By Toby Sonneman
Twelve years ago, when I was asked to take over the journalism position after a recently hired teacher left in the middle of the quarter, the Horizon newsroom was a windowless room about the size of a walk-in closet in Laidlaw, as Syre Student Center hadn’t yet been built.
We had a couple of old computers, but no Internet connection. The editor and production editor had to drive out to the printer in Lynden with the finished proofs and if there were any problems, drive back to the college to fix them, then go back to Lynden. We didn’t have digital cameras, so the photo editor had to take the film over to a camera shop in the mall to be developed.
Still, after teaching English 100 and English 101 for several years, I saw journalism as a fresh and lively endeavor. I stopped teaching English composition and never looked back.
The beginning was rocky, and not just because of technical issues. The newspaper operation had a certain, shall I say, lack of professionalism.
Often, stories just weren’t finished by deadline or the production editor failed to finish the layout on time. And embarrassingly (at least to me) several times that first year the paper was printed days after its scheduled publication. Proofreading was nearly nonexistent and errors were rampant.
By the second year, I realized that strict penalties for not meeting deadlines and clear ethical and professional guidelines for journalism students and Horizon staff were essential, not only to the health of the newspaper but also to my own mental health.
From that time on, with a few exceptions, it’s been a very rewarding job (though not financially). I believe strongly in the values of journalism–honest, objective, thorough reporting and clear concise writing—and so it has been my challenge to teach students how to put those values into practice, and my pleasure when I see them embracing those values in their work.
You can tell how seriously they take the job during our classes when we read and comment on drafts (three for each story) and ask reporters to go back and find out more, talk to more people, ask more questions.
Yet we also enjoy the occasional hilarity as we try to think up Whatcom Voices questions or create clever headlines (the ones you haven’t seen are the source of the humor).
Horizon editors–who have run the gamut from 16-year-old Running Start students to a 35-year old former hair stylist from Boston—and staff spend countless hours perfecting the paper. They fuss over such details as the nuances of captions, the appropriate Associated Press style for capitalization or the placement of commas.
Often this work goes on late into the night or on weekends, with greasy pizza boxes and marked-up 11-by-17 proof pages littering the newsroom table. It’s been a privilege and an inspiration for me to witness the dedication of students who take on the huge responsibility and commitment of producing a quality newspaper to serve the college community.
As I look back over the newspapers from my time here, I see that Horizon reporters have covered subjects small and large, from dead cats being dissected in biology lab to a life drawing class, from dyslexia to sleep deprivation, from the veterans’ club to volcanoes.
Our readers learned about teachers who dig up archeological artifacts and those who stage mock crimes in the classroom, about custodians who clean the campus bathrooms, about a golden retriever named Ozzie and about students who come from Denmark, Egypt, Turkey, Taiwan and Tanzania.
We wrote about the border troubles after September 11, 2001, about the Bellingham bomb squad destroying an unattended metal box on campus (it turned out to contain art supplies) and about a student on the Horizon staff who received a raunchy tweet from a congressman and became the subject of national media attention.
We weathered a storm of angry letters about an advertisement for an adult video shop – the most letters to the editor we have ever received – and the inevitable controversies about our reporting of conflicts or upheaval in the student council.
Times have changed, thank goodness, since those early days. The Horizon consistently meets its deadlines for print publication and we no longer get letters from readers detailing numerous typos and grammatical errors.
We have a large newsroom with working computers, up-to-date software programs, a digital camera and, yes, Internet access. We have a website for our newspaper and we’re on Facebook and Twitter, though our readership is still largely through the print paper.
What has not changed is the commitment of journalism students to the newspaper and the college’s support of students’ rights to a free press. For that, I am grateful and also hopeful that, as I leave my job, the Horizon will continue as strong and vital and interesting as ever.
(If you are a former member of the Horizon staff and want to share your memories, or if you just want to say goodbye to Toby, feel free to do so in the comments below.)
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