It wasn’t until I reported a story about a fish in a river that I fully realized the most important thing I learned from three years of working at The Emory Wheel as an undergraduate.
Writing in AP style, rigorous fact-checking and effective time management are all things that I use daily as a political reporter, but the empathetic listening skills developed while working at a college newspaper are what motivates me to continue in journalism.
I had this realization while standing waist-deep in the Flint River, microphone in one hand, camera in the other while talking to a fishing guide named Allen who was showing me this hidden oasis for a beautiful fish known as a shoal bass.
The hook for the original story was a failed bill in the state legislature that wanted to make the shoal bass Georgia’s official river fish. From my desk, it seemed like a quirky, fun story to run in a series about the outdoors.
After spending the day with Allen and others around the river 80 miles south of Atlanta, I was reminded of the human side of the story: a conservationist working to keep the water supply clean, the state representative who wanted to bring tourism to a more neglected area and Allen, whose livelihood depends on someone hearing his story.
Journalism can sometimes be a zero-sum game: thing A happens, person B has a comment and person C offers a different perspective and voila, a complete story is told.
My time at the Wheel taught me to think about journalism as a multiplier instead.
Few places outside of a college campus will you find such a confluence of differing backgrounds and experiences, and few places so openly invite curiosity and the space to learn, too.
The Wheel was (and is) a place for all of it. The sports section wasn’t just box scores, arts and entertainment wasn’t just for pithy opinions on pop albums and news wasn’t just a rubberstamp rewrite of press releases. There were real people, real perspectives and real effects to the journalism we did.
Working as a reporter and editor for the Wheel while balancing classes, rehearsals, other extracurriculars and trying to have a social life made me more understanding about the time and energy involved in asking people for comment — but also their time and energy responding.
It is also much easier to remember that there is a real person behind a quote in a story when you see them in the dining hall or have class with them twice a week — something I keep in mind in all of my stories today.
Being a part of a college newspaper is open and accessible, and not just for those declared as journalism majors (in fact, Emory cut the journalism program while I was there — something the Wheel covered quite well) or people with experience and internships under their belts.
As I travel across Georgia to report on serious topics like election security, reproductive rights and the economy, I think back to those long nights working on page layouts, editing stories and trying to keep the campus informed and engaged, and am humbled to be a part of a 100-year history.
Even in the internet age, college newspapers are struggling to stay afloat as local news writ large is much the same. Yet the Wheel remains.
Writers and editors at the Wheel in decades past did not have the luxury of Adobe InDesign, or Twitter or even a distracting Spotify playlist to help them produce the paper week in and week out like students have today.
But looking back on those yellowed archives in the offices and my own experiences, I am certain of one thing that has remained constant in 100 years of the Wheel.
The student journalists who devote their time to the paper know how to listen to the community’s needs and make the world sound a little bit better.
Stephen Fowler (16C) is the political reporter at Georgia Public Broadcasting, the statewide NPR affiliate in Georgia. He graduated from Emory with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies and covered the central administration and Greek Life for the Wheel before serving as assistant news editor, Emory Life editor and the Executive Digital Editor from 2015-16.