So kind of my friend Kelsey Proud to include me (and Jake!) in her list of “three people you follow online regularly” for NPR’s My So-Called Digital Life feature.
My rambling thoughts for this month’s Carnival of Journalism
When I look back at my experience in student media from 2005 through 2009, I know I had it better than most: we were entirely student-run, had a generous budget for most of my time there, published five days a week, and took advantage of the amazing network of alumni we had in the area for training opportunities.
Still, things could have been better. I spent three of my four years at college (freshman, junior and senior years) focusing on reporting—and I learned from that experience than I did in all four years of J-school combined. But like most professional newsrooms, those were the years we were struggling to adapt to a modern, digital-first strategy.
I’ve long criticized my J-school at the University of Minnesota for being behind the curve. The “web publishing” class I took senior year taught us how to use Blogger. There were no opportunities to learn how to build an online portfolio or data visualizations. One class was offered for computer-assisted reporting at the graduate level and I had to beg, borrow and steal to get myself a spot in the class as an undergrad. From what I can tell, shortly after I graduated, they appeared to get their act together.
Recently, Matt Waite, professor at Univ. Nebraska-Lincoln, put forth his concept of the “minimal viable participant,” or the base skills anyone looking to enter journalism must have. To his list of four: Tell stories, understand the internet, learn, execute on ideas, I wrote that I would add collaboration:
“Journalism has always been a team effort: behind every bylined story there were editors, copy editors, page designers, graphics editors, etc. whose hands touched the story before hitting the final product.
But collaboration now and in the future means looking beyond the confines of the newsroom and asking how you can work your leadership, business team, marketing team, and audience to make a better news product.
The attitude of “I’m only a reporter” or “I just make the pictures” is rapidly falling out of vogue and will be of little use in the newsrooms of the future.”
Student publications should be a playground, the place where you stretch your wings and the place where you fall and scrape the shit out of your knees. In addition to professional internships, where assignments come from editors and students are asked to work within an established newsroom system, students need to use their time at campus publications to innovate and create new systems. Being completely student-run felt like fun at the time, but looking back, I wish we had had a voice of reason and a guiding hand to help us reign in the crazy but also push us toward the awesome.
I’ve often said that graduating in 2009 meant that most of us came out of school not only wanting to be great journalists, but also to help save it a little. Student publications need to give our rising stars those opportunities.
When I meet students who are working at their student publications, my question for them is always this: what are you doing that’s extraordinary?
For me, it was fighting with the university to get them to release the salaries of every employee in the system. And it was spending six weeks finding young survivors of breast cancer to tell their stories and being invited by one to witness her breast augmentation surgery. It was skipping school for three weeks straight to cover a criminal trial from start to finish.
Students today have a daunting task ahead of them: mastering base journalism skills, like reporting and storytelling, while also tackling digital skills, like coding and data visualization. They’re being asked to do more and more with those four years, which is excellent preparation for when they land in their first newsroom.
Today’s (and future) student newsrooms need to focus on innovation and collaboration. Students need to break out of the “backpack journalist” mindset and learn to leverage their strengths against those of their teammates.
I would love to see student publications require all staff to spend their first year rotating through different positions in the newsroom: copy editing, web desk, visuals, multimedia, etc. And I believe student publications benefit from having the involvement of a professional journalist on some kind of advisory level. We joked about our newsroom being “Kid Nation,” but there were definitely times when it wasn’t a joke, and things really did feel all Lord of the Flies.
But the end game is this: students need to graduate with a deep and diverse portfolio, which many are failing to do. Stories about the Math department offering free pizza on the lawn and canned classroom exercises aren’t enough to instruct the next generation of journalism. Publication and creation must be mandatory for students graduating with a journalism degree.