News-ed Grads

Democrat-Gazette collects NU grads in Little Rock

Hard work, variety of jobs, help copy editors advance to larger pagerps

By Heidi White
1999 news-editorial graduate
Copy editor, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Graduating journalists looking for a mid-sized daily that will give them the room to showcase their abilities should put the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette near the top of their list.

Over the past few years, the Democrat-Gazette and the NU College of Journalism and Mass Communications have developed a special relationship. It’s probably safe to say that no other out-of-state newspaper has seen so many Nebraska graduates pass through its halls, both as interns and in full-time positions.

In the fall of 1999, seven Nebraska grads were on staff, including reporters Doug Peters, Matthew Waite and Erin Schulte and copy editors Nancy Zywiec, Julie Sobczyk, Matt Peterson and me. Other J school standouts who have interned at the paper include Jeff Zeleny, Martha Dunn, Erin Gibson and Sarah Baker.

The Democrat-Gazette’s editors have obviously caught on to what Nebraska grads have to offer and have given them a chance to shine.

Waite was a summer intern before joining the staff as a police reporter and then doing computer-aided reporting. He said one of the reasons he came back to the Democrat-Gazette’s newsroom full-time was his experience working with Glen Chase, then assistant city editor, who pushed him to learn and grow.

“You are given the freedom to run, learn, challenge yourself and do great work. No one at that paper will stop you from doing great work because you’re 22 and just out of college. The top editors know that when they hire ambitious youngsters, their stay is fleeting. They try to get the best out of you for the time you are there. It’s pure sink or swim: If you want to shine and want to work hard, you’ll shine. If you don’t, you’ll fade into the woodwork. But every young hotshot hired there knows and is told that hard work at the Democrat is a ticket to larger papers, bigger cities, awards and other rewards of journalism,” Waite said.

Waite earned that ticket in February, when he left Little Rock for Florida, where he’s now a general assignment/CAR for the St. Petersburg Times.
Zywiec, who started out at the Des Moines Register, said she came to the Democrat-Gazette because the paper allowed young, talented copy editors the chance to explore many jobs.

“As you are learning you can learn design, wire desk, slot, etc. Many papers the size of the Democrat-Gazette let you copy edit and that’s pretty much it. So when you are ready to leave (the Democrat), you have many skills and much knowledge — not just how to copy edit a story,” she said. Zywiec, who is marrying Waite in December, also left Arkansas for Florida in February and is now looking for a job in public relations.

Other Nebraska grads who have recently moved on are Peters, now a suburban growth reporter at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and Schulte, now a reporter/editor at the Wall Street Journal Interactive.

Zeleny is now at the Des Moines Register, and he credits his experience at the Democrat-Gazette not only for helping him land his job as a capitol reporter but also for his internship at the Chicago Tribune.

“The Little Rock experience was incredible. I was thrown into the thick of it almost immediately. On the third day of work, I believe, I wrote a front-page story on a gruesome triple-murder case that won a best news story award later that year from the Arkansas AP. There was no hesitation to toss tough, real stories our way.”

Working in Little Rock also helped Sobczyk move to the next level in her career, she said. Like Zywiec and Waite, she noted that editors at the paper were willing to let young journalists step up to the plate and show them what they could do. Sandra Tyler, the news editor in charge of the copy desk, and George Johnson, the assistant news editor for the copy desk, are the editors Sobczyk credits most.

“What I really liked about working in Little Rock was that Sandra and George always gave us younger people on the desk a chance. I was filling in on the wire desk after three months and slotting after five months. Sandra’s also let me tackle special projects, and I felt like a trusted member of the desk. I felt that way after just a few weeks.”

Sobczyk has recently started on the copy desk at the Dallas Morning News. Peterson, one of the two Nebraskans still on staff, along with me, is a more recent addition to the staff at the paper but has already figured out what it takes to make it at the Democrat-Gazette.

“I’ve learned quite a bit in the short time I’ve been here. I’ve been entrusted with more responsibility than I would have expected at such a large paper — and probably the most important thing I’ve learned from that opportunity is that I’m up to the challenge. Working alongside people who have been doing this job for 20 or 30 years, developing that sort of confidence, is absolutely necessary to being successful,” he said.