Lessons Learned: How to write frantically and uncover joy in every corner of the collegiate newsroom

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Anissa Basnayake/The Occidental

On one sun-drenched, jasmine-perfumed April day four years ago, I picked up my first copy of The Occidental from a campus newsstand on Admitted Students Day. Over a taco lunch on Colorado Boulevard, my mom casually thumbed through admissions materials and financial aid slips while I read the edition cover to cover, stopping every so often to daydream aloud about what the next four years of my life could look like.

From the vantage point of an almost-graduated college senior, I can faithfully report that they were so much more rewarding than I ever could have imagined, and that uncountable moments of growth took place in the Newcomb Media Suite, where staff of The Occidental works.

Despite my excitement about coming to Oxy that I shared with my mom over our first lunch in NELA, for much of my college career I was somewhat terrified. I moved 3,000 miles, from one of the most isolated small towns in the United States to one of its most intimidating cities. My vocabulary didn’t yet include blue-eyed grasses, the 110, pupusas, terra cotta tiles, oat milk, Del Taco, WeHo or bougainvillea, but it would soon.

In so many ways, reporting for The Occidental in my first year of college was the introduction I needed to LA and college life, and it continued to be the support system that gave me the tools to thrive here. Every week, my section editors sent me out on a new adventure, on or off campus, that gave me a new opportunity to learn about the communities I had recently joined. I covered Eagle Rock’s music festival and, poetically, I wrote about Judy Chicago’s Birth Project exhibit at the Pasadena Museum of California Art just a week before the museum closed in 2018. After writing several restaurant profiles, I came to cherish the friendly smiles and name recognition I had earned in storefronts around York and Colorado. I covered the 2019 LAUSD strike, talked about printmaking with a Chicanx arts nonprofit and got to wander through a super bloom with an on-campus expert.

Across 32 articles, I fell in love with our little corner of LA, and more and more, I started to feel like telling these stories was the most fulfilling way I could spend my time here.

The work stretched me — with every new article, I sensed myself becoming a more curious, more hopeful person. In each new staff writer interview, our prospective reporters are asked how they would feel about being assigned an article they aren’t interested in covering. My answer to that question, and one of the truest nuggets of wisdom I’ll take with me from this paper, is that sometimes the articles you didn’t want, the things you weren’t interested in, the people you wouldn’t at first reach out to — they become your favorites of all.

There, you can discover things you never would have thought of, knowledge you might have glazed your eyes over, soft music you would not have heard over the sound of your own muttered “Don’t wanna’s.” Before my eyes, an article about Homecoming weekend left me fixated on all the incredible roses across the Quad and all the work our facilities staff does to make Oxy look beautiful. An article about our endowment transformed into a conversation about equity, and I made a few friends along the way. With each article, I became more sensitive to the beauty on our campus, throughout this city and within each of us.

Despite my eye for arts coverage and community profiles, I never shied away from on-campus politics and more serious articles while writing here. I learned that our stories are some of the most powerful things we possess, and that to receive them is sometimes a gift we can only reciprocate by carefully bearing witness. I think that only after finding the beauty in dozens of seemingly uninteresting articles was I able to start understanding the necessity in the heart-wrenching ones, and give them the restraint they deserve.

When I became an editor, and eventually editor-in-chief, it was my absolute pleasure to pass down all of these lessons to the next generation of journalists on our campus. Those younger reporters constantly reminded me of why I came to the newspaper, and of its special value that keeps us all in the Media Suite late into the night.

When I try to explain what my editor-in-chief semester was like, people usually look at me like I’m crazy, my parents included. The young River who first came to Oxy four years ago probably wouldn’t believe it — that through all of the late nights walking back from the Newcomb Media Suite after finalizing copy at 3, 4 or 5 a.m., when the streetlights illuminate beams of heavy fog and the reflective eyes of raccoon families peek out from under grates, I never regretted anything. For all the early morning Slack messages about breaking news; or all the Wednesdays I spent bracing to be confronted about a mistake from that morning’s issue. Or the hard meetings, when they inevitably come, and you are placed face-to-face with someone so angry at you; or when in class you have to sit next to the student you didn’t hire, reprimanded or fired. Or the late nights when the only thing keeping you up is you — you asking yourself if you should have done something different, if there was a way to have led with more empathy, reached out more proactively or been stronger when you needed to.

Because here’s the thing; it’s not so much that five academic years ago I couldn’t have imagined dedicating so much time and effort to something. It’s that at the time, I don’t think I imagined I would ever be lucky enough to find something I cared about so much, and people I wanted to spend so much time doing it with — that all of the late nights, public scrutiny and tough situations would be worth it.

The newsroom is where I found out how strong I am, but also how strong all of us are — and most importantly how much stronger we all are together. When we don’t show up for each other, all of our jobs are almost impossible — it’s like pulling teeth on an assembly line, but the Federal Election Committee (FEC) is there taking notes and you’re on deadline. But when we’re a team — when the newsroom is humming with chatter before a pitch meeting or when you share a knowing glance in a meeting with your managing editor; when you feel the mutual exhilaration after publishing an article that you think might have even a small chance of making a difference (because all we have ever wanted is for just one moment to feel like we matter); when your fishbowl strategy session yields the solution you needed or when it’s Monday night and you’ve brainstormed a headline with a pun that none of you can stop laughing at — you inexplicably know you’re in the right place. You know you’re with the right people. And all you can do is look around the room with gratitude.