Thursday, September 24, 2009

Behind the scenes at The Daily Princetonian: Writing Obituaries

By Tasnim Shamma (Jamaica, NY)

Yesterday was extremely draining. Having woken up at 7:30 A.M. for some odd reason, I could already sense that it was going to be a long day.

After taking a shower, I returned to my room in Whitman College, blasted some techno-pop, spent an hour re-reading The Daily Princetonian article I had written the day before to check for mistakes and e-mailed thank-you notes to people who had taken the time to speak to me and felt proud of the article I had written in under an hour and in between classes.

With plenty of time before my 10 A.M. class, I walked over to my eating club, Charter, for breakfast (the blueberry muffins are the best!). We were discussing the day's paper yesterday morning and I was grateful to be a part of an organization worthy enough to be breakfast conversation every day.

With ten minutes till the start of class, I speed-walked to my Media Arabic class. In the middle of class my phone vibrated, indicating that it was a call from one of the Prince editors, Josephine Wolff '10 (if you're a Prince editor you basically sleep in the newsroom, that's how much time they selflessly devote to the paper). I was also feeling lightheaded and sick (no worries though - not the flu - I'm unofficially on the Prince swine flu beat, I would know) so I made sure to get a flu shot and then ran back to my room.

Checking the Prince online, I noticed the web update. Eliot Kalmbach '09 had died from a hiking fall. I paused to reflect on it for a moment because it was so tragic, but my instincts as a reporter was just to get to work. Without knowing whether or not I was assigned the article, I wrote drafts of 30 or more emails reaching out to Tiger Inn eating club members, professors and friends. It was 12:30 and I had an hour before my junior seminar. After Josephine got out of class and heard I would be in class until 4:30, she thought it wouldn't be enough time to contact everyone, so tried to pass the assignment on to another reporter. She wasn't able to and despite feeling sick, tired and hoping that she would find someone else, I knew I was glad I would still be writing it. It was 1:15 and I was worried -- no one had responded to my e-mails or phone calls. One T.I. member responded as I was getting ready for class to let me know that most members were so shocked by the incident that they weren't ready to talk.

Last year, I had the privilege of writing two obituaries -- the first about former Rhode Island senator Claiborne Pell '40 (founder of Pell grants) and the second about Jimmy Greene, a Mathey cook. In the public eye, Pell would probably be seen as the more prominent of the two but really, when it comes down to it, I felt that they were equally great men in their own ways, helping others with the resources they had available to them.

When I returned from class at 4:30 I sent another round of emails to alumni and friends. I happened to learn last minute about a memorial service for him in Mathey, something I had the good fortune of never attending before. I had to awkwardly introduce myself as the reporter so that they would know when to say that something was off-the-record and I hoped they wouldn't secretly hate me for being there. I was surprised by the number of students, professors and administrators who showed up and the impact that Eliot had on everyone's life. It helped reassure me of the importance of what I was doing and my hope of doing a decent job and getting all of the facts straight.

Later that night, some people were ready to talk and gave me a call and others still weren't. As I spent hours on it afterward trying to bring Eliot to life on my computer screen, I was completely drained of energy and couldn't help but feel a huge sense of loss for someone I had never met.

It's the articles that I report and write and obsess over from the time I wake up till midnight (when it's published online) that make journalism and (admittedly insanely) volunteering all of my available free time to the Prince, so worth it.

I hope that I won't have to write another obituary this year and that no one else dies, but if they do, I'm ready to drain myself for it again.

(Here is a link to yesterday's obituary: Eliot Kalmbach '09 dies in fall)

-- Shamma is a senior writer for The Daily Princetonian, a junior at Princeton and a 2006 alumna of the Princeton University Summer Journalism Program. She returned this summer to volunteer as a counselor.

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