‘I am no bird’

Natalie Parks

I’ve been thinking about what to say in this parting column for a long time. I thought this would be my chance to finally explain just how damaging being the editor-in-chief of the Kentucky Kernel was to me; the happiness it took from me, the anxiety attacks and nightmares it gave me. How it felt like I was the only thing protecting students from the University of Kentucky. How lonely I’ve been, and how much pressure I felt to single-handedly keep student journalism afloat. But then I realized that I do not owe vulnerability to anyone. I’ve already given so much of myself away – why give any more? 

Nor do I owe justification as to why I chose not to run for editor in again. I had the dubious honor of being editor-in-chief of the Kentucky Kernel during the COVID-19 pandemic. My predecessor, Rick Childress, had the misfortune to be editor during the early days of the pandemic, and my successor Rayleigh Deaton will hopefully oversee the end of this miserable era.

But the pandemic and my editorship are inextricably linked. And however else that’s shaped my year, I find that makes my future look lonely. Here is an experience I’ve had that I will never be able to fully share with another person. No one is ever going to get it, you know? Not really. No one is going to understand what it was like, and I find that frightening.

I can’t express how much of the last year was just an effort to survive. For me yes, but also for the paper. Just to have a paper. Just to print on Mondays, I pulled an all-nighter almost every Sunday night. Suffice it to say that I was not a person this year; I was the editor-in-chief of the Kentucky Kernel, and that was all. 

Still, I was never satisfied with the work done. Part of this was due to the response I got from, it seemed like, everyone: why didn’t I cover this? Why didn’t I cover that? Why wasn’t there a video package from this event? The answer is that I could not possibly have done more. Questions like these were made worse when people called the Kernel out for not covering something that we had actually covered already. This made me feel invisible, like nothing I did mattered or would be enough.

I don’t know that there is a way to do enough. The inherent nature of journalism means that the job will never be finished. And what a job it is to be editor of an independent student newspaper, not only during a pandemic, but at the tail end of a lawsuit against the university we cover. 

Still, I tried. And I know that this letter is going to come across as me seeking validation, and on principle I would object to that kind of attention-seeking. But after a year of being denigrated, under-appreciated and overworked, I desperately need to someone acknowledge how hard it’s been and how much I’ve overcome. I need to be seen, and I won’t apologize for that need – not after a year of constant depreciation. Denied the perks of the job and any sense of normalcy, appreciation is the only way my cup can be filled up again.

I also know that any kind of genuine support is too little, too late. Words and awards mean little to me. But for me to recover from being editor-in-chief, I do need one thing: stop telling me I should be a career journalist.

I get this a lot from grown-ups, particularly career journalists. They hear that I don’t want to be a journalist after graduation and they lose their minds. They say that’s “such a shame” and that I would “be great for the industry” and a whole bunch of other things that belittling and insulting because they ignore the frustrations I’ve expressed. Sometimes they condescend to say they can “convince” me to be a career journalist because I “haven’t had a real taste of the job yet.” I’ve seen enough, thank you!

Never mind that I don’t have a passion for writing, or that I’ve said over and over again that this year stole any affection I had for journalism, or that statements like this imply student journalists aren’t real journalists. 

Maybe I should take this as a compliment. But when people tell me that I should be a career journalist, what I hear is that my well-being is not as important as a job. I hear that they want me to sacrifice myself for the betterment of their paper, that they don’t care about me as a person. I hear that I can’t be trusted to know my own mind, or what I want out of life, or that I’m just some silly girl who doesn’t understand how things really work.

If there’s one thing I’ve gotten out of being editor, it’s that I know myself. I know my strength and my depth of will and how far I can be pushed before I break. I know that I am a good journalist, but more importantly I am someone who is going to start choosing things for myself.

But this problem goes beyond me. It’s past time to give student journalists and student papers the respect, appreciation and media credentials they deserve. If there is one lesson to take from this embittered monologue, it’s that bad experiences will drive students away from journalism majors and journalism as a career. There’s no overstating the importance of local journalism, and I owe a lot to a few really wonderful journalists who have shown me the way. But if you want college students to be career journalists, make it a career people want to have, and don’t be condescending about it.

I don’t want to drive students away from journalism, either. Just because it’s not right for me doesn’t mean it won’t be right for you. If you’re at all interested, come to the Kernel and they’ll set you up. I just thought I owed myself, and anyone who may be reading this, the truth about the last year. I’m a journalist, after all. Truth is what we do.

And I must admit, it wasn’t all bad. There were good times, and I’ve gotten to know people and this campus in a way many people don’t. Maybe I’m too close to this experience to see the good, and I should write a second column in a few weeks or months or years with a more generous perspective. But why be gracious about it now? I’ve been gracious all year.

Normally at the close of their letters, outgoing editors will list some of the things they’re proud of. There’s one achievement I will lay claim to – this year did not break me.

It almost did. I thought it would. But I’m still here, raising hell like student journalists are supposed to, and thank God for that. And now it’s over, and thank God for that.