I have now been an adjunct journalism professor for the past, oh, seven or eight years, spreading (non) knowledge and (non) inspiration to young minds at Manhattanville College, SUNY Purchase and, of late, Chapman University out here in Southern California.
The gigs tend to be mixed bags of (mostly) joy and (a dash or two of) frustration. I absolutely love talking journalism. I love passionate dialogue. I love amazing guest speakers. I love when a student enters the classroom lacking confidence, then months later departs with an A paper and a zeal for the written word. And, sure, there are potholes—iPhone addicts; no-shows; arguers. But, mostly, I don’t walk toward my class. I run.
In all of my years as a teacher, few students have brought greater satisfaction than Jamie Altman, a soon-to-be Chapman graduate and outgoing editor of The Panther, the school’s student newspaper. Jamie was everything you’d want in a pupil—inquisitive, dogged, naturally talented. She took this stuff very seriously, and would work a story and work a story until she felt as if it were just right. Even in my sports journalism course (a subject she, admittedly, knows little about), Jamie stood out.
This past semester, I served as a quasi-adviser to The Panther, and—for my money—the newspaper was one of the best in the nation. The coverage of the Koch Foundation alone was award-worthy, times 1,000.
Hence, it with a mix of pride and sadness that I invite Jamie to be the 360th Quaz Q&A. You can follow her on Twitter here, and please wish her well as she flies off to San Francisco to live with her aunt and work in public relations.
Jamie Altman—you’ll be missed …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, so Jamie, you graduate from college in a few days—and, then, the real world. And I wonder how you feel about this, because we live in this uncertain age—politically, socially, environmentally, on and on. And I could see it being sorta ominous and scary. So … where you at?
JAMIE ALTMAN: I grew up watching “A League of Their Own” every year with my softball team (back when a certain “you look like a little penis with a hat on” remark flew right over my head). Lots of life lessons in that movie, but this is the big one: “It’s supposed to be hard. The hard is what makes it great.”
Another anecdote: My dad and I used to be roller coaster junkies. The bigger, faster, scarier the better. We used to wait in these long lines at Six Flags for 90-degree drops, ridiculous velocity, corkscrews—you name it. I’d always bounce around and get butterflies in my stomach and look anxiously up at my dad, a professional public speaker who thrives in nerve-wracking settings. “It’s OK to be nervous,” he would say. “It means it’s important.”
That’s a long way of saying that I’m scared as hell. You only get one shot at this, and odds are it won’t go the way you want it to. I got lucky, and I landed my first-choice job in my favorite city and I’m living with my aunt, who is my best friend. But even so, I’m a mess. I’m breaking out, I’ve got dandruff, my hair falls out in the shower. As excited as I am, my life is drastically changing, and that freaks me out. But it means it’s important, and it’s especially important today, with all that crap going on that you mentioned before. It’s easy to get down and feel frustrated and helpless when we lose net neutrality, or DACA gets repealed—or whatever. Sometimes I can’t even read the news because it depresses me too much. But when something makes you anxious or scared, it means it’s important. Life is supposed to be hard—it’s what makes it great.
J.P.: You’re a journalism student and editor of the campus newspaper. But you’re not going into journalism. Um, what the fuck?
J.A.: Saw this one coming as soon as you asked if I wanted to do this. I guess the simplest way to answer this question is that I lost my passion for it.
I tell people that I had wanted to do journalism since the womb. I wrote a letter to my principal in fifth grade asking if there could be a school newspaper and if I could be editor-in-chief. I sent out a monthly “Altmanac” to my family members, writing articles about my family and school. I created my own student paper in middle school, took journalism every year of high school, became editor-in-chief, went to summer journalism camp, got a journalism scholarship to Chapman, and, well, you know what’s happened here.
I studied abroad in Paris during my sophomore year, knowing that the summer before junior year was the summerfor internships. But email after email, I got rejection letters. I started stalking the people who did get these internships—what did they have that I didn’t?—and I realized that they just wanted it more. I didn’t want internships that started at midnight and ended at 6 a.m. I didn’t want to move out to the middle of nowhere. I didn’t want to just freelance. What I did want was to live in San Francisco, work semi-normal hours, make enough money to travel, shop and eat out, and have a family. I don’t love journalism enough to sacrifice any of that.
Journalism is harder than ever these days, and that’s what makes it great (according to Tom Hanks). But you have to really want it. And I only kind of wanted it.
PS: My parents had a similar reaction when I told them two years ago (after they’d had a couple margaritas) that I didn’t want to pursue journalism anymore: “What the fuck?!”
J.P.: The big story for you and yours this year was Chapman accepting money from the Koch Foundation. The school says it won’t be impacted by outside forces. You’ve covered this at length. Now, as you leave, what’s your take? Is Chapman wrong? Is Chapman right? Are there unclear factors?
J.A.: Ralph Wilson, a co-founder of UnKoch My Campus, told us that The Panther’s ability to view Chapman’s donor agreement with the Charles Koch Foundation is the most progress he’s ever seen at a private university. Coming from someone who has essentially devoted his recent post-grad life to studying these donations in higher education, that’s big. And it should be recognized that we even got the opportunity to view the documents.
My problem with Chapman’s acceptance of the donations doesn’t even really come from what’s in those donor agreements—t’s more about the universal issue. Seemingly every week, there’s a new Koch-related problem at a university. George Mason. Florida State. Wake Forest. Arizona State. Whitman College. University of Kansas. Montana State. The list goes on.
It’s impossible to ignore what’s going on at these other universities, and doing so is not only irresponsible—it’s dangerous. We wrote about this in our latest editorial, ‘Where there’s Koch, there’s fire.’ On a smaller scale, it’s like saying, ‘That friend has never stabbed me in the back, and I know for a fact that she won’t, even though she’s stabbed every single one of my friends in the back.’ It just doesn’t compute.
J.P.: This is gonna sound weird, but I remember being your age and thinking, “Jesus, 45 … 46—that’s old.” And now I’m 46, and I sit there advising the student paper, and I forget that there’s this 20-year gap. But I’m guessing, from your end, I must seem super ancient. So I was wondering—do I? And, on a larger scale, what does getting older look like to you? Is it scary? No biggie?
J.A.: You’re not ancient at all—I mean, you’re 13 years younger than my parents, who still seem young in a way to me. We laugh a lot in the newsroom about you being a ‘dad’ not because you’re old but because you make dumb dad jokes, use an absolutely ridiculous photo editing app and talk about how things were ‘back in the day.’ But it’s all ENDEARING, not ancient. It’s actually seen as cool in college—there’s this one frat house at Chapman called the ‘dad house,’ and they did this whole photoshoot posing in front of a grill with skewers. It was odd. College is weird.
But you actually remind me a lot of my dad, who is a teenage boy at heart and pretty popular among my friends (with two daughters and two sisters, he likes to think of himself as ‘one of the girls,’ in the least creepy sense of the phrase). He got his first tennis racket for his Bar Mitzvah, and I kind of think he just stopped aging after that.
In terms of getting old, I worry less about becoming ancient and more about having regrets. For Christmas this year, my mom got me one of those inspirational life books about secrets for your 20s. The writer talks about this one night at a bar, when five people were invited to volunteer to perform air guitar onstage, and then a winner would be chosen to receive a free guitar. He wanted to so badly, but he was too scared, hesitated, and by the time he mustered up the courage, the five had already been chosen. And they all sucked. He knows he would’ve kicked ass and won that guitar. But he lost his chance. So I guess I’m more afraid of missing those air guitar moments because I’m too nervous to take risks. There’s only one opportunity to win that metaphorical guitar.
But old age doesn’t really worry me, not when I look at the quality of life my sweet 98-year-old Papa has. He plays bridge twice a week, attends music lessons, lunches every week with others in their 90s and takes walks every day. He has a martini every day at 5 p.m. Without fail. Fifty family and friends from around the country just flew to the Bay Area in February for a big party to celebrate his 98th. If that’s what getting old means, then I’m extremely down.
J.P.: Did college live up to what you were hoping for? I mean, we were all high school seniors at one point, psyched and giddy for the next four years. Well, did you get what you anticipated? Was it worth it?
J.A.: I actually said, day one, “I do not want to become editor-in-chief.” I knew that, as an editor, you didn’t get to write as much, and writing was my passion. I thought that I would just write for The Panther every semester. Well, that clearly didn’t happen, as a I became an assistant editor second semester of freshman year and gradually started to accept my fate.
Socially, I actually thought that I would be way more involved in my sorority, which seems extremely ridiculous now looking back, a year after I dropped out of the chapter. Friendships and relationships were way too dependent on going out and partying, something I just really hated. I don’t regret joining though. My sister and I actually had a falling out right before I left for school freshman year, and then I joined the same sorority she was in. I really believe that my first semester in that sorority helped repair our relationship and bring us closer again. So everything happens for a reason. (That’s the only cliche thing I’ll say. I promise.)
And of course, the most unexpected thing—my mid-college crisis, as I lovingly call it now, when I realized I didn’t want to be a journalist anymore. I pretty much gave all my loved ones heart attacks that summer as I gradually told them the news.
J.P.: I often felt you weren’t entirely thrilled by the journalism program at Chapman; that you wanted more. So, looking back, what worked? What didn’t work?
J.A.: I wish I had majored in something other than journalism, because there’s only so much you can learn in a classroom. Writing for an award-winning newspaper that averages 15,000 to 20,000 page views a week, that’s what you need. At a certain point, you need to get out of the classroom and just write, report, do.
But it’s not that simple, and things unfortunately get political and everything becomes a power struggle. When a new professor was hired to teach The Panther class at the beginning of this academic year, the adviser-editor relationship didn’t work anymore. Suddenly, we had a student-run newspaper staff that was being graded by a professor who had very different goals and ideas than the editor (me). It didn’t work. When The Panther separated from the English department at the beginning of this semester and became completely independent, it was the best thing to happen to the publication. That power play stuff is toxic, and when you work as tirelessly as our staff does, it’s just not something you want anywhere near your newsroom.
J.P.: Do students care about student newspapers? I mean, back when I was at Delaware everyone picked up The Review. But you have grown up in a non-pick-up-the-paper age. Do you ever feel like you’re screaming into the wind?
J.A.: Yes, a lot of times, and it can be frustrating. But people care about things when it affects them or someone they know. For example, we just published a guest column from a graduating senior who wrote about his experience being sexually assaulted by his boss, and about how the school sided with his assailant. That blew up (it’s still blowing up) because it’s something that happened to someone who people care about.
One of the biggest arguments we’ve had in the newsroom was about whether to write our most recent editorial about the Koch donations. My managing editor Rebeccah and I were both heated about what President Daniele Struppa had said about not caring what happens at other universities. But others in the newsroom, who haven’t spent the last year reporting on and researching this topic, weren’t as passionate. “Chapman students don’t care about this as much as we do,” they said.
This sparked a whole ‘nother conversation about the role of a student newspaper. Do we only write things that students care about, or do we write things that students need to care about? I side more on the latter, and that’s how I’ve carried out my editorship.
J.P.: Back to Koch—you’ve obviously spent a lot of time on these pieces, and that includes dealing with Daniele Struppa, the university president who solicited and received the funding. How has he been? What sort of reaction has he had to your work?
J.A.: To his credit, Struppa has always been a big proponent of our work. I’m sure there have been times when he wasn’t happy with an article or five (especially when we inevitably make a mistake), but he respects us as a newspaper and free press in general. That said, he was not happy with our article after we had viewed the donor agreement because of our quotes from Ralph Wilson, who I mentioned earlier. While we were intending to represent both sides fairly and get an expert source to analyze the main points of the donor agreement, Struppa thought we were trying to prove something that wasn’t there. I don’t necessarily agree with that, and I especially don’t agree with what he wrote in his guest column, that there had been unanimous agreement that there were no “strings” in the contracts. I wasn’t there, but I’d bet my first-born child that Rebeccah never said anything like that. There’s no way in hell that a journalist would make that kind of comment when looking at those documents. So that peeved me a little.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your life to date? Lowest?
J.A.: When I was studying abroad for a semester in Paris, my best friend and I traveled to Switzerland one weekend. On a clear morning, we were the first ones to take a gondola up 7,000 feet to Mount Pilatus in Lucerne. For a good 15 minutes, we were the only ones on top of that mountain. We could see out for miles—the snow-covered mountains, the tiny town of Lucerne, the expansive lake. And it was dead silent. I still get chills thinking about it.
I don’t really have a lowest moment, just kind of a lowest period in my life, which was last semester during that transitional period at The Panther I mentioned before. I don’t need to go into much detail, but it wasn’t great. Lost 15 pounds, started seeing a therapist, cried in my driveway more times than I’d like to admit. I wouldn’t wish how I felt during those months on anyone.
J.P.: What do you see in the future for journalism? Are you grim? Upbeat? Neither? Both? And can you see ever again having the itch to be a reporter or editor?
J.A.: My response to this question is usually this: Journalism isn’t dying. It’s just print journalism. But people will always want the news. So in that sense, I’m not grim. Media outlets just have to keep up with the trends and the way people want to receivethe news, because that’s what’s changing. But people still care, and despite what our president says, most people still recognize the importance of that fourth estate. But local news? That’s going to shit. I don’t know what to say about that. It makes me sad. I don’t see much of a future there.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JAMIE ALTMAN:
• What are your three random talents?: 1. Dance Dance Revolution (I’m extremely unathletic and uncoordinated); 2 Sudoku; 3. Egyptian War card game (I have insane slapping instincts)
• Best advice you’ve ever received?: Can I list the best advice I’ve received from each of my family members? All impactful.
“The bad days make the good days seem all the better.” — Becky Altman, mother
“Everyone’s too wrapped up in worrying about what others think of them to actually notice your insecurities.” — Rick Altman, father
“Whenever you feel ugly, just wear lip gloss, blush and sunglasses.” — Jody Altman, aunt/best friend
“Stop being a bitch.” — Erica Altman, sister
• One question you would ask Tim McGraw were he here right now?: What were you thinking in the first take of the first scene you filmed for the first movie you did?
• You told me you had a professor who took students to drink. Did I disappoint you by just bringing cookies to class?: Yes.
• Do you feel like my generation sorta fucked it all up?: No, I think my generation will sorta fuck it all up. We’re too lazy. Standards will fall. But I also lose hope for anyone who doesn’t know the difference between your/you’re, so in that case, I worry about all generations.
• If you were playing for the Mets in the 1986 NLCS, do you complain about Mike Scott scuffing? Or let it go?: Complain. I’m definitely the “let me speak to your manager” type.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): oregano, Pizza Press, Demi Lovato, “Saving Private Ryan,” eBay, Orange, Cal., antique stores, Childish Gambino, The Panther’s newsroom dog, old tires, Sam Darnold: Newsroom dog, Pizza Press, Childish Gambino, “Saving Private Ryan,” oregano, Demi Lovato, Orange, eBay, antique stores, Sam Darnold (sorry, had to look him up), old tires
• Celine Dion calls. She wants you to move into her house for a year and serve as her personal stenographer. You’ll be paid $50 million, but you have to shave your head, tattoo a picture of James Cameron across your back and legally change your name to Don Trump, Jr. You in?: No. I would rather die than become a professional transcriber. All the other stuff is irrelevant. Too dramatic?
• Three reasons to make Orange, Cal. one’s next vacation destination: 1. Sometimes cute dogs hang around the fountain in the Orange Plaza; 2. It’s 15 minutes from the beach; 3. There are two In-N-Outs. (Sorry, that was hard.)
• Can I borrow $8?: Sure, what’s your Venmo?