Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Onion Chronicles and Page One

My first week at college, I dived right into a prep cook job, and let me tell ya, chopping onions everyday was a great motivator to find something else to do.
I always smelled like onions and vinegar. We cleaned cooking surfaces with vinegar, I was quite the ladies’ man I am sure, as sometimes I had to run to class without changing.
But I digress.
I set off to the daily’s newsroom. It was a respectable newspaper, and I had won several (minor, but) prestigious awards in high school for writing and photojournalism. With my credentials, I was granted freelancer status and told to turn in “some cultural” piece in two days.
I asked around and found nobody had done any reporting on the new Native American museum. With my handy Pentax K1000 (the one made in Japan, not Korea) and my reporter’s notebook, the next day I interviewed the curator and staff. I took several pictures and went back to my dorm room to study and call it a night. I would write the story and develop the photos after classes the next day.
Back at Onion Central that next day, a disaster loomed. I was the only prep cook to report in, and I had to work a double shift, with my classes sandwiched between breakfast and dinner.
I had to slam out the story, quickly, and I asked one of the darkroom techs if she could develop my photos for me.
Re-reading the story, it wasn’t my best work. It wasn’t my best work at all. It needed some follow up and additional research, research I did not have time to do because I had to pitch in at the dinner shift. Oh well. During a break, I ran down to the newsroom to pick out the photos.
Only, in the excitement, I forgot to tell the tech I pushed the film so the negatives were underexposed. They didn’t look… bad, but they didn’t look good either.
The editor thought they were fine.
Publication day, I meander to the paper box. I was making a mental bet to see how far back in the paper my story with the blah pictures would go.
And there, on the front page, the very first page, above the fold, with my byline, was my piece.
On the front page.
On the Front. Freak'n. Page.
With the bad photo, only during the translation to print, it was worse.
I grab the paper and notice several of the paragraphs were out of order. So, not only did I have a mediocre piece, with a bad photo, but it was technically incorrect. I also noticed typos and grammatical errors.
I went to the newsroom for the daily evaluation from one of the professors.
You see, that was the start of a new school year. The editor was new. The copy editor was new. The layout editor was new. The darkroom tech was new. And I while I was young, I was the experienced journalist out of the bunch. And rather than helping out, I blew it.
The prof told the staff to watch the details, and demand better quality from the reporters. Despite the technical errors and bad photo, if the writing was better, he correctly observed, the front page would have held up. Unfortunately, the article set the tone for the rest of the paper.
I was so embarrassed; I never went back there again. Immature, I know, but heck, I was just off the train, literally. It did teach me one thing, however, and that was never, and I mean never, waste a writing opportunity. And in a team effort, where there are many pieces of the puzzle to a production, the foundation for all that follows is good writing.
I went back to chopping onions, and that’s when it hit me. I blew a writing gig for a crappy job with onions. And I think the darkroom tech kinda liked me.
It was a great lesson: Be careful with what your write. It could wind up on Page One despite your best, or worst, efforts.


  1. Fantastic story with a great moral. It's similar to what my dad has always told me about priorities. You see, after I was born, his job was very demanding. The more time he put in, the more they asked of him. My dad worked long hours while my brother and I spend long hours in daycare. But his job continued to ask for more until one day my dad had a breakdown. He took time off work to spend it with his family. When he returned, one of the managers came to him and said, "It's time to make a decision, what should come first in your life? Work or family? Because you can't do both." My dad, thankfully, decided on family and became a great dad that was always around and always reliable. Once he made that decision, his company stopped demanding so much of him because they already knew the answer.

    For me, family will always come first but, for a long time I struggled because I was working, writing, crafting, sewing and going to college. All things I loved but it was too much and it was stressing me out. Finally I made the decision to put everything aside and make college and writing what I do. Since then, I'm less stressed and am enjoying life far more.

    Liz H Allen

  2. Terrific story, and a fantastic lesson. Thanks for sharing it!

  3. what a great story! indeed, be very careful what you write, especially if you're not writing for yourself


Join the conversation, add insight, or disagree with us! We welcome your thoughts.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.