Each year, graduating editors are given 30 final column inches – “30” was historically used to signify the end of a story – to reflect on their time at The Hatchet, published in the final issues of the year.
It was around 1 a.m. one night during my freshman year, and I was getting ready for bed, when Ryder, one of my photo editors, called. He needed me to identify some of the subjects in a photo I had taken for the day’s issue.
“Sure,” I said. And realizing that the paper was supposed to hit stands in seven hours or so, I asked, “Wait, you guys are still working on the paper?”
“Yeah, we’ll be here for at least another hour and a half,” he replied. “It’s a biweekly miracle, man.”
I laughed at the time and had no idea that, over the next four years, I would come to learn how fitting that description truly is.
When I came to GW as a freshman, I didn’t have my heart set on working for the school newspaper. I had taken a photo class in high school and had a DSLR camera, but had never done photography for a publication before. At Colonial Inauguration, I thought it would be cool to try out. I signed up for the listerv, but in the whirlwind that is the first two weeks of college, didn’t make it to the meetings for prospective photographers. I thought I had probably missed my chance, but e-mailed the photo department anyway. To my surprise, I was given an assignment – to cover the anniversary of 9/11 – and was told to bring in my work the next day.
I took around 10 frames, – when I should have taken 400 – the majority of which lacked any composition whatsoever, and it was clear that I simply had no idea how to make a news photo. Looking back, my editor probably should have laughed at me and told me that I wasn’t cut out for the job, but he didn’t. Instead, he gave me a firm critique, a description of what he expected from me in the future and another assignment. Humbled, but still eager to see my photos in the paper, I left the Hatchet townhouse with determination to improve.
That year, I accepted every assignment I was given, turning them down only if I had a time conflict with class. On those assignments I covered everything from an anarchist protest where bricks were thrown past my head to a sold out concert by The Police at the Verizon Center, where I was closer to the performers than the fans in the front row were. There were plenty of menial assignments in between, but the adrenaline rush of running toward breaking news never got old, despite one instance of finding out the hard way what mace tastes like.
The best part of turning in assignments as a freshman was getting to briefly hang out in the newsroom, where the energy was always high, people were either laughing together or screaming at each other and you just got the sense that the staff was a family. Eager to be a part of the staff, I took the first position that was offered to me: Web assistant. Certainly not the most glamorous position on staff, but it meant that I got to hang out in the townhouse, attend Hatchet parties and get a closer look at how the paper worked – that was good enough for me.
At the end of my freshman year, I was hired as an assistant photo editor in addition to my Web job, and for a year and a half, I spent every Wednesday and Sunday in the townhouse from noon until the sun came up and the birds began to chirp. Some might say that this was a particularly unique amount of dedication, but those people likely haven’t met the others on staff at The Hatchet. In truth, everyone on staff is asked to give more time and effort than they know they should, and it’s not often without academic or social consequences.
It is easy to tell, even at the start of a semester, which new writer or photographer is likely to be promoted by the end of it. The individuals who arrive early and stay late, ask to be critiqued and rarely turn down assignments are the ones who will improve, be hired and eventually be asked to make sacrifices for the paper. Everyone is granted equal opportunity, and it is up to each person to decide his or her level of involvement. Many people will write or shoot a few assignments a week, others once a month; both groups are essential to the success of the paper. But you know that the people who end up on staff are the ones that really believe that what we do is important, because you’d have to be insane otherwise. The hours suck, the pay is worse and many times you get stuck in the office when there’s a million other things in the world you would rather be doing. Yet twice a week, week after week, you will find the same 30 people conducting interviews, chasing down leads and editing until all hours of the morning.
Failure is a perpetual possibility at The Hatchet, and every single issue, we walk a tightrope without a net. As a completely independent non-profit organization, The Hatchet has very real liabilities. We pay a hell of a lot more than $1 for rent, and the bills are paid exclusively by revenue generated through ad sales by students and our full-time general manager. Most of that budget goes toward covering the thousands of dollars it costs to print each issue.
Beyond that, something as simple as forgetting to put “alleged” in a headline could bring our 100+ years of existence to a screeching halt. The editor in chief is accountable for all of our editorial content and, at the end of the day, is the person ultimately responsible for keeping the paper from being litigated out of existence.
The fact that an ever-changing paid staff of some 30 students – and hundreds more unpaid staff – has put out an award-winning publication twice a week without fail, for 100-plus years, is a true miracle. The fact that such an old institution can be completely sustained on nothing more than self-governance, passion for journalism and the lessons of previous editors is astonishing.
I have been on paid staff for all four years of my time at GW, each year working with some of the nerdiest, most dedicated and lovable people I have ever had the privilege of meeting. It has been an absolute pleasure to work with such a passionate group of people, and my only hope is that others feel that I have done as much for them as they have done for me in our incessant effort to keep this modest biweekly miracle operating and improving for many years to come.
Every member of the staff makes a tremendous investment of time to the Foggy Bottom community, the University, the student body and most importantly, to each other. This investment pays large dividends, not just in the form of bylines, clips and access to high profile events, but also in the close relationships inevitably formed when you spend so much time locked in a townhouse with the same people week after week.
Ben – You were my first editor, and your subtle way of always pushing me to improve while providing small rewards for doing so never went unnoticed or unappreciated. Thank you for sparking my interest in photojournalism. I am totally unsurprised by what a success you have become.
Nick – Your constant focus on critiques was instrumental in my learning to view both my own and others’ work with a critical eye. You are tremendously talented and I know it is only a matter of time before I see your photos regularly in print.
Anne – You’ve been on staff with me since the beginning. It’s been a wild ride and I am glad I had a counterpart to share in both the joyous successes and miserable failures of our department.
Chris – It is comforting to see someone who is both an extremely talented photographer and has as much commitment to making it into a career as you do. I can’t wait to see where it takes you next.
Michelle – Your love of what you do is evident in your tireless and all-too-often thankless work in the photo department. You have always been a person who gets the job done without complaint and regardless of the circumstances. I have no doubt that this invaluable trait will carry you to success next year and beyond.
Jordan, Francis, Gabby and Marie – You are prime examples of what I discussed above. Your late nights, constant questions and proactive attitudes significantly improve our department and I am excited to see what you all produce next year when it is your turn at the reins.
Louis, Elizabeth – There exists some inexplicable force that always draws sports and photo together. It could be all of the road trips, or perhaps our similar departmental philosophies that, as you said, is more or less, ‘I can’t believe they pay me to do this…’ Either way, I’ve seen it happen year after year and I am grateful that this year, sports was run by two people both as ridiculous and genuine as you two. Louis, I look forward to telling your kids all about the Portland, Ore. trip and The Hatchet men’s calendar against your wishes.
French – Your passion for the paper is clear in your willingness to do what you think is right regardless of the flak you might take. Now that you have a year under your belt, I am certain you will use next year to make significant progress for the paper. Thank you for working harder than anyone else at this paper and, more importantly, for a lasting friendship.
Brett and Jeremy – When I arrived freshman year I thought it was going to be difficult to find as good of friends as I had back home. Little did I know that two new best friends would be living just across the hall. My time at GW wouldn’t have been nearly as fun without you both.
Sarah – You are by far the best thing The Hatchet has given me. I knew when I met you on assignment that you were someone worth pursuing. I was right, and I feel very lucky to have had your love and friendship for nearly three years now. I love you.
Mom, Tetis, Andra, Karlis – There is no way to thank you enough for all of the support you have given me throughout my life. Sending me to GW wasn’t an inexpensive decision, but I truly believe the knowledge and friendship I have gained at The Hatchet, among other things, has made it entirely worthwhile. Know that it is appreciated.
I think every senior feels mild pangs of panic when they fully realize that they won’t be returning next fall and that, excluding their department, there are more new faces than old ones on next year’s staff. There’s a reason that it’s a biweekly miracle, though, and you just have to trust that it will work out just as it has for over 100 years. -30-
This article appeared in the April 25, 2011 issue of the Hatchet.