Name: Ethan Bauer
College Newspaper: The Independent Florida Alligator
I have the Alligator’s logo — a black, bulky letter ‘a’ — tattooed on my right forearm. I got it about a year and a half ago much to the despair of many friends. “Really? A newspaper?” they said. “Don’t you think you’ll regret that later in life once you’re more removed?” they asked. “What if your relationship with the paper sours?” To them, I said nothing. I never had doubts once I decided to link myself to the Alligator forever, and I’m happy to report that now, 18 months later, I still occasionally look down at my arm in the shower and think, “Man, this was a great idea.”
I recognize that to someone who’s never worked at a college newspaper, that might sound like the ramblings of an incoherent madman. I doubt folks who make their college ends meet by delivering pizzas are lining up to be branded with a red hut or an inky portrait of Papa John. But the reason I got the tattoo and have only grown to like my decision more has two parts, starting with tradition.
Now, to be clear, I think strict tradition is a bad reason to justify pretty much anything. I’d never say I got the tattoo just because it was a tradition among Alligator alums, but it’s impossible to deny that I stole the idea. I’d heard of other people who had it, I’d met a couple of them and I’d tried to understand why, with tattoos being expensive and much more intricate, symbolic, artistic designs available, they chose to have that signature ‘a’ sewn into their skin. The answer I found is difficult to explain, but here’s my best shot: They got their tattoos because the Alligator, like that tattoo, was going to be a part of them forever, and no fallout with coworkers or misspelled headline or even quitting was going to change that. As one former Alligator staffer once told me, “The Alligator is a cult. But it’s a nice cult.”
But that’s very general — the umbrella reason. The main reason, then, would be to answer the question of how exactly the Alligator will be a part of me. I think the best way to do that is with a story.
I was in my third semester at the paper. I was the assistant sports editor and women’s basketball writer, and I was working on a feature about a women’s basketball player who befriended a child with cancer. I’d written features before, but they’d usually just gone to print with very little editing or guidance. That changed with this one thanks to sports editor Ian Cohen and managing online editor Emily Cochrane. They blew my feature apart, with Emily leading the way firing off comments in a Google doc about how the ending was “lukewarm like hot chocolate left out too long,” among other snide but candid remarks. Emily mandated that I write it again, and also that I do more reporting — she filled the back of a newspaper flat with a list of questions to ask the kid’s family. The next week was a busy blur that culminated with that story running on the front page of the Alligator (a first for me) and blowing up online to become my most-read story ever in just a couple hours.
That’s an experience that, as a student, you can’t really get anywhere else. Nobody is going to be harder on you or demand more of you as a young reporter than your peers, and no one will be happier about your success. One professor at UF even likes to say that’s where the real learning happens — not in the classroom, but at student newspapers. That’s what editorial independence has fostered for me, and while I’ve never worked at a school-affiliated newspaper to compare it with, I’m wary of anything that could take that away. I’d never really demanded much of myself as a reporter or writer early in college, but that changed because of the relationships, the tradition and the passion I found at the Alligator. And using those tools, I built a foundation for my career that will last a lifetime.
I hope that in whatever you do — be it teaching, engineering or mopping — you have searched for that passion, that love for what your craft that makes you want to learn more about it and improve it every night when you get home, whether you give a crap about college media or not. But think about this: It’s in everyone’s interest for journalists to be good at what they do. If you subscribe to the New York Times or the Washington Post or the Miami Herald, you probably believe that already. Remember that many of the reporters at those papers — reporters who exposed Weinstein, toppled Nixon and railed against Castro — got started in college media. Whether at the Daily Orange or the Red & Black or the Alligator, they probably felt moved to a point that even if they don’t have a logo tattoo themselves, they could understand why someone else would.
So if you support quality journalism, support it often, but also support it early. Help ensure that the future of reporting is bright, fertile and filled with reporters who can say their student newspapers made them who they are.