The Daily Eastern News is more than just a student newspaper, especially for those charged with putting a new edition in the hands of the EIU community every weekday morning.
For them, it’s serious business.
“It’s a lot of responsibility,” said Katie Smith, the paper’s current editor-in-chief. “For a lot of the things we report on, we’re the first source of information for people. So we do take it seriously; it’s a lot of pressure.”
The DEN, as it’s commonly referenced in the newsroom and across campus, makes EIU the smallest four-year public university in Illinois – and most likely the nation – with a daily newspaper. It’s published Monday through Friday during the fall and spring semesters and scales back to an online edition during the summer months. While the university houses the newspaper offices at Buzzard Hall, the publication itself is independent and therefore doesn’t see its content controlled by the university in any way.
It’s also totally student-staffed and student-run – with the exception of one university employee who operates the printing press each evening. While Lola Burnham, a Department of Journalism faculty member, serves an advisory role, her feedback comes after each day’s paper has already gone to print.
“So there's actually no advisor contact with the process of actually making the paper,” said Smith. “They are kind of just there for guidance.”
Smith, along with a core group of staff members who make up the same sort of editorial board you’d see at a professional newspaper, make all the decisions about which stories are covered and how they’re presented to the readers.
“We have a news meeting every Sunday,” said Smith, laying out the operational framework. “We go over every editor's budget; they need to have two stories a day planned out, every day. They are responsible for assigning reporters to those stories, and then (managing editor) Jarad Jarmon and I and (news editor) Stephanie Markham are in charge of approving those stories.
“When they are done with the story, the staff editor for that beat will edit their story, and then the news editor or associate news editor will edit that story after the staff editor has looked it over. Either Jarad or I will also look it over, and then the copy desk – each of the copy editors will look the story over before it is sent out.”
Those indoctrinated in the world of newspaper journalism can verify this is pretty much the kind of setup students can expect when they graduate and seek out professional newspaper jobs, just with beats tailored more to the reading interests of a college campus community.
About two-dozen staff members are listed on the DEN’s website, although any EIU student can go in and request a story assignment. Not all of these people are journalism majors, either. Smith herself was an English major interested in photography when she first started at the DEN.
“I didn't think I would ever be editor-in-chief,” Smith remembers. “But I got really excited about it. It wasn't just the photography, I got really excited about the writing, and the designing, and the video. And then it kind of just happened that I seemed to fit into that role when the time came.”
Smith admits it could be a bit intimidating to walk into the newsroom for the first time, but the family atmosphere has a way of winning people over.
“It's actually a really welcoming group of people,” explained Smith. “I love the camaraderie within the staff. The thing that keeps me going, I guess, is knowing that if I do need help with something, there's an entire room of people who are willing to help me.
“Everyone has each other's cell phone numbers,” Smith added. “My phone is constantly buzzing or vibrating. We have a Facebook page for the DEN editors, and we all communicate on there.”
That communication is vital, because nobody’s sitting around the newspaper office all day. These are students just like any others; their work at the DEN goes on top of regular class loads. It’s a big commitment, since editors can endure some late nights.
“The deadline for the paper is 11 p.m.,” said Smith. “Ideally we get out at 11:30. Sometimes we get out at 1 a.m. Sometimes I don't get home until 2 a.m. if there are a lot of things happening at nighttime.”
That’s not the only part of the deal that isn’t always glamorous. Putting out a daily newspaper for the entire campus will inevitably result in a good deal of criticism. The entire operation is a learning experience, after all. Mistakes are going to happen.
“When I walk through the door first thing in the morning, I am anxious to hear how the advisors thought we did the day before,” said Smith. “If we've had a bad night, then it's going to be a harsh day because we have to work twice as hard to make sure we put out a paper that is twice as good as the last one.”
Still, the positives outweigh the negatives.
“When we get praised, it feels good,” said Smith. “You hear more about the criticism, but we’ve been praised and that's always really nice to hear. It lets us know what our community wants us to be reporting on, what they want, what they need us to be telling them.
“People are reading our college experience; we’re putting it out there for everyone in Charleston to read every single day. I'm amazed by that every single day. I think that's a pretty big deal.”