’t have anything nice to say…” mantra, we probably would have just appreciated the attention. Hell, one year we even put out a “controversial” cover—a collage of somewhat explicit sex ed-related logos and whatnot—but to be honest, it ended up printing so blurry that I’m not sure anyone knew what they were supposed to be looking at (although it apparently was the one issue the local mall refused to have on community info rack, so I guess we succeeded there with whatever it was we were trying to accomplish.) Cover images became one of the few areas of criticism we had to address as the years went on, but only internally—it was clear that the search for images to put on the cover (without much in the way of half-decent photographs to put there—oh, we got one of the Prime Minister visiting our gymnasium, but the bastard only visited once, so a lot of good that did long-term) led to some very strange, possibly off-putting decisions, the kind that could be considered artistic in some contexts, but probably very few. Thankfully, having multiple people well-versed in graphic design meant that the covers were far more consistent in quality and intent, and no more covers that features alleged sexual imagery photographed by your average Bigfoot witness.

The mythical negative letter appeared at our doorstep once in our run, coming from the publicist of a band that received a thoroughly insulting negative review from our arts editor (we sure loved our articles written for amusement’s sake, so of course we let him unload on one of the dozens of random CDs we were sent as part of the accursed media spam mailing list) who was likely more taken aback by the tone than the fact that it was negative (although maybe he sent angry e-mails to other, more professional negative reviews—those types of people do exist.) We printed it alongside a rebuttal from the arts editor himself that probably did none of us any favours, but hey, we did what we wanted and made no bones about it (despite what our higher-ups probably would have wanted.) In the end, the music on that album ended up on frequent rotation on the local radio station, and our copy of the album ended up flying out the office window.

If any criticism did end up affecting me as a writer/editor, it was two times where sensitivity issues were brought up and I was forced to re-evaluate my editing process. The first was never brought attention to anyone at the paper, but was instead relayed to me out of nowhere by my dad, who informed me that a series of what I saw as goofy jokes about a famous historical figure in our province had not been particularly appreciated by some who were more directly connected to that piece of history. I don’t know what my initial reaction to this was (I don’t even know if my dad knew it was me who wrote those jokes), but it eventually sunk in that those people were entirely right to take issue with it, as it had been based on a rather distanced and thoughtless view of history; it was never my intention to make people angry or offend or get a rise out of people for attention or any other purpose (I certainly wasn’t making any sort of point about anything), I was just trying to entertain, but because I had no personal connection to the subject matter, it never occurred to me that some of things I wrote were pointlessly mean and dismissed the heritage of whole groups of people. Chances are I didn’t really get that deep into that thought process at the time, but I did know that I didn’t want to have that happen again—so the next time we did a similarly themed cover, it was much more respectful, and I even wrote an article for it that was a thinly-veiled apology, of sorts. I’d like to think that I learned to be more self-critical and thoughtful in the future, but then…

When I became Editor in Chief a year after the “apology” article, a similar situation occurred with another article we published, which unlike the previous one actually received a critical e-mail that we printed in the paper. In this case it was about our old friend the casual invocation of rape, used in a music review submitted by a contributor; the letter-writer rightly pointed out that it was insensitive, and we on the editorial staff agreed, and issued an apology. In this case, it was as much a case of editorial oversight as it was an issue with the writer; I knew as soon as I read the letter that we should have thought twice about that single, unimportant passage in the review, and could have had it altered without much fuss, but it was overlooked. It was, again, one of those things that people inundated in a certain kind of language, utterly removed from other contexts, never thought twice about, until someone brought it to their attention, popping their insulating bubble. No one was angry, no one was arguing—we all recognized that it was a unnecessary thing to do, and that we had every reason to strive to be better. It was a learning experience, and it especially reinforced for me the idea that I had to be looking outside my own tiny sphere of social relations when I was putting things out for other people to read, all the more important when I was putting out something that was supposed to be informing and representing the campus population.

Those experiences, whether formal or informal in nature, benefited the way we approached the creation of the paper, the positive side of receiving even negative feedback. It’s entirely possible that improvements such as these and others (like the cover image situation, which proved to be a burden for far longer than it needed to be) would have happened even sooner if we got anything other than deafening silence, but of course it was also possible that in our devotion to feeding our individual whims we would have laughed off any suggestions just as much as we did an angry publicist; we rarely got a chance to see the practical reality go in either direction. It’s an impacting, and valuable, feeling when you suddenly remember that the results of your hard work does have an audience outside yourselves and the narrow collection of close associates, who often have even less reason to show strong emotions about your product one way or the other. We never had a real controversy to deal with it, never had to fire anyone or effusively beg for forgiveness for screwing thing up badly, but sometimes it felt like we were just flailing at nothing as well, becoming a place where budding creative sorts just honed their skills in utter silence. So, even the slightest hint that somebody cared somewhere fired some of us up, and so those rare moments were enough to carry us through day after day of worldwide apathy and inspired us to step up our game.

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