On an evening in early April, we produced life in the East Tennessean newsroom.
I was bored that night. My staff and I were waiting for a writer to finish one more article — the one article we needed to complete the entire newspaper.
I sat in a swivel chair in the middle of the room, slowly rocking myself back and forth. On the coat rack beside the entrance, a makeshift head stared at me from the corner. The head was fake, crafted out of a combination of old newspapers and tape. It had a sharp chin and a flat nose that had been refined using small balls of paper.
Dylan Chesser, one of the editors before me, had made the head a year ago. He had modeled the features after me, balling together a collection of old newspapers and wrapping them in a layer of tape to give them definition.
Underneath the clear sheen of masking tape a full pair of lips rested emotionless beneath the surface.
Motivated by the unthinking instinct that inspires great painters to paint and great writers to write, I grabbed one of our camera tripods and set it up it in the center of the newsroom. I rotated the handle so that it was facing the sky and gently placed the head in place.
My new three-legged friend stared back at me.
I exchanged a glance with Tyler Wicks, our multimedia editor, and a similar wavelength passed between us: We needed to finish this.
Together, we scoured the newsroom looking for parts that we could add to the newest member of our staff. We found an old roll of wrapping paper, looped it through the arms of a jacket and folded the hood over our new friend’s head. He looked marvelous.
Over the next few days, our new creation began to become more and more life-like. We taped a pair of sunglasses to his face and placed a cardboard helmet on his head. Plastic forks became his hands, and a pair of broken blinds became wisps of hair.
We wrapped a blanket around his waist to preserve his modesty and named him “Totem,” mostly because he looked like some weird sacrilegious idol. His nickname became “Tote,” and over the next few weeks, he became our favorite inside joke.
Tote represents everything I love about the East Tennessean — the weirdness, the creativity and the shared struggle of putting something together that is larger than one person.
The paper may be something that students take for granted — or silently ridicule during lunch — but it represents the cumulative effort of a lot of talented people. It’s not intended to be a professional-grade paper, although we would like if it was, but it is something that we enjoy putting together.
To be honest, I’ve become less and less interested in how students perceive the paper. We make mistakes — in a recent issue we used the wrong version of “there” in a headline — but we serve a very vital role in the local media landscape.
ETSU will undergo a massive number of changes over the next few years. A new football stadium is taking shape on the far side of campus, a new local governing board has begun exerting direct control over the university, and over the next several years, the university hopes to increase enrollment from 15,000 students to 18,000 students.
Local media does a good job covering these developments, but the East Tennessean is in an unique position — it has the potential to provide laser-focused coverage of everything that happens on campus.
Like Tote, who watchfully guards the newsroom whenever we’re away, the East Tennessean keeps tabs on new developments at ETSU.
We show you things that we think are interesting, and we alert you to developments that we think deserve your attention.
Even though I’ll be gone next year, I have full faith that we will continue to serve that role on campus.