Student news orgs are the future, not just for students, but for communities

November 08 Comments Off on Student news orgs are the future, not just for students, but for communities Category: College Media, Feed, Tumblr

College media’s differences with non-student media have burned away in the journalism’s economic crunch.

This month’s question for the Carnival of Journalism is: “How would you set up a student news organization in 2013 or how could an existing college news organization modernize itself?

In the last 10 years I’m pretty proud to have worked at college media, worked as university staff for college media and trained or worked with some of the best journalists I’ve seen, who just happen to have been students at the time. So this one is pretty close to my heart. 

One of the most important things to address is how college media has changed, just between the time I started and the time I left. The hit to print advertising revenues was just as bad in college media (if somewhat delayed) as everywhere else in journalism. The results were also pretty much the same: newspapers dropped in circulation and student journalists took to the web, some with enormous resistance, some like fish to water. 

So that’s where college media is now. Exactly the same place as the rest of journalism. Just younger. 

So what should the student newspapers of the world do now?

Be the local, web-first, community-oriented professional news organization that students need for their clips and that campuses, towns and cities require. 

1: You’re the local now

With the collapse of Big Media hyperlocal (Patch, EveryBlock and the continuing compression of Gannet local papers) there isn’t anyone covering most of the communities that surround campuses. 

The biggest missed opportunity in student journalism is that they are perfectly positioned to step in to hyperlocal with commercial success.

College media should cover beyond the campus borders to everything that is relevant to students, which absolutely includes the community surrounding campus. 

More than that, they should be a news organization for the local municipality because there is a journalistic responsibility to cover local that has been falling by the wayside. 

Finally, they should do so because there will be no better way to get the clips, skills, experience and hand-on knowledge that they will need to succeed once they leave campus. 

2: You’re a business, act like it

College media organizations need to run like businesses and they need to pay out to their student employees. 

The days are over when you could ‘just be a journalist’. Even if students never get involved in the business side of a news organization, they need to understand how it works. Students can’t afford to be blind to how the other side of the organization works any more. 

One of my significant moments as a student journalist: I was at the College Media Advisers conference in NYC (attended by journalists and sales students alike) and there was a session simply titled “How to make money online.”

I was the only attendee. 

Telling student journalists not to care how the business works isn’t just disastrous for their futures, it’s disastrous for college news orgs. 

In 2011, I surveyed college media’s online advertising. The results were startling. College media (which has to deal with ad agencies just like everyone else) offered 171 different advertising units with 76 different pixel dimensions. In all of that 3 of the 18 Interactive Advertising Bureau designated ad formats weren’t included.

The range of pricing was just as wild, with a medium rectangle (the most popular unit in student journalism) ranging from $35 to $1,760.

A move to cover the towns and cities surrounding college campus will open up revenue, but only if ad sales and the business side are handled sensibly and seriously. The organizations that do so will have the means to pay their student journalists.

In college media, EICs often run the business which means they need to understand it. Since they often come up from the journalism ranks, that means all journalists involved in college media should understand the business of journalism. 

3: Require professionalism

Students should be covering the community outside campus, running the org like a business, and getting paid. Along with that comes a requirement to be a professional.

Orgs can and should be more flexible because of student life, but they should still require ethical behavior, enforce deadlines, provide a schedule and enact consequences for those students who fail to meet these standards.

One of the most persistent complaints I hear from folks that are responsible for hiring is that students are coming in without any experience of how to work, hold a job, be an employee or market themselves in an interview. I don’t think the average university provides this training or experience to undergrads, but college media should. 

If a student news organization doesn’t take itself seriously, how will the folks they chose to cover or solicit for ads?

More than that, understand that the internet means that everything has the potential to play out on a much larger stage, that can be great for the future of student journalists or terrible. It comes down to how they act. Orgs should require appropriate behavior. 

4: Do everything

Yes, out there in journalism land there are still jobs that ‘just write,’ but if you were born after 1985 they’re not for you. Young journalists will be expected to be able to Tweet, blog, know HTML, understand how code works (and possibly be able to code), do community management and be able to use at least 2 programs in the Adobe Creative Suite. 

College Media organizations should pull all sorts of artists and makers into their ranks and then require their journalists to rotate through a variety of multimedia production tasks under supervision of student specialists in that media type. It’ll improve the hell out of student media organizations and give the clips required to get a good job in journalism. 

For every year a student is involved with a college media outlet, they should have ‘made’ at least one journalistic project, anything from an audio podcast to a huge multimedia production. Students need to do multimedia and find a type of project they enjoy and keep at it. 

5: Web first

College media is unusual in that student audiences really enjoy printed editions, but that doesn’t mean that students can get away with leaving the web to be an afterthought. 

Going web first is required for expanding coverage outside the campus borders, it’s required to get the experience needed after graduation and it supplies the clips required to get the journalism jobs students want. 

It means:

  • Someone is going to need to learn to code. 
  • Many people will need to start aggregating. 
  • Orgs should be unafraid to pull in non-student contributions (say from freelancers) as long as students are in charge. 
  • Students are going to need outside training from reliable organizations because the majority of professors won’t know the skills required.

Final thoughts:

It should all count towards credit, because journalism education that isn’t hands on is useless. 

This is do or die. For now, college media is being kept alive by two big things: the higher education bubble and advertiser ignorance. 

Eventually universities are going to face an even greater budget crunch than what is occurring now and college media is going to get hit hard. 

On the other end, an increasing number of advertisers are reaching out to students through more direct means. The easier and more effective this gets the harder it will be for student media to pull in advertisers, unless they offer a superior product. 

College media has plenty of potential, I can’t wait to see where it goes in the future. 

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