College Media Geeks: Jonathan Black, Editor-in-Chief, The Pendulum, Elon University
Elon University senior Jonathan Black is a dog person with an infectious smile and a gigantic love of journalism. Along with outside internships and in-class experience, Black, 22, has previously served The Pendulum student newspaper at Elon as a columnist, assistant opinions editor and managing editor. He is currently the paper’s editor-in-chief.
Black first came onto my radar last fall due to a Pendulum column he wrote about Sadie, his aging Golden Retriever Labrador mix. The piece warmed my heart. Then, this past week, he broke it — by confirming in a second piece that after “years of countless walks, fetched tennis balls and constant shedding” Sadie had passed away.
It’s a simple, touching tribute, underscoring Black’s writing talent and his willingness to include the Pendulum in the type of personal event that many restrict to family and friends.
In that respect, especially from his present vantage point atop the paper’s masthead, Black views the Pendulum in both professional and parental terms. “It’s like having a child,” he told me. “It’s almost like having a child that’s in boarding school. Even when you’re not with them, you’re still very much worried about them and worried whether people are saying negative things about them behind their back.”
During a recent chat, Black, a journalism major from Winston-Salem, N.C., shared the positives and challenges of being top editor at a student news outlet — including the real-time newsroom decisions, constant small-stuff sweating and intangible rewards non-journalists might be hard-pressed to see.
Separately, for those upset about Sadie, here is an image to smile about. As Black writes, “In the midst of loss, it’s comforting to know she’s on a beach somewhere fitting as many tennis balls as she can in her mouth.”
Since taking over as editor-in-chief, what have you learned about the rigors and realities of the position?
It’s a lot of personality management. There are a lot of different kinds of egos in the newsroom. You have to learn how to communicate with each editor. … You have to present information to one editor in a way that’s completely different with how you present it to another. You have to hold one editor’s hand when another one you have to hold back from attacking someone. I’ve realized how differently I communicate with each editor when I’m one-on-one with them or talking to two of them as compared to talking to the whole group.
Also, I’m friends with a lot of editors. It’s an interesting transition when you have to go back into the newsroom and be like, ‘Hey, I’m your boss again now.’ I don’t think I did a very good job with that in the beginning. Rather than letting the personal life seep into the office, I let the office seep into my personal life. After [this past] Spring Break, I changed that a bit. …
I was also kind of surprised at the jump from managing editor to editor-in-chief. I didn’t think that would be that tremendous of a responsibility. But it is so different. Even when you’re managing editor you have the top editor to turn to and ask a question toward. But when you’re editor-in-chief, it’s just your gut.”
What’s an example of a gut-level decision you’ve had to face as top editor?
During production one night, we had a story running in our features section about a girl whose grandfather filmed the famous execution in Vietnam – the Viet Cong prisoner who was shot. Her grandfather was the videographer [who captured the shooting]. The issue was that we didn’t have permission to use the [execution] photo. We couldn’t find it on [a popular photo sharing service] or Creative Commons or anything.
I hadn’t realized we didn’t have permission to publish the photo, and it was already laid out on the page. The videographer said if you can get a screenshot of the execution you can use that. [A staffer] had just grabbed the main photo thinking that would be the same. The paper had gone through all the rounds of edits and everything and then someone made me aware of the issue with the photo. So I had to give [the staffer] a call because she had already left and ask her, “Do we have permission to use this?”
We then looked at the video and realized there really wasn’t a good screenshot opportunity. In the end, as much as I wanted to run that photo as the perfect visual for the story, we cut it and put up a picture of the girl and her grandfather instead.
Given the high-profile nature of the position, are you ever able to escape the editor-in-chief label and mantle of responsibilities while on campus?
A majority of my friends are in the communications school. They’re going to know I’m editor of the Pendulum. So I might worry a bit about how I say something or present myself. But when I go home, it’s very much the opposite. My roommates are not communications majors. I almost never talk about the paper when I’m with them because I know honestly they don’t even care that much.
But I find myself at times in situations, little situations that arise out of the blue. [For example] one of my best friends is president of our student union board. I was talking to him casually about one of the concerts the board throws every year. I asked him, without thinking, “So how much money did it cost the organization?” He sort of hesitated and I realized “Oh wait, you’re probably not going to answer, are you? Because you know I’ll feel obligated to maybe get a tweet out about it or something.”
Do students and others outside the Pendulum staff have a genuine sense of what your job entails?
Especially when I became managing editor, I found it was hard to talk about the issues I was dealing with among my friends who weren’t on staff. I always warn people who are applying for executive staff positions that when you get hired you’re taking on such an emotional burden of caring for the paper and caring for your section. It’s difficult to put that into words when you’re talking to someone who isn’t a communications major. When you’re making edits late at night, you’re caring so much about things like whether a certain word should be “that” or “which.” To the average person, it doesn’t even matter.
What’s an example of an article, issue or series you’re especially proud of the Pendulum team for producing during your editorship so far?
One of the buzzwords on our campus right now is “intellectual climate.” The intellectual climate is when you leave the classroom and still continue the discussion you had in it. When we had our executive retreat, our adviser Colin [Donohue] motivated us by saying he wanted us to publish one special edition every semester.
In the fall, we always do a sports preview, so it’s the spring when we kind of create an idea from scratch. We kept discussing this intellectual climate and how it’s been talked about across campus. So we decided to pursue this idea.
The issue came out the week after Easter. … We had so many different stories. The main story was “What is intellectual climate?” … I also did a story on faculty who are living on campus and are engaged in things happening in residence halls. I was very pleased with how it came together overall. Our biggest struggle was just getting a front page photo. Because how do you visualize intellectual climate?
Was the issue well-received on campus?
I think so. Journalism is difficult in that if you do something well you’re not going to hear a lot about it. I think that can be very frustrating to a lot of people who are just starting out. You know, you’re not always going to get a pat on the back.
To that end, if there’s no pat on the back, what would you say are the rewards? How do you stay motivated as a student journalist?
A lot of times it’s just seeing the paper come out every Wednesday morning. Although for me, more than anything, it’s first feeling relieved I really did send all the pages to the printer and didn’t leave them blank or leave one behind. … There’s also always a thrill to seeing your byline in the paper. That never leaves. I still get that excitement the same as when I first got a story in my high school paper.