Senior Column: For the love of the written word

Like so many incoming freshmen, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Four years — and scores of articles later — I have fallen deeply in love with the written word.

Charles Peckman, News Writer

When I graduated from high school in 2016, I bore a striking resemblance to Bill Hader’s character, Fear, from the animated movie Inside Out. The similarity was physical — I am 6-feet tall and weighed a mean 110 pounds at the time — but I embodied the character’s internal struggles as well. I was petrified of the question that I had been asked for years: “What do you want to do with your life?”

It was at the urging of my dad that I first applied to The Daily Iowan. With no journalistic experience under my belt (apart from an article about worms I penned in sixth grade), I arrived at my first pitch meeting armed with a laptop and a deep sense of trepidation.

My first task as a newly minted news staffer? Report on the University of Iowa marching band’s 2016-17 season. I had 72 hours to learn the basics of interviewing, inverted pyramid-style writing, and AP Style. Needless to say, I did not simply dip my feet into the pool of journalistic craft, I dove in head-first.

In the weeks and months that followed, I traveled around Iowa City with a reporter’s notebook and ever-present sense of curiosity. I sat down with public figures such as former NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan and “Black Klansman” Ron Stallworth. I felt the jubilation of Chicago Cubs fans when their team won the World Series for the first time in over 100 years (go Cubbies). I felt the despair of a community when two UI students died within weeks of each other in 2017.

Of the hundreds of stories I composed during my four years at the Writing University, the most enjoyable pieces to write were in-depth profiles of locally owned businesses. I could spend hours speaking with Willa Dickens, whose witty (and often crass) stories leave a cartoonish smile on my face. I have spent countless afternoons perusing the ever-changing isles of Artifacts, interviewing its proprietor, Todd Thelen, and amassing a collection of vintage wristwatches.

As I watched the seasons change — and my job at the DI shift from writing to editing a new crop of writers’ stories — I navigated the often difficult waters of management thanks to invaluable guidance from writing coach Jenn Wagner and my former news editor, Katelyn Weisbrod.

During this time, I began flirting with the idea of beginning a career in strategic communications. This led to a litany of freelance writing contracts with pharmaceutical companies, marketing firms, and even a staff writing position at Originate Report, a magazine geared towards professionals in the private-lending sphere.

I was also able to put my skills to the test with an internship at Purpose Brand, a Chicago-based communications firm housed in the Hancock Building. In addition to compiling a 50-page social media guide for luxury real estate agents, I had the opportunity to work with a host of clients, all while navigating the Windy City in the heat of a torrid summer.

It was with great anguish that I began writing this senior column — how can a person successfully condense four years into a few hundred words? My own Beklommenheit (trepidation) aside, I often think back on the night of the 2016 U.S. presidential election as a perfect encapsulation of the time in which I worked at the DI.

That night felt like a year in and of itself. The entire staff worked diligently on their contributions to the election paper, and the newsroom echoed with hushed conversations and a symphony of ringing phones. As the minutes passed by, it became abundantly clear that we would not know the Election Day results until after the print deadline. In a matter of hours, the DI staff re-worked the entire paper.

Why, you may ask, does this perfectly encapsulate today’s journalistic climate? In short, I started my UI career in the midst of a tumultuous election and am finishing in the midst of a pandemic. Now, more than ever, it is of the utmost importance that journalists not only learn the basics of reporting — source aggregation, objectivity, and the like — but the ability to react and adapt at a moment’s notice.

The press, or the Fourth Estate, is not perfect — I will be the first to admit that. The stories we produce on a daily basis, after all, are crafted by human beings — human beings who sometimes make mistakes. What concerns me a great deal, however, is the public’s abhorrence for the guardians of the free press.

If you were to ask former DI staffers who lived and breathed the news during the introduction of online publication, I would venture to guess that those feelings of unknowing would bear a resemblance to the current media landscape, a landscape comprised of fake news and never-ending social media drivel. As consumers begin to adapt to journalism through a worldwide lens, it is my hope that respect for the press increases.

Even though it is bitter-sweet (to say the least) to bid adieu to the warm embrace of the UI’s black and gold, I will perpetually view my time in Iowa City as nothing short of remarkable. Although trite, the friendships I have garnered in and out of the newsroom will last a lifetime. Long after I walk across the graduation stage, I will be visiting with Aadit, Maddie, and Marissa on the Gabe’s patio.

I could not have accomplished any of this without the love and support of my parents, family, and friends. Your long, often poignant conversations, encouragement, and hugs mean more to me than you will ever know. The novel coronavirus pandemic may have put a hold on our graduation celebrations, but I look forward to the day we can all be together again.

For now, in the words of Porky Pig, “that’s all, folks!”