Home of the Vignette, the Nassau Community College student newspaper.

Home of the Vignette, the Nassau Community College student newspaper. Credit: Kaldwin Lerandy Ladislas

You don’t have to be crazy to advise a campus newspaper. But it sometimes helps.

It also helps to be idealistic, patient, tenacious, thick-skinned -- and convinced there’s no better starting point for aspiring journalists than college papers.

Trust me on this. For 33 years, I was faculty adviser to the Vignette, the weekly student newspaper at Nassau Community College. During that stretch, student staffs produced more than 700 issues, covering the ups and downs of life at NCC.

Consider: campus speeches, meetings, sports teams, theatre productions, curriculum debates, crimes, student life, budget crises, faculty-administration dustups, deaths, mini-scandals. Vignetters (as some called themselves) reported on them all.

Students joined the paper for different reasons. Some wanted to be Woodward and Bernstein, breaking stories that would right wrongs and make the Vignette the talk of the campus. Others dreamed of being famous pop music critics, providing readers the latest on the Ramones, Bruce Springsteen, or whoever else was rocking their world. Still others lived to be in campus locker rooms or backstage dressing rooms, interviewing tomorrow’s stars.

My job was to teach everybody the nuts and bolts of reporting and writing, from spotting news and working with sources to handling interviews and producing stories that were accurate, objective and readable. It was a challenging task because most staffers (I discovered early on) had little experience working on publications.

Workshops, chats over pizza, and weekend retreats filled in some of the blanks. But the real learning took place when students hit the campus in search of news.

I’d like to say that every Vignette story was a journalistic masterpiece, but that wasn’t so. The paper ran good stories, OK stories and bad stories, often in the same issue. Gaffes and typos were commonplace, especially early in the school year. Imagine a front-page story on campus shift workers that left out the “f” in “shift.”

But most years, the newspaper improved as the months passed and reporters took my nonstop chatter about good journalism practices to heart.

And while some stories still made me cringe, others made me cheer. Over the years, Vignetters wrote thoughtfully about the dangers of HIV, the toxicity of sexual harassment, the need for racial reckoning, and the impact of Superstorm Sandy on their campus and classmates. Some pieces won prizes in local newswriting competitions.

The Vignette always had a certain element of romance -- late-night layouts, marathon editors’ meetings, mad scrambles to make deadlines, chances for kids to make friends and even fall in love. Some actually did meet their significant others while editing copy and arguing over editorials.

For me, getting to know staff members as more than reporters and editors was one of the best parts of the job. It was also sometimes the most wrenching. Outside the Vignette, many students dealt with difficult personal issues: family divorces, panic attacks, parental pressures, bouts with depression. More than a few poured their hearts out in my office at one time or another. Yet they kept showing up, week in and week out, looking ahead to the next issue. They were tough kids.

Though my newspaper advising days are behind me, I’ve kept up on the successes of the many alums working in journalism (including a couple at Newsday), publishing, public relations, digital media, and education. A while back, a former editor from two decades ago told me he was still a Vignetter at heart. I said I was, too.

Reader Richard J. Conway lives in Massapequa.

SEND AN ESSAY about life on Long Island (about 550 words) to expressway@newsday.com. Essays will be edited and may be republished in all media. Include your full name, address and telephone numbers.

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