From Emily Cochrane: ‘Independence meant you fought for every story and challenged every authority’

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Name: Emily Cochrane

College newspaper: The Independent Florida Alligator (Gainesville, Florida)

Where I am now: News assistant at The New York Times

It was the first day of class, and I already felt behind.

The professor took an informal poll to determine everyone’s journalism experience. Hands shot up: newspaper editors-in-chief, yearbook editors-in-chief, freelancers for the local paper.

Me? I had two weeks of journalism camp and a gut feeling that journalism was what I wanted to do. But I didn’t have much more than that.

The Independent Florida Alligator was the first place where none of that mattered, where engineering majors could become masters of AP Style and age was only a problem when the election watch parties were in a bar. It only mattered that you worked hard and wrote the truth.

I lost track of the sunrises I watched from the back parking lot, the ones I caught because I was there so early, or stumbling out so late. I knocked on doors, figured out how to read police reports and attended funerals for strangers so their names were more than a line in a press release. I found my best friends in a blur of late night transcripts, deadline coffee runs and election night pizza.

Independence means you get to experiment. Cover the women’s golf team for a semester? Go for it (and realize you never want to do it again). Experience college football games from the photography sidelines (and have your family watch on TV when a linebacker runs into you by mistake). Keeping the paper from going to print until the moment when you can slip the final election results? Do everything in your power so the newsstands carry the full story.

But most importantly, its independence meant you fought for every story and challenged every authority. Questioning professors and the administration doesn’t jeopardize your education. The student government leaders become politicians and lawyers, and they do so knowing what it’s like to have a press holding them accountable.

To borrow a phrase from one of my mentors, the Alligator was the place where I fell in love with journalism and with its people. Independence, outside of a classroom, is what made that possible.