Lessons Learned: Advice for Student Editors

The rest of the Talisman Editorial Board that I had the privilege of working with.

The rest of the Talisman Editorial Board that I had the privilege of working with.

During my last year at WKU, I had the tremendous opportunity to serve as Picture Editor for the Talisman, WKU’s yearbook. I learned more than I could have ever imagined as a picture editor, and I’ve had time to reflect on those lessons this summer. I think the best way to express the lessons I learned is by sharing the following letter that I sent to this year’s Picture Editor. So for other student editors, here is my advice:

Leaving notebooks out on my desk led to some hijacking by one of my staffers.

Leaving notebooks out on my desk led to some hijacking by one of my staffers.

“Dear Leah,

Last May, when I became Talisman picture editor, my predecessor didn’t offer much advice. He told me to get out of it while I still could. I want to offer you a little more.

My advice: enjoy every moment of this adventure.

Some days, that will be easier said than done.

There will be meetings when much of your staff won’t show up. Cherish the photographers who are with you. Stoke the flames of excitement in your peers who show a passion for storytelling, especially when they’re the people whom you least expect to do so.

There will be stories that no one wants to shoot. Assign them. Be firm. Push your photographers beyond their comfort zone, both in terms of what subjects they cover and in how they manage their time.

Curling with assistant picture editor Abby during a trip to visit our printer in Canada.

Curling with assistant picture editor Abby during a trip to visit our printer in Canada.

There will be deadlines that your staff will miss. Figure out why. Some stories need more time. Some photographers have streaks of laziness. Remind photographers that you’re trying to help them out, but you need something in return. Instill strong communication skills in your staff.

There will be captions that come back to you incomplete. Send them back. Teach these visual journalists the importance of words.

There will be staffers who act like punks. Don’t tolerate it. Don’t stoop to their level. Show them what it means to be a professional.

There will be phone calls, text messages and emails at all hours of the day and night. Be available for your staff. But, for goodness sakes, you don’t need to answer them all immediately. You’ve got a year to make the book, and rarely will you work on anything that is all too urgent. There’s a life outside yearbook; take a few hours to see what that offers, once in a while.

Riding in an elevator in Canada with some of the other editors.

Riding in an elevator in Canada with some of the other editors.

More than any of that, you will be surprised by the breadth of story ideas your staff will bring to the table. You will get to look at hundreds of beautiful, stunning photographs. You will have staffers eager to grow. You will try exciting new things. You will form strong friendships.

The best part of being Talisman picture editor is the ability to provide a myriad of opportunities to your peers. The opportunity to have their work published in a beautiful book. The opportunity to cover things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to. The opportunity to travel for stories. The opportunity to be in a professional environment. The opportunity to work with writers and designers. The opportunity to receive feedback from you and Katie. The opportunity to grow leaps and bounds.

Balloons helped bring some cheer to the office and keep my stress level down.

Balloons helped bring some cheer to the office and keep my stress level down.

Some students will take advantage of every opportunity. Some will not. Each individual must decide which opportunities to take hold of. It will be tempting to become discouraged when a photographer you expect a lot from doesn’t value an opportunity you provide. Don’t. That was your staffer’s choice, not yours, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Nurture the staffers who do grab hold of opportunities. Help them to become better photographers and better people.

Shooting a baseball game with one of my staff photographers, Brandon.

Shooting a baseball game with one of my staff photographers, Brandon.

The first time I sat down with a photographer to go over a take last fall, I was as nervous as all get out. I didn’t know what I would say. God gave me the words that day and every day. He gave me the courage and the wisdom to do whatever needed to be done. He’ll do the same for you. Lean on Him.

You are going to have an excellent year, and I’m very excited for you. If you ever need to talk through anything, you’ve got my number.

You have a glorious opportunity. What type of picture editor will you be? How will you have grown a year from now?

As you answer those questions, remember to enjoy every moment of this adventure.

Sincerely,

Sam”

Something I read tonight really sums up my advice, “Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” So my challenge to you, if you want to become a great student editor: humble yourself. I think you’ll be pleased with the results.

Posing with Leah, the new picture editor, at the Talisman booth during a campus info fair last fall.

Posing with Leah, the new picture editor, at the Talisman booth during a campus info fair last fall.

This is the second in a series of posts reflecting on what I learned during my senior year. Read the first post here.

Lessons Learned: Monks, Life & iPads

This post is a reflection on what I learned while creating the Brothers iPad app. To download the app or see a gallery of images, visit samoldenburg.com/brothers.

February 11 "Lunchtime pit stop in Santa Claus, Ind." I stopped for lunch about 15 miles from Saint Meinrad before my first fmeeting with Br. John Mark and Mary Jeanne. In this post, I'm using pictures taken on my iPhone and edited in Instagram while working on the project to give a behind-the-scenes feel.

February 11
“Lunchtime pit stop in Santa Claus, Ind.”
I stopped for lunch about 15 miles from Saint Meinrad before my first meeting with Br. John Mark and Mary Jeanne. In this post, I’m using pictures taken on my iPhone and edited in Instagram while working on the project to give a behind-the-scenes feel.

February 11:  "Afternoon of meetings to start my last story while at WKU." I was both hopeful and nervous as I left Saint Meinrad after my first visit.

February 11:
“Afternoon of meetings to start my last story while at WKU.”
I was both hopeful and nervous as I left Saint Meinrad after my first visit.

February 23  "Found a cloud factory today" This is on the outskirts of Owensboro, Ky., about halfway between Bowling Green and Saint Meinrad, which is a two-hour drive.

February 23
“Found a cloud factory today”
This is on the outskirts of Owensboro, Ky., about halfway between Bowling Green and Saint Meinrad, which is a two-hour drive.

March 14 The outside of the church after saying compline, or night prayer, with the monks on the first night of my first multi-day visit.

March 14
The outside of the church after saying compline, or night prayer, with the monks on the first night of my first multi-day visit.

March 14  "Pope Francis is already hanging on the wall." This picture was hanging in a hall in the seminary one day after Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis.

March 14
“Pope Francis is already hanging on the wall.”
This picture was hanging in a hall in the seminary one day after Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis.

March 18 Stained glass in a stairwell in the seminary

March 18
Stained glass in a stairwell in the seminary

March 18

March 18

April 6 "Hiding remotes with flowers"

April 6
“Hiding remotes with flowers”

April 25:  "Full moon tonight"

April 25:
“Full moon tonight”

April 27  "Edit, edit, shoot, edit, edit, shoot" During my last visit, I spent time editing between shoots to be sure I had everything I needed. Spread out on the extra bed in my room in the Guest House and Retreat Center, these printouts of the mini-story pages helped me keep track of what I was done with.

April 27
“Edit, edit, shoot, edit, edit, shoot”
During my last visit, I spent time editing between shoots to be sure I had everything I needed. Spread out on the extra bed in my room in the Guest House and Retreat Center, these printouts of the mini-story pages helped me keep track of what I was done with.

April 27 "Only two more days of shooting for my last story at WKU."

April 27
“Only two more days of shooting for my last story at WKU.”

April 28 I found these flowers while taking a walk after dinner.

April 28
I found these flowers while taking a walk after dinner.

May 5 The weekend before the project was due for class, I took over the conference room in the Student Publications building where I had plenty of room to spread out everything I used to edit the project and track what I had left to do.

May 5
The weekend before the project was due for class, I took over the conference room in the Student Publications building where I had plenty of room to spread out everything I used to edit the project and track what I had left to do.

May 8 The night before the project was due for class, I was ironing out glitches and eating ice cream on the porch outside my apartment.

May 8
The night before the project was due for class, I was ironing out glitches and eating ice cream on the porch outside my apartment.

May 30 "Enjoyed sharing my iPad app with the monks tonight! Check it out for yourself at samoldenburg.com/brothers"

May 30
“Enjoyed sharing my iPad app with the monks tonight! Check it out for yourself at samoldenburg.com/brothers”

The first night I ate dinner with the community of monks at Saint Meinrad, I picked up a prayer card from the guest table to pray with the rest of the men. “May the example of our fraternal charity and our good zeal draw many others to join us in the monastic way of life.” I mumbled those last few words— “Join us in the monastic way of life”— how could I say that? I’m not a monk. I’m many things— a photojournalist, a student, a Catholic— but monk is nowhere on that list.

For my last photo class in my last semester at Western Kentucky University, I had the opportunity to spend the whole semester on just one project, a project of my own choosing. I had no idea what I wanted the project to look like, what all I wanted it to contain, or exactly how I would go about completing it. Nonetheless, in February, I got the ball rolling.

I decided pretty quickly that I wanted to do a story about the community of monks at Saint Meinrad Archabbey in southwestern Indiana. Despite having been Catholic all my life, the life of monks was somewhat of a mystery to me, so I was curious to know more. I had briefly met Br. John Mark, the monastery’s vocation director, a few months earlier while I was volunteering at a youth conference, so I reached out to him. Through several meetings with Br. John Mark and Mary Jeanne, the archabbey’s communications director, as well as a letter to the abbot, who is kind of the head monk in a monastery, I explained what I wanted to do. Although, I really didn’t have any idea what I wanted to do. Here’s part of the letter I wrote to the abbot:

“I propose a photo story exploring the intergenerational community of the monastery at St. Meinrad Archabbey. By spending time with the Benedictine monks of St. Meinrad, I hope to see how monks of various age groups differ, as well as how the community interacts as a whole. I will then, through the use of still photographs and audio, share what I discover with others.”

Pretty vague, right? Nonetheless, the abbot approved my request. That led to a meeting with Br. John Mark to talk about logistics, which was followed by that first dinner in the monastery. I planned three visits, each four to five days, in order to photograph the goings-on of the community, as well as record ambient audio and interviews.

By the end of that first extended visit, I was no longer mumbling through the dinner prayer. By talking with many monks and seeing their lives as an example, I learned that you don’t have to be a monk to live the monastic way of life. Rather, as I perceive it, living the monastic way of life, means offering up all that we do in prayer. As Christians, we’re called to pray always. One of the Gospel readings that I think touches on this is coming up this Sunday, “Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour when the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” (Luke 12:39-40)

But if we’re to pray always, that can’t mean sitting around reciting the “Hail Mary” all day, every day. That just isn’t practical. Instead, we have to utilize as many different forms of prayer as we can get our hands on. Therefore, we must offer up everything in prayer— be it the way we pray, the way we work, the way we relate to others, or the way we spend our time— in order to glorify the goodness of God. I’ll be the first to admit, I certainly haven’t figured out how to do that 24/7/365, and I don’t think any of the monks I met at Saint Meinrad have it perfected either. That’s what the monastic way of life is— striving and struggling toward a life in which we pray always. Surely we don’t have to be monks to do that. That, I realized, is what I wanted people to discover through my project— that monks don’t simply sit in church and pray all day. Their life is prayer, and that’s a life we can all emulate.

By the time I was back at Saint Meinrad for my second visit, I had decided that I would present my photo project as an iPad app. I had some experience working with app design already from developing the Talisman app ), but I soon realized that this app would be much different. I decided upon a sort of “choose your own adventure” approach for Brothers (the name I came up with for the app). By that, I mean that the project is made up of a lot of mini-stories which the reader can navigate to by moving through different rooms in the Archabbey. When I made my second visit, I was starting to get a feel for how the app’s navigation should come together, but that changed quite a bit over the few days I was at Saint Meinrad. I learned that when it comes to designing something based on a space, nothing beats actually being in the space when you’re brainstorming. I found a way to use more pictures as part of the navigation by incorporating panoramic images of some of the main spaces in the Archabbey, and I learned a really simple way to make panoramic pictures by using the photomerge tool in Photoshop.

The app was coming together pretty well by my third and final visit. I had a stack of printouts with screenshots of all the mini-stories, which helped me keep track of what was done and what was still left to capture and edit. Those printouts proved very helpful in keeping me organized over the next few weeks as I finished production. During the last visit I even got to spend some time sort of feature hunting for images to go in the introduction, which was fun to do, rather than just shooting pictures that fit into the stories.

After that visit, I had only about a week left until the project was due in class, so that meant a lot of late nights and long days wrapping up production while working on all of the other end-of-semester tasks too. With the project due on Wednesday morning, I had my last critique session with classmates on Sunday afternoon. Their advice was invaluable in helping me to iron out some issues with the navigation.

The night before the project was due, I was still troubleshooting the app as it kept crashing mid-use. I found out that it had too much content for the app to handle, and I had to get rid of a few pictures in some of the stories.

The next day we all presented our projects to a professional advisory panel. It was a really fun day celebrating the culmination of everyone’s work. The panel brought up a question that had been brought up throughout the semester, and that I often ask myself when working on anything- “Who’s your target audience?” But with this story, I didn’t really know the answer. That is, until recently. In some regards, I am the target audience. I got to work on a story that I cared about, and that’s pretty great. I believe that that care is a key ingredient in creating a project worth looking at. As journalists, we occasionally get caught up in trying to produce content that appeals to everyone and their mother. But, really, not every story has to appeal to every person. We have to remember to seek out stories that we care about, that we can pour our heart and soul into, because someone else will care about those stories.

I got to see that care firsthand when I went back to the monastery to share the Brothers app with the monks. I’d never before gotten to sit in a room full of people, about whom I produced a big story, while they looked at the story. That was an awesome experience! There were as thankful for what I provided them with as I was for being allowed into their lives.

More people have shown they care about the story since that night. After being available for about two months, the app has over 300 downloads. According to my analytics, the majority of users are using the app more than once and for somewhat lengthy periods of time. To go through all of the content in the app takes about 30 minutes, but I designed it so that users can get a good feel for living the monastic way of life in much less time too. I’m excited to see how the app continues to be received as there are news stories in the works, and Br. John Mark is planning to share it at a national Catholic youth conference in the coming months.

Embarking on a project much different from anything else I had ever worked on was a great experience. Throughout the time I spent on this project, I practiced many skills and developed new ones. But ultimately, I learned that of all the skills in my tool belt, love is the most important skill. And that’s a skill I can practice every day.

This is the first in a series of posts reflecting on what I’ve learned through a multitude of opportunities over the last year. Check back for posts reflecting upon what I learned while serving as picture editor for the Talisman and designing the Talisman iPad app.