College Media Geeks: Cassie Sheridan, Living Editor, The Beacon, University of Portland

Cassie Sheridan is a political science and English double major at the University of Portland. The senior from Soldotna, Alaska, serves as living editor for The Beacon student newspaper. She also recently launched a column “about love, and relationships, and college, and hook-up culture, and emotional deprivation, and salvation, and how, maybe, we can all do better.”

Atop her ever-better Beacon work, Sheridan previously served as social media director for the UP campus program board and separately worked as an outdoor pursuits program leader (which included overseeing hiking and kayak trips).

Along with being a self-described “exceptional coffee drinker,” Sheridan — AKA “Caffeinated Cassie” — is also an inveterate traveler. She has set foot in most U.S. states and almost every European country and studied for a full year in Salzburg, Austria.

In the exclusive Q&A below — part of CMM’s esteemed College Media Geeks interview series — Sheridan discusses how she has thrown herself “full force into the newsroom and the news atmosphere” and offers advice for j-students attempting to pick the right school and succeed in the field.

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Cassie Sheridan is living editor for The Beacon at the University of Portland.

How have you worked to make the most of your time and opportunities at UP to study and practice journalism?

I came into the college journalism game late. For reasons that are of little consequence, during my freshman year I possessed limited desire to work on the student newspaper as I had throughout high school. Instead, I maintained a blog and spent my time doing other things. After a year abroad, I focused a great deal of my attention on how international news was being covered. I also remembered I had a journalistic vision when I began to cover the International Herald Tribune (now known as the International New York Times) in red ink — an act that seriously annoyed the other international students I was with.

So my junior year at UPortland I joined the paper. Realizing that I was behind, I threw myself full force into the newsroom and the news atmosphere. Typically at the Beacon, people write one or two stories a week. Most weeks, I was writing four and sometimes five, most of which were unassigned. I volunteered to cover anything from sports profiles to hard news to a new a capella group on campus. I didn’t shy away, even when I knew absolutely nothing about the subject. At the paper, I gained a reputation among the ed board as the person to call mid-week if a story broke or something needed to be investigated quickly. When the Beacon started to expand, during my second semester on staff, to a great deal of online media and various online tools — timeline JS for example — I volunteered to learn it all. As we’ve worked to redesign our online presence through both a website overhaul and new mobile app, I’ve pretty much muscled my way to the conversation table and to being a leader at the paper — taking over as the living editor in the fall and spearheading a major design and content overhaul for the section that I’m really excited about.

Beyond college journalism, I knew this past summer I was going to be at sea in Alaska and wouldn’t be able to actively be in a newsroom. So I cold-called and emailed every small newspaper around Alaska until I found someone who would let me remotely write a column about fishing.

I guess the major point of this humblebrag is that I pushed myself and went far beyond my assigned tasks. I’ve written and covered a great deal of things mainly because I wanted to, even if they didn’t get published. I came to meetings with not two story pitches, but usually 10. I’ve built connections with many other college journalists via Twitter, mutual friends and simply emailing people whose writing I admire or whose stories I found intriguing. I think that journalism, as with most things, requires you to completely throw yourself in. It’s never a toe-dip. It’s definitely a full-on plunge. (I like water metaphors)

What are the advantages and disadvantages of pursuing and studying journalism in a city like Portland and at a school like UP?

The advantages of being a journalist in a city like Portland is that there is always and I mean ALWAYS a wealth of stories from the greater Portland area. This is also an inherent disadvantage, as there are literally too many cool things to write about and you are often competing with obviously larger papers (like The Oregonian) and hilarious intrinsically Portland ones like Willamette Week or Portland Mercury.

The Beacon is kind of like a weird family of misfits, and the advantage of this is that there are people with very diverse interests on the paper. UP does not have a formal j-school, which is pretty normal for a university of our size. This means that a lot of people on the paper are Comm or English majors or neither of the two, meaning we all can bring a lot of unique perspective and story ideas from various departments. UP administrators have been interesting in their larger treatment of the paper by speaking constantly about how much they value what we are doing — while at times being unbelievably difficult when we try to get information from them.

Also, everyone at UP is way too polite and Portlandish, which is of course beautiful and wonderful. But not when you’re trying to get an inflammatory quote from someone who is obviously angry about whatever and all they’ll say is “It’s a frustrating situation” or “It’s no ones’ fault, really I don’t want to blame anyone.” And you’re kind of like, “Blame someone! Be outraged! Say it in this tape recorder!”

“I’ve written and covered a great deal of things mainly because I wanted to, even if they didn’t get published. I came to meetings with not two story pitches, but usually 10. I’ve built connections with many other college journalists via Twitter, mutual friends and simply emailing people whose writing I admire or whose stories I found intriguing. I think that journalism, as with most things, requires you to completely throw yourself in. It’s never a toe-dip. It’s definitely a full-on plunge.”

What’s your advice to high schoolers searching for the best j-school or program?

Even though many high schoolers may be doubtful about this, I think they know themselves better than they may believe they do. By this I mean, a lot of people who are media geeks or journalism junkies coming out of high school tend to be enamored with hard news, even if they dislike writing it. They have visions of being the next Christiane Amanpour or Bob Woodward, etc. For a few of these people, sure, this is the correct path, but in a lot of cases it’s not.

Speaking from personal experience, it took me three years of college to finally come to terms with the fact that I would never enjoy writing hard news. Even though this was a facet of my personality long before my “journalistic revelation,” the types of things I enjoyed writing were goofy and weird and a lot of meta self-referential sh*t. And I was forcing myself to enjoy hard news type writing because that’s what I thought *journalism* was.

1) Be real with yourself and what you want out of your college journalism experience. I guarantee you the four years will be some of the biggest growth years in your writing style and thus obviously your personhood. Don’t be afraid or weary to go check out the “rebel” journalism happening on campus. Go check out broadcast journalism as well, even if you think that’s for nancies. You may find your voice and your style there.

2) Ask questions, a lot of questions. Force the haggard veteran journalists on campus to talk to you. If they are jerks about your questions or acting above it, that’s not the kind of environment you want to work in. In particular, ask what they are doing to remain relevant and real on campus. How are they adapting? What’s changing? Where is the paper heading? You want to join a newsroom with a vision and direction — people who are flexible and focused and eager and desirous of new journalism — without losing sight of tradition.

3) Ask about the balance of journalism and academic work. It’s going to be harder than you think — especially in situations in which the university you are touring doesn’t have a formal j-school. I consider my work on the paper some weeks to be like taking six extra credits. So be real with yourself and what you can handle.

4) Drink coffee. If a newsroom doesn’t have a coffee pot, just turn around and walk the other way.

What are a few secrets to succeeding as a j-student?

1) Read other colleges newspapers. By this I mean, if you are flipping through the New York Times and maybe a little Washington Post and then promptly going to whatever meme website you enjoy, you are doing it wrong. You should be spending the same amount of time reading journalism produced by your peers as the big papers. It will make you better. It will make your paper better. And it will give you a way more substantial idea of what is working for other college papers and what isn’t. Start with student media at other universities in your state and then broaden your range. I try to check my regulars and favorites weekly and also follow a great deal of them on Twitter.

2) Don’t be self-limiting. So what if you know nothing and don’t care about _____ (football fanatics, Greek mythology, the new striped cardigan trend on campus, etc.). Make yourself care and make yourself learn about it. If you want to be a journalist in the 21st century you need to be flexible and able to cover anything, learn anything and not feel daunted by things you don’t know or understand.

3) Seek help. If you know yourself as the type of person who feels extreme nervousness regarding big interviews, asking hard questions or writing a story on puppies when you’re more of a cat person, don’t be afraid to ask for help. The veterans at your paper will help you in whatever way possible. This is your opportunity to grow — and remember that everyone you’re working with is learning as they go as well. Turn to your editor, your adviser or a good friend and talk about what’s challenging about your situation and how to push through it. I find when I’m struggling with a hard interview or any other challenge, talking it out with a friend over a couple drinks (water) helps me avoid pit sweat during whatever I was nervous about.

4) Join Twitter.

5) Mine all available resources. There’s an unbelievable amount of resources out there for young journalists. Use them. The art of journalism isn’t changing. The distribution is just being revolutionized. Don’t listen to your uncle Stu at Christmas when he tells you with a mouth full of turkey that you’re wasting your time. You’re not. There are people and websites and tools out there that want to help you succeed. Make use of it all and don’t shy from any opportunity.

“The art of journalism isn’t changing. The distribution is just being revolutionized. Don’t listen to your uncle Stu at Christmas when he tells you with a mouth full of turkey that you’re wasting your time. You’re not. There are people and websites and tools out there that want to help you succeed. Make use of it all and don’t shy from any opportunity.”

What has been an especially memorable reporting assignment or journalism class experience?

1There have been so many, but I suppose the one that really stands out to me is an interview I did with a female senior associate athletic director about her recent accolades and being a woman in a seriously male-dominated athletics world. It was one of my first “real” interviews/profiles of someone and I went into it very cocky about my interviewing abilities. But when I went to write the profile, I struggled to format and realized how difficult it really was to encapsulate an entire person in like 600 words. I think my first draft was around 3,500 words and I was seriously frustrated when editors told me to narrow my focus. I said something like, “IMPOSSIBLE.”

I just remember that week being so hard and frustrating. But the beautiful thing about journalism is that you get another assignment and you eventually are forced to cut your piece. It teaches you a great deal about how time moves and that sometimes your piece is not going to be perfect or what you wanted, but it’s time to go to print — so just let it go and move on to the next thing. It’s really a great life philosophy I’ve found. I kind of laugh about it now in retrospect because I spent that week in journalistic turmoil and now I’m just like, eh, it’ll all work itself out.

The #firstworldproblems and College Problems phenomena have been crazy popular in recent semesters. Building on those, what are a few short entries you would offer to a list of Journalism Student Problems?

1) Your profile on the soccer coach has Oxford commas and your essay on WWII doesn’t. #journalismstudentproblems

2) Everything you own smells faintly of coffee and late-night takeout. #journalismstudentproblems

3) Sprinting to talk to a source in your five-minute window between classes while trying to not break a sweat. #journalismstudentproblems

4) Fellow students who don’t check their emails is your biggest pet peeve. #journalismstudentproblems

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