Meet the new Sagebrush, same as the old Sagebrush?

Though it hasn’t been mentioned online or in their newest print edition, the Nevada Sagebrush has undergone a pretty significant change in internal structure and external product this year under new Editor-in-Chief Ben Miller. And as someone who worked for the paper in the past, and got a sense of what Ben is planning on doing this semester during an interview, I figured that students and faculty would find the changes noteworthy.

1. So long, sports section

Though there were several issues last year that followed the same pattern, it appears that there will no longer be a separate & individual sports section distributed with the Sagebrush. Rather than a four to six page section, it looks like the Sports section will be assigned to the back few pages of the main A section. The move was made because of the extra cost in printing and distributing the extra section, Ben told me during that interview.

2. So long, Arts and Entertainment

The other significant external change is the elimination of the Arts & Entertainment editor position. Though I don’t want to speculate on the section’s closure, as the online version is still up, no posts have been made since June and no stories were produced in the new edition. From conversations with Ben, I think I can glean two reasons behind this decision – one, to eliminate an editor position saving thousands of dollars, and two, because the section has been quite barren and not very interesting in the past few years.

3. Hello, new online staff

One of the Sagebrush’s big initiatives this year is to expand their presence online, similar to the paths taken by my perennial favorite college paper The Oregon Daily Emerald. And looking at the organization’s contact page shows that split pretty well – essentially the positions of assistant editor has been replaced by online editor.


Overall, I feel like the Sagebrush is moving in the right direction, while still staying grounded in their traditional product. On paper, it’s a great system. In reality, it’s a little worse than that. Just from my experience, I know plenty of advertisers and students are only interested in the sports section, and won’t be happy about it shrinking.

Additionally, cutting an entire section seems like a bad idea. There are plenty of great opportunities for lifestyle and culture writers to gain valuable experience - Roger Ebert got his start writing movie reviews in his college paper. College papers, much like alt-weeklies, are critical in covering non-traditional topics that appeal to a younger audience – I’d much rather read a movie or eatery review in the Sagebrush than I would in the Reno Gazette-Journal because I relate closer to the Sagebrush. Rather, reducing the salary of an Arts and Entertainment Editor or splitting the duties with an Opinion Editor would work out much better.

And in regards to the focus online, I think it can work – if the work is put in. So far, only a handful of new stories have appeared on the website a day after publication, and I can find articles all the way from April on the front page. Blogs are out of date, the contact sheet was only updated a day or two before school started – for a news organization focusing on online, they really aren’t doing much of that. Part of it is adjusting back to school, but it will be interesting to see how successful this shift will be. In my three years at Nevada, I’ve seen the Sagebrush shift from a 20-odd person, beefy news outlet that competed for national awards, to one that was barely scraping along at the end of last year. It’s a critical time to be a member of the Nevada Sagebrush – let’s see if they step it up.

Future of College Media: How The Nevada Sagebrush can become a better paper

This post is the tenth and final in a series of 10 about the future of collegiate journalism, focusing on specific projects undertaken by members of college journalists around the country.

My final post in this college media project is quite simple really. It’s a portion of my application to the position of Managing Editor for the Nevada Sagebrush next year. Rather than send in the list, and then keep it private, I thought it best to publicly write down a list of improvements and ideas that I want to implement next year, as a way of making sure that my promises will be kept. And if I don’t get the position, then this document can serve as suggestions to whomever is running the paper next year. I’ve tried to implement many of the ideas that I’ve covered and written about during the course of this series, and I would greatly appreciate any comments, concerns or ideas you have.

The changes I have proposed below are, for the most part, an overhaul of the inner and outer workings of the Nevada Sagebrush. As Managing Editor, I would take an active role in not only the production of the weekly paper, but also in online content, recruitment and future volunteers, keeping personal relationships in check, social media and the public image of the Sagebrush. If kept to the current course of action, the Sagebrush will cease to be a cutting-edge publication, and fall into a shadow of it’s former self, lacking in content, delivery and staff. My proposals seek to reverse this trend and to take a more active role in the university community and the lives of its students.


The lifeblood of any collegiate organization is recruitment. As Managing Editor, one of my main focuses would be to find, recruit and train volunteer writers. Here’s how:

  • Journalism Class Presentations: Although many people on staff will be in upper-level journalism classes, there is a huge, untapped resource in freshmen and sophomore journalism students enrolled in 107 and 207 classes. I would begin a regular schedule of presenting to these classes about the benefits of writing for the Sagebrush, as well as addressing concerns by students in such classes. Presentations would happen during the beginning, middle and end of each semester, with myself and at least one other person delivering the pitch.
  • Tabling: By having a regular, noticeable presence in both the journalism school and on-campus, staff members should be able to make a connection with potential writers, obtain their personal information, and be able to constantly communicate with the potentials to determine their writing ability and willingness to volunteer.
  • Overhauling Boot Camp: The Nevada Sagebrush Boot Camp, as it currently stands, is a bit of a joke. I would propose two different forms of Boot Camps: one for staff and one for volunteers/potentials. The staff boot camp would focus on essentials for working in the office: managing inDesign, making the best use of the production flow, AP Style, etc. Boot camps for volunteers/others would be hosted by staff members, and focus on requirements for writing, but also on forming a personal connection between volunteer and staff member, as to keep them feeling involved and important to the production of the newspaper.
  • Production Night Visits: The office for the Nevada Sagebrush should not be a place for volunteers to fear or not know. As Managing Editor, I would organize regular visits to Sunday production nights, allowing volunteers to oversee the process that puts the newspaper together and the steps necessary to avoid mistakes. After a while, I would allow volunteers to assist in several of the production steps, such as copy-editing or attempting to write headlines.
  • Performance Reviews: Much like the regular staff meets semesterly with the EIC, I would begin a system of having volunteers meet with upper management on a semesterly basis. I feel as though this system would, as mentioned above, not only tie volunteers to the members of staff, but also allow them receive critique of their work thus far, ideally helping them in future stories.
  • Online/summer advertising: During summer, a story should be on the rotator for the website regarding volunteering in the fall, as many future and potential students will visit the website. Likewise, staff members should utilize social media over the summer to advertise to potential writers and stay involved, including using volunteers to write stories during the summer.

Staff Management:

It goes without saying that staff relations were less than ideal the past academic year, which ultimately lead to a hostile work environment and a noticeable lacking in the actual product. In the position of Managing Editor, I would take steps to avoid such conflicts before they happen, and address problems between staff members or volunteers head on. Here’s how:

  • Staff retreat: Many government agencies and companies sponsor retreats every year, in order to both brainstorm ideas and improve staff relationships. During summer, I would either host or find a place in Tahoe/ outside of Reno to have a staff retreat. As many of the newly hired staff members won’t know each other, this scenario would provide a kind of introduction before the year begins. These kind of excursions can help identify problems before the year starts and lay the groundwork for productive working relationships in the future.

  • Revamping Staff meetings: As opposed to the current free-for-all form of staff meetings, I would entirely change the structure of said meetings in order to avoid unnecessary conflict and to decrease the amount of time required to go through a meeting. If chosen, I would run meetings by a modified form of Robert’s Rules of Order, thereby decreasing the likelihood of a hostile back-and-forth, and setting a time limit for discussion. These changes would require story ideas to be mostly finalized by the time of the meeting, required section editors to sort out the details of their CPs before the meeting begins.

  • Addressing problems head-on: If a conflict does arise between staff members or volunteers, part of the responsibility needs to be placed on upper management to manage the situation. As Managing Editor, I would place myself, the editor-in-chief, or a professional staff member (Amy Koeckas) as the arbiter of any dispute. Finding a common ground is crucial in resolving any conflict, and problems need to be nipped in the bud before they sprout to destructive and pointless arguments.

  • Newsroom rules: The newsroom should be kept professional during production nights, as formal or even semi-formal wear increases the professionalism in the office environment, and promotes better standards of behavior. Attire will be business-casual, with a minimum of a collared shirt and jeans for men, and this guide for women. Once a month, staff members can wear regular clothes to work. Headphones should be used to listen to music and videos, and conversation kept to an inside-tone- no yelling across the room. Desks should be cleaned at the end of Monday night, and relatively clean by the beginning of Tuesday. Violation of these rules will result in first a verbal warning, and repeat offenses will result in docks in pay.

Public Relations:

While it’s not a new problem for the Sagebrush to be strongly disliked by many members of campus, this year has seen, at least in my experience, a new low in relations with individual students, on-campus agencies and student groups. While there is a built-in resentment to the Sagebrush already present, there are methods of avoiding unnecessary conflict and building strong, professional relationships with students on campus, relationships which result in increased readership and potential sources for the future. The campus newspaper should be part of the campus.

  • Outreach meetings: Just as senior staff usually meets with the President of the University each year to discuss possible issues and topics of controversy, senior staff should have some speaking relationship with on-campus leaders, including RHA, Greek life leaders, ASUN officials, club presidents and more. Rather than schedule individual meetings with dozens of officials, I would schedule and plan a large presentation discussing the goals of the Sagebrush, the standards of accuracy used by staff members, contact information for story ideas or complaints, and what role these groups will play in commenting and reading the Sagebrush. The event will be catered, and open to anyone on campus, but focused on student leaders.

  • Follow-up: As Managing Editor, I would hold a weekly meeting with the Editor-in-chief to discuss the stories presented in the past four weeks, and review those stories to see if follow-up is needed in coming issues. That way, contentious stories about subjects such as ASUN and Greek Life can be monitored for an extended period of time, and dealt with before issues explode.

  • Dealing with critics: With a move toward commenting through Facebook and Twitter, it becomes easier to identify which members of the community have issues with the Sagebrush. As Managing Editor, it would be my responsibility to respond to allegations of lying or insults to articles, and to engage in a conversation with the individual having an issue with the coverage.

  • Alumni Relationships: The Nevada Sagebrush has thousands of alumni, scattered throughout the country, involved in either journalism or other areas of business. One long-term project I will begin as Managing Editor will be to find, contact, and record alumni both local and prominent. Doing so will create a donor base to easily solicit, and also help the paper’s public image as a crucial component of the University.

Online / Social Media:

Although many college students still prefer actual print newspapers than their online counterparts, it’s apparent that the future of news will have an overwhelming online component. It’s obvious that as future journalism professionals, we must strive in all ways to interpret and set the trends for online reporting and news, and yet also remain grounded in the standards of accurate reporting that separates real journalism from tabloids.

  • Website overhaul: Updating the newspaper website is an extremely important goal for the immediate future, as the current website is slow to load, buggy, and frequently crashes. While it’s a more of a long-term goal, here’s my plans for an updated website:

  • Facebook logins required to post comments

  • An increased social media presence: Twitter tracker, Facebook posts, etc.

  • Event tracker, linking to Facebook events

  • More informational pages on topics like ASUN, football, and other popular subjects (like this NYT page on Newt Gingrich)

  • A simpler, more Web 2.0 layout

  • Current Website fixes: With an increased focus online, staff members will be spending more time working with the website to attract traffic. Here are some plans that would immediately improve the Sagebrush’s website:

  • Linking: Linking to past articles, and updating past articles with links to what happened in the future.

  • Increased content: Stories on the rotator should shift about every day, in order to prevent staleness and give other stories an opportunity to reach more readers. Online editors can either use stories from that week’s edition, or preferably use new, online-only content.

  • Increased blog presence: As Managing Editor, I would reach out to current bloggers on the UNR campus and contact them about moving their blog to the Nevada Sagebrush website. Not only would these bloggers bring a built-in audience with them, they would provide constant content on the website, allowing other editors to focus on more in-depth and time-intensive stories.

  • Additional multimedia: Although it falls more along the lines of recruiting, as Managing Editor I would develop and recruit volunteers within the world of broadcast to produce video-intensive stories, and partner those volunteers with writers to fully cover a story in both print and video format. Additionally, I would partner more closely with Wolf Pack Week, and focus on integrating content between the two outlets.

  • Aggregation pages: Rather than forcing a reader to look up different articles from several different weeks to learn how a story developed, I would work with editors to publish aggregation pages, summarizing an issue or series of events, and link out to articles in greater detail.

  • Facebook: Facebook is the best way to reach students, which is why it’s important to not abuse readers. Using social media as a ‘link-dump’ will work at first, but will eventually frustrate readers with over-saturation of links. Rather, I would incorporate a more 24/7 method on Facebook, using the main page as a way to provide content either not available or not able to be posted on the main website. Updating in-progress stories, linking to work done by other outlets or persons, and attempting to build a community of readers who are both willing and able to contribute their input and ideas on stories and plans.

  • Opening the News: I would move this group completely to Facebook, and facilitate mature and reasoned discussion on newsworthy topics. Obviously, the people most likely to use the group are people within ASUN or Greek Life, so I would encourage participation from those groups by both direct messaging/emailing, and meeting with group leaders during ASUN Senate meetings and IFC/Panhellenic/MGC meetings. Their participation in a group like OTN is critical because they are a vocal, intelligent group of people who are regular readers and invested in the university.

  • Twitter: Much like Facebook, Twitter isn’t designed to be a link dump. Rather, it’s a resource for students and individuals to find out what’s going on instantly. While it may seem counter-productive for a small news organization like the Sagebrush to have a significant impact on events happening in real time, I feel as though with the right training and timing, Twitter can be an incredibly useful tool for readers, which will turn attract more attention and eyes to tweets by the website.

  • Live-Tweeting: One of the best ways to attract Twitter followers is by being on the ground during large or important events. Providing content not seen by ‘regular’ media outlets attracts much attention to a Twitterer, and can be used for news, sports, and art events. As Managing Editor, I would require those section editors to plan on attending an event every three weeks where live-tweeting can be utilized. Afterwords, a Storify post can be linked to on other social media outlets and the website to let readers late to the event know what happened

  • Re-Tweeting, and creating a community: Twitter is not a link dump. As Managing Editor, I would spend several hours searching for UNR students, local residents, recent alumni and local journalists to increase the number of followers, and to gain a greater sense of what’s happening in the community. With a great increase in the number of followers, it would become necessary to create lists separating people into different demographic groups. Additionally, the Twitter account should be used at a minimum five times a day, more or less spread out. Retweeting statuses and actively participating in the community by responding to questions and talking to individuals will also lead to dedicated followers, more likely to click on links.

  • Mandated Social Media: Staff members, especially editors, will be required to have and use a Twitter account and Facebook page, linking to their content and updating readers on their research or story progress. By doing this, readers will be able to interact directly with the author of an article they greatly enjoy or have issues with, allowing for a greater communication between writer and reader. Additionally, I will draft a social media contract for members of staff to sign, making sure that the organization is protected in any legal issues that may arise.

Print Production Changes:

With an increased focused on online content, it will be necessary to make some changes to the current production schedule for the print product. Although I understand that online presence will need to be increased in the coming year, it is important to not forget that a significant portion of The Sagebrush’s readership only or primarily consumes the print edition. With that thought in mind, here are some of my proposed changes to the current format, separated by section.

  • Overall:

  • Increase in ‘Second-Day’ stories: Being a weekly publication, the Nevada Sagebrush works better as a news magazine, as opposed to a daily newspaper format, based on it’s weekly production cycle. As Managing Editor, I will work with section editors to ensure that the vast majority of their stories are more analysis and ‘second-day’ stories, focusing more on the ‘why’ than on the ‘what.’

  • Skyboxes: Information above the fold of the front page is what readers look at first, which means that the news section nearly always gets most of the reader’s initial attention. As Managing Editor, I will personally make sure that a skybox is used at least bi-monthly, advertising either sports, A&E or opinion coverage.

  • Unique content: The Nevada Sagebrush is not a place to re-write press releases. As a weekly newspaper, editors and writers should strive to write and create stories unique to the UNR/Reno campus and community, creating a wealth of unique content that will undoubtedly attract readers and increase audience size.

  • Partnerships: As student reporters, members of the Sagebrush have a unique advantage and insight into what’s happening on campus, but lack the resources, money and time required to regularly dig deep into controversial and/or investigative issues. As Managing Editor, I would take steps to begin a partnership with the Nevada News Bureau and/or the Reno Gazette-Journal to produce quality reporting addressing or covering contentious topics on the UNR campus. Ideally, the news department would begin working with either organization once a semester, but different sections could begin to work with any portion of either organization to work on content.

  • News:

  • Adoption of Beat Reporters: Through either staff members or volunteers, topics such as ASUN, Greek Life and campus health need to be assigned to one or two reporters. Using this methodology will decrease the amount of mistakes made in coverage via the reporter’s expanded knowledge on a topic, and will also lead to better and more in-depth story ideas by reporters becoming experts in a certain topic. Adoption of a beat allows for volunteer writers to feel more connected to the paper, and help lighten the burden for regular editors.

  • Dedicated coverage: Every two weeks, the news section will be required to run a ‘special section’ on page A4. The topics should be broad enough to compass several stories, but narrow enough to appeal to a specific target audience. Examples include Inside ASUN, Inside Campus, Health, Election fever, etc.

  • Sports:

  • Elimination of Agate/stats: The day after the Sagebrush prints, many of the statistics and numerical data in the print copy will be wrong. Keeping with the theme of a weekly paper, numerical data should be used sparingly, with changes being made to B2 and B6 to reflect the rapidly changing statistics. Rather, sports editors can use game summaries, additional sports briefs, and schedules to fill the space.

  • More than just game summaries: While there is a place for game results and highlights, sports editors should strive to diversify their content to attract not only sports fans, but a wider audience. As Managing Editor, I would require the sports section feature one non-traditional sports story every two weeks.

  • Arts and Entertainment:

  • Less Reviews: The past two years have seen an over-saturation of reviews in the A&E section. I firmly believe that few students, if any, take these reviews seriously, and quickly flip through the section as they can get their information from a huge variety of other sources online. As Managing Editor, I would limit the number of CD, movie and video game reviews in the A&E Section to three per month, forcing the editor and writers to find local events and interesting features to write and cover for their section. These include concert reviews, interviews with local bands and highlights from Reno or on-campus events.

  • Opinion:

  • More diversity: Too often, most of the columns in the Sagebrush are written by staff members in different positions. This personnel decision severely limits the breadth and scope of opinion and knowledge at the University, and is a lazy way out. In response, I would limit the number of columns written by paid staff members per week to two, requiring the rest of the section be written by volunteer writers and columnists.

  • Focus on campus: Most of the columns in the opinion section should relate back to the University. Readers of the Sagebrush respond more to local and on-campus issues than to national or abstract issues, because they are closer and more in-tune with local issues. Although the opinion editor should not deny his/her writers the opportunity to write about what they care about, columns in the print edition should have about a 60/40 focus on the UNR campus, with other columns either going online or waiting a week to be published.

  • Guest columnists: UNR faculty and staff are, for the most part, pretty intelligent. As Managing Editor, I would make contact with faculty such as Dr. Elliot Parker or Stacy Gordon to ask them to write a guest column in the newspaper. Not only would it raise the level of discourse in the opinion section, but guest columnists attract more attention than regular student writers, again increasing the audience for the paper.

Future of College Media: Fixing the Divide Between College Students and College Newspapers

This post is the ninth in a series of 10 about the future of collegiate journalism, focusing on specific projects undertaken by members of college journalists around the country. This post goes over how to retain a collegiate audience and how to keep their respect.

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There’s a of trust between media outlets and their audiences. Polling data clearly shows that since the 1970′s, the public has continued in greater numbers to believe that most stories are inaccurate, favorable to one political side and are highly influenced by other organizations and people. Questions over why the decline happened and potential solutions to this quandary have been discussed in great detail by media critics such like Jay Rosen and Poynter’s Craig Silverman (They also engaged in a live chat about the topic). While Rosen comes up with a list of possible reasons for the lack of trust, Silverman focuses on one issue: the lack of a connection between journalistic entities and regular readers; it’s no longer ‘our newspaper,’ but ‘the newspaper.’

Though there isn’t any polling data regarding the trust between college newspapers and their readers, it’s apparent that there should be a stronger connection between college newspapers and their readers. For one, the writers and editors of a college papers are on average more similar demographically (18-24-year-old college students) to their readers than regular professional newspapers, which grab a wide variety of people from different ages and places to cover a single area. Additionally, the ratio of writer-to-audience number is usually much better for college newspapers, even those with a smaller staff, so ideally one should be able to relate to and connect with a wider percentage of the audience. Because college papers are so much closer to students, shouldn’t they enjoy a great amount of respect and trust from their audience?

It lack’s not often the case. While it’d be easy to bring up the numerous complaints people have brought against the Nevada Sagebrush this past semester, it’s an issue that spreads far beyond the University of Nevada campus. One recent example came when The Appalachian Online (the student newspaper of Appalachian State University) incorrectly tweeted that a popular Mexican restaurant was closing, and corrected itself after outcry from students. The resulting editorial made the mistake of essentially telling readers that readers should care more about other issues, leading to angry commenters railing against what they perceived to be the paper’s faulty values and apparent lack of respect for their readers.

The story (which was picked up by Jim Romenesko and PR Daily) is a classic example of the divide that can easily exist and be perpetuated by college newspapers and their respective audiences. Although it’s important for college papers to remain completely separate and independent of non-journalistic influences, papers cannot survive if they promote hostility with their readers. So what’s the solution? Here’s a list of four things college papers can do to improve relations with their readers:

  1. Creating a social media community: The comments section on any news website, especially local news affiliates, are usually filled with either attacks on journalists or straight political propaganda; the antithesis of a community. Social media is different, especially on Facebook, as more people are comfortable with commenting and writing through the familiar Facebook system than through a cumbersome commenting program. Thus, it’s incredibly important for journalists to be on top of their social media, and to put time aside to address concerns and speak to audience members. Even if it’s just joking around, like David Weigel does often on his twitter feed, it’s a way to form an instant connection to readers and to let them know that you are human too.
  2. Connections around campus: This is an extremely fine line to tread, but it’s important to have a wide variety of different groups represented on a college newspaper staff. It’s extremely easy to form an ‘us v. them’ mentality when one spends all of their time in the company of fellow staff members. Branch out, join other clubs and organizations (and Greek life!) to avoid the echo chamber of a college newsroom.
  3. Be active in the community: The best way to advertise a college paper is to be an active member of the college community. It’s one thing to publish a story about a campus event- it’s another thing entirely to go out and actually participate. Putting faces to a masthead is important if a college paper needs to combat negative stereotypes and false beliefs.
  4. Own up to mistakes, and move on: If you make a mistake, address it, apologize and move on. Dwelling on something that went wrong will automatically make you appear less professional, and distracts from more important work and stories that need to be dealt with. As Nicole Dion writes in a blog post about dealing with social media crisises, “Don’t justify your actions, just apologize. Explain the situation, if necessary, and nip the talk in the bud. If you don’t say anything, people will assume the worst and it will become even bigger than it already is.”

Future of College Media: How to make editorials matter

This post is the eighth in a series of 10 about the future of collegiate journalism, focusing on specific projects undertaken by members of college journalists around the country. This post details the role and value of editorials by collegiate newspapers.

Last month, the Sioux City Journal did something a little out of the ordinary for their front page; they published a full-page anti-bullying editorial after the suicide of a 14-year-old high school boy who was teased for coming out as a homosexual. The resulting paper is immediately attention-grabbing and also a great introduction into the role of newspapers and editorials. In a piece published by Charles Apple, the paper’s editor Mitch Pugh is quoted as saying, “We believe that as a community news organization one of our critical responsibilities is to serve as a strong advocate for the well-being of our community. This page underscores that belief.” The Journal is not the only paper to take this route; in years past, papers as diverse as The Detroit Free Press, The Arizona Republic and the Harrisburg Patriot-News.

While newspapers do have a critical role in any modern community, the continual debate over how much influence should be extended to a journalistic body shows no signs of stopping (especially with public trust in journalists falling every year). Although there is a Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing, media outlets such as Gawker say, “…institutional editorial writing is a worthless anachronism in this modern media age.” It’s needless to say the effectiveness and purpose of editorials has, at least in the eyes of new media outlets such as Gawker, diminished greatly in the past few years.

So where does that leave collegiate newspapers? Most collegiate newspapers publish a staff editorial every week, covering and commenting about on-campus news and events, such as student government elections and other contentious issues. The editorial board has long been a mainstay of college newspapers, especially the Nevada Sagebrush, which famously made the decision in the 1960′s to publish a blank issue after an Editor-in-Chief was removed by the student government. This year’s staff continued with that tradition of pushing editorial content to the forefront by embarking in a six-part series called “ASUN Future,” designed to point out problems with the University’s student government and offer solutions on how to fix them.

It’s a noble goal, and has merit as ASUN isn’t anyone’s idea of an efficient organization. I won’t comment on the ideas suggested in the columns, but I do wonder about the effectiveness of the series. A series which begins it’s first column with, “The Nevada Sagebrush believes there is a big problem lurking on the third floor of the Joe Crowley Student Union,” is immediately taking a hostile position toward the current ASUN government, which leads to an instant tension between the people capable of making the change and the newspaper calling for change.

This isn’t the first time the Sagebrush has attempted to engage in public journalism; in 2008, Sagebrush editors Michael Higdon, Brian Duggan and Jessica Fryman published a ‘public-interest’ issue in response to the then-recent kidnapping of Brianna Denison. The issue contained a lengthy main article, guides to proactive protection and an editorial calling for a more active campus community. Much like the ASUN Future series, these Sagebrush members identified a problem on campus, but rather than publish numerous front-page columns, they actually did investigative and journalistic work. As then-Design Editor Michael Higdon said in a message to Charles Apple, “…We executed our main goal: to give students the tools of the press by providing them with information and access to officials they can deliberately use in order to make a difference by asking questions and offering solutions.”

That’s a lot different than just coming out and identifying a problem. Higdon understood that while members of the paper may have decent ideas about campus safety, change must come from public fervor and pressure, not columns in the paper. It’s a completely different mindset, in a way utilizing many different aspects of the paper to identify areas needing change, and attempting to engage students. Despite good intent, the ASUN Future series seemingly quickly delved into Ben Miller’s ideas of how to fix ASUN, rather than a combined effort with a strong emphasis on student engagement. Rather than only publish opinion articles, why not actually go through and write a handful of stories and guides to understanding ASUN? That way, students who aren’t as well versed in the operation of ASUN have an opportunity to understand the situation more clearly and to identify problem areas themselves.

For editorials to work in a modern media environment, they have to either come as part of a public-journalism package (as described by Higdon) or attract as much attention as the Sioux City Journal. While collegiate newspapers are often bastions of charged and controversial opinions, just writing about a subject usually won’t be enough to change anything prominent. If done in a more efficient manner, however, editorials can be extremely effective ways to hold public and private figures accountable.

Future of College Media: Above and beyond regular reporting

This post is the sixth in a series of 10 about the future of collegiate journalism, focusing on specific projects undertaken by members of college journalists around the country. This post focuses on the importance of analysis journalism by college media outlets, and the importance and benefits of going in-depth for a story.

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What draws readers to a college newspaper? Sure, it’s fine to make sure a paper looks professional, follows AP style, and covers the “important” beats. But what takes it to the next level? While columns about cuddling with a prostitute or attempting anal sex may draw in the page views, the a news and general reporting perspective renders them slightly extraneous (not to say they don’t have value.) What I firmly believe is that for college papers and collegiate reporters to reach a truly excellent journalistic standing, they have to increase the number of public-service journalism stories and projects published.

By public-service journalism, ones mind may immediately jump to exposes such as the Watergate scandal or misuse of adult family homes in Seattle that lead to dozens of suspicious and unreported deaths. While those stories and coverage are extremely important, it can be difficult for collegiate papers to follow their example because such controversial issues and topics aren’t as widely spread on a college campus. The New York Times has a greater chance of finding out about public or private scandals because they cover such a larger area than a single college campus. Rather, college journalists should focus on long-term, investigative reporting and unique and in-depth features,

It’s also important to remember that collegiate journalists are also college students, which means they have worries beyond reporting. Though I believe the Oregon Daily Emerald is one of the very best and forward-looking college newspapers in the country, they were beat by ESPN to a story about marijuana use among the school’s football team. To be fair, the Emerald immediately had reaction stories and opinion pieces about the story up the same day, but even an organization with hundreds of writers could not break the story before a national organization.

So where does that leave college news organizations? The answer is to give writers the opportunity to follow and develop large stories that can take weeks or even months to fully report on. While the workload is already overwhelming for many college journalists, it’s immensely important to grow an investigative knowledge among writers at a newspaper, else the content will seem dull and repetitive. For example, when I visited Portland State University for a fraternity conference, I made sure to pick up copies of the student newspaper, The Vanguard. Though it’s not fair to judge off of the very small sample size, I wasn’t impressed with what I saw. All of the stories seemed a little dull and very vanilla, with no real investigative pieces jumping out. While I do respect the job they do without a dedicated journalism program, it’s clear that there’s room for improvement.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are college papers that have engaged in extremely strong reporting and storytelling methods, which both attracts attention to the paper and makes them look more credible in the eyes of their readers. For example, The Daily Princetonian at Princeton University published a detailed investigation into the suicide of a Spanish-language professor a year ago. Essentially, the paper’s reporting and document-crunching led to proof of negligence on several levels by university administrators, and also attracting nearly 130 mostly positive comments on their website. By spending weeks on the story and giving it the upmost attention, the Princetonian was able to produce an award-quality piece of public service journalism that made them a better newspaper.

Working at the Nevada Sagebrush, I’ve had firsthand experience on the benefits of this kind of journalism. My second semester at the paper, News Editor Don Weinland began working on a story about two students who found themselves pregnant while attending college. Our Editor-in-Chief decided to give Don an extra week to polish and carefully edit the story, and the results showed. The story received more than 3,000 views and was picked up by the Huffington Post and USA Today collegiate sites. Seeing just how successful the story became helped convince me that this kind of journalism, while difficult to pull of successfully, is well worth the effort.

So here are my suggestions to college papers on how to improve the level and amount of quality journalism they produce.

    1. Give writers time: One of the most critical things for beginning collegiate writers is having the time to actually sit down and think a story through. Too often (and I’ve experienced this firsthand) editors at college newspapers are swamped with trying to get stories out and make sure they have enough content to fill their section, let alone focus on creating really decent in-depth content. If you require an editor to write four to five stories a week and put out a decent section and expect them to produce quality journalism, you’ll be disappointed quickly.
    2. Use Volunteers: A better way to produce quality journalism is to utilize volunteer writers, like the Daily Pennsylvanian did with this story about basketball player Tyler Bernardini that paid homage to this famous profile of Frank Sinatra. Although it can be difficult to find volunteers with the kind of talent and willingness to write for free, it’s immensely helpful because they can focus solely on the story, rather than on the actual production process.
    3. Use documents: As mentioned in this post by the Oregon Daily Emerald’s auxiliary site The Garage, documents can serve as a great starting point and evidence for investigative pieces. They can serve as an excellent and usually reliable basis on which to begin interviewing and investigating contentious subjects.

How the Sagebrush graphic of the ASUN budget ended up more confusing than the actual budget

Although I’ve never claimed to be a graphic design expert, I do believe that I have the ability to tell a good infographic from a bad one. And man, last week’s Nevada Sagebrush graphic on the proposed ASUN budget was not good at all. Here’s what it looked like (page link is here).

Image courtesy of The Nevada Sagebrush

Where to begin?

  • What am I looking at?: This graphic looks like it’s been pulled out of a high school chemistry book. In addition to no visual elements beyond basic geometric shapes, the graph just looks boring. Same-ish text types, no eye-catching colors or images and way too much white space. This is not visually appealing at all.
  • What does it mean?: It took me a few minutes to figure out what exactly was going on. Apparently, the vertical axis represents the change in dollar amount from the last year, while the horizontal axis shows the percent change from the past year. The bubbles are the largest changes in the budget (but the Budget and Finance and Student Activities Center don’t have one??) with the size of the bubble representing the portion of the total budget. So that’s three different pieces of information all crammed into one smallish space. It’s confusing as hell, and isn’t very self-explanatory; hallmarks of any good infographic. (Also, bubble charts suck. Read this)
  • Explanation: Ok, so after studying this graphic for about 10 minutes, I think I understand the information conveyed within. But what the hell does it mean? Why was more money given to Campus Escort? Why did the Budget and Finance section lose so much money? What is the ASUN Student Activities Center? What’s the actual dollar amount in the budget for 2013? What does all of the other money go towards? Graphics such as these can work as long as they’re accompanied by an explanatory text element, but what you see is all you get. I could easily get more information faster and easier from the actual pdf submission of the budget than from this graph.

This isn’t the first time the Sagebrush has goofed on a graphic, and while this graph doesn’t appear to misinform, its structure and layout is confusing as hell. Graphic design is an incredibly important part of newspaper production, as interesting and informative infographics and design can help a story come alive and look better than just words on a paper. But it needs to be done well for that to happen, and unfortunately the Sagebrush missed an opportunity to tell a pretty decent ASUN budget story here. Instead, we get this graphic, and are forced to either look through the official documents themselves or just ignore the issue entirely. It’s a failure to report and a failure to tell a story that needs to be told accurately and clearly.

Future of College Media: Can pay walls work in for a college paper?

This post is the fifth in a series of 10 about the future of collegiate journalism, focusing on specific projects undertaken by members of college journalists around the country. This post focuses on the expectations and role of pay walls for a collegiate paper.

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It seems as though the age of pay walls for news sites is among us. The New York Times has kept their site under a pay wall for more than a year while Gannett, the countries largest newspaper publisher, announced in February a wide-spread pay wall implementation for all of their 80-plus newspapers around the country, including the Reno Gazette-Journal (which began last week.) Though it’s much too early what kind of role, if any, pay walls will play in the future of news, one college newspaper is fully embracing and running with the idea of a pay wall, to both the approval and dismay of others.

Oklahoma State’s Daily O’Collegian implemented potentially the first pay wall for a collegiate newspaper nearly a year ago, and growth has been steady ever since, according to this MediaShift article. Charging $10 for unlimited access to the website, the Daily O’Collegian gained about 175 subscribers, exceeding expectations and prompting the paper to raise the price to $15 a year. Response to the paper’s decision has been mixed (much like the discussion on pay walls in general), with College Media Matters blogger Dan Reimold seeing the decision as blocking student access and unlikely to work widespread, while Alexa Capeloto from MediaShift claiming the move as visionary and as a way to train journalists and consumers that news won’t always be free.

Though it may seem logical to rely on the ‘regular’ arguments for pay walls, it’s incredibly important to remember the vast differences between collegiate and professional press. For one, collegiate papers admittedly offer less of a total package than regular newspapers, with smaller budgets, staff and resources to go around. Unlike the readership for professional papers, collegiate readership is extremely temperamental, with only college-aged readers and a few alumni to consume and react to the product. Additionally, as Reimold points out, most collegiate websites are just reposted articles from the print edition, with few if any online content. Why would a student pay for content they can get for free in the print edition?

So if the collegiate audience is much more different than a professional one, how can pay walls work? Simple; be really freaking big. Papers such as the Daily Tar Heel (UNC), Daily Emerald (U of Oregon) and the Daily O’Collegian are more likely to have success with pay walls because they employ huge numbers of people and run essentially a regular daily newspaper. Such papers usually have wealthy or influential alumni and donors who can draw attention to the paper, like Roger Ebert did for his collegiate paper,  The Daily Illini, in February. As Clay Shirky writes in this blog post, pay wall readers are a special breed of consumers that have an active desire to support institutions, such as a college newspaper.

But most college papers aren’t like that at all. Most have a few overworked staff members, putting out a few pages per week and occasionally updating their website. Smaller papers (I’ll include the Nevada Sagebrush on that list) cannot use pay walls because the content they provide isn’t worth paying for in the eyes of readers. Unless a paper is offering daily, interesting and relevant content, I don’t see how a pay wall can work for the vast majority of college papers. Rather than focus on the likelihood of a pay wall working, college papers should focus on making their website something students would be willing to pay for. One cannot have poor content and expect to be paid for the privilege of seeing it.

Examples such as The Daily Collegian will most likely turn out to be exemptions to the rule, as financially-pinched collegiate papers attempt to find other ways to stay in business. Pay walls aren’t the way.

Future of College Media: Should a newspaper rely on Facebook to obtain the name of a suicide victim?

This post is the fourth in a series of 10 about the future of collegiate journalism, focusing on specific projects undertaken by members of college journalists around the country. This post focuses on the role social media plays in the coverage of controversial topics for collegiate media.

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Last week, Louisiana State University freshman finance major and Sigma Chi fraternity member Keller Zibilich committed suicide, bringing the university and Greek community into shock. LSU’s student newspaper, the Daily Reveille, began reporting on the story almost immediately, at first only identifying the student as an LSU student, but later  identifying Zibilich by name before any official university announcement was released through Facebook and Twitter. Days later, (as documented by this College Media Matters post) harsh criticism arose from the paper’s decision to rely on social media to identify the student, with students calling it ‘unprofessional‘ and ‘disrespectful.’

CMM’s Daniel Remoid emailed Daily Reveille Editor-in-Chief Matthew Jacobs to ask about the decision to publish Ziblich’s name, and here’s what he said (full text here):

“Even at a large school like LSU, gossip and the rumor mill operate within a fairly isolated bubble, especially now that social media is so dominant in college students’ lives. It’s vital, therefore, for a college newspaper to be the arbiter of such gossip and to provide definitive answers. While there are times when I would not accept social media as a news source, there are other times when information is so ubiquitously known that it becomes corroborative.

“There was a flood of attention across social media from LSU mourners and sympathizers who pinpointed the suicide victim’s name.  Dozens of posts across the Internet naming the same person left little doubt, particularly the ones written on the victim’s own Facebook page, which anyone can see because it’s accessible to the public.  LSU is big but close-knit, especially the Greek community, and we felt the news was universally accepted enough so that we weren’t releasing anything people didn’t already know.  We were sure not to include details about the method by which the suicide was committed or the circumstances, because those things become gritty and gossipy.

I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but what Jacobs said in this email is remarkably similar to the discussion happening in the Nevada Sagebrush’s Opening the News group on Facebook regarding the false HIV outbreak several weeks ago. In a nutshell, the Sagebrush attempted to use Facebook and Twitter to find out more about a rumored HIV spreading, but their posts and tweets lead to additional misinformation, especially when no new information or clarification was posted until days later (see this Storify post). I’ve blogged about how I felt the Sagebrush was mistaken in their coverage before, but the conversation has persisted within their Facebook group.

The common theme here is the actual or perceived misuse of social media in collegiate reporting. Undoubtedly, Facebook and Twitter play a huge role in the lives and thinking methods of young journalists, because they play a huge role in the vast majority of college students. The issue, rather, lies in the ethics of relying on social media for sources, interview questions, and accurate information. While social media can play an important role in collegiate reporting, its uses must be guarded to prevent the viral spread of misinformation and rumor propagation, which holds greater importance due to vastly increased speed in which social media spreads information.

In regards to the Daily Revellie, I would caution that their reliance on social media in identifying Zibilich could hold potentially huge and negative implications. Although Jacobs implied the information as corroborative, it’s remarkably easy for misinformation to spread quickly throughout the social media sphere. For example 15 minutes after Onward State published a false account of Joe Paterno’s death, the information was picked up by @BreakingNews and CBS Sports minutes later, reaching millions of followers. In a situation as controversial and attention-grabbing as a student committing suicide, it’s highly imperative to completely ensure the information being published, whether online, in print or over social media is completely accurate. As addressed in this New York Times piece, social media has created a fear in both individuals and media outlets of missing out on big news, which leads to situations such as Onward State where a falsity was spread due to a lack of diligence in checking the facts. Although Zibilich’s identity may have appeared certain to editors of the Daily Revellie, such an important story should have more than a handful of Facebook posts and tweets to back it up.

Likewise, the Nevada Sagebrush’s use of social media during the purported HIV crisis, although not intentional, helped lead to upticks in rumors and misinformation (Here’s my Storify version, again). As I’ve already detailed my complaints with the coverage, here’s a snippet of a post by UNR student Brian Parcon:

This is not because of the articles that you ran, but because of the constant attention the Sagebrush *publicly* gave the rumor *before* the articles ran. In an effort to gain all the information very quickly, members of the Facebook group were asked share the post discussing the emerging story. Essentially, the Sagebrush urged the members of the group to spread the rumor even farther.

THAT is the problem.

Instead sifting through the flow of information from interested parties who had the ability and access to investigate (like the reports that poured onto the internet during events like the Arab Spring and the 99% Protests), the Sagebrush dropped a large, unwieldy rumor in the middle of a public place and proceeded to ask the community what it was and to go tell their friends about it. (Emphasis mine)

The unifying issue here is a sense of responsibility collegiate newspaper editors feel toward identifying and clarifying rumors on their campuses. Both Jacobs and members of the Sagebrush identified their concern with allowing rumors to spread, in a sense becoming the ‘arbiter’ of such gossip. The issue with that role is that one needs solid evidence before continuing with publication of  a story, and the issue with social media is the nature of the platform leads to a greater chance for incorrect or misunderstood information to be seen at a greater level. Relying on social media is a gamble, and when readers are quick to anger and more than willing to show their frustration, it’s not worth the headache and hassle. As I’ve said before, it’s always better to be right than to be first. Remember that your audience won’t care who scooped a story, but they will care if you over-reach and get the story wrong.

Future of College Media: Are college publications learning vehicles or actual businesses?

This post is the second in a series of 10 about the future of collegiate journalism, focusing on specific projects undertaken by members of college journalists around the country. This entry focuses on a gray area for collegiate media, between actual, professional businesses and learning opportunities for students.

UPDATE: I’ve removed the first part of this blog post because I felt that it was distracting from the real point of this post. I offer full apologies to anyone I offended or angered.

For reasons that remain unclear to me, Nevada Sagebrush Assistant Sports Editor Michael Lingberg was fired last month. I emailed editor-in-chief Juan López to get his side of the story, but he refused to comment. Now, some people have accused me of being a bitter ex-employee out to smear and insult the Sagebrush, but I don’t want to write anything that I don’t know all of the details about.

Let me be clear; I’m writing about this topic because it’s not an isolated incident in the Sagebrush, but an entire rash of collegiate editors and writers being fired, resigning or being removed from their position. This post from College Media Matters goes over three firings alone this semester, including a cartoonist for the Daily Texan who was fired after an outpouring of condemnation over a Trayvon Martin cartoon. Just today, the managing editor and editor-in-chief of The Maneater resigned after a controversial April Fool’s edition.

This rash of firings deserves to be placed in context. Just about everyone on a collegiate news staff is about 18-21 and has a 1-3 years of prior journalism experience. Often, there’s no advisor in-office to make suggestions, leaving final decisions up to people barely old enough to drink. That’s how it works for the Sagebrush, and for any major independent college newspaper. And that’s how it should be.

For someone not familiar with the inner workings of a college newsroom, this sentiment can seem strange. Why not ask a journalism professional for help, in case tough ethical questions arise? But in my experience, working with a group of like-minded peers leads to the kind of innovation, storytelling risks and general independence that journalism needs to survive. Running features about a student’s abortion or attempted suicide can’t take the same chances and reach the same audience anywhere else in a j-school. Along with a greater level of independence found in these publications, college papers also reach a larger audience than running a single blog or publishing a newsletter. This is the sweet spot for journalists: freedom to experiment, and an active audience that is willing to comment, critique and provide feedback on said experiments.

It’s a romantic picture that I just painted, and unfortunately situations do arise where people either take advantage of the situation afforded them, or fall asleep on the job. Yet overwhelmingly, collegiate journalists are a dedicated bunch, who in their unique situation are able to learn and innovate much more than they would in an actual internship or journalism class.

That’s what irritates me about these recent firings and resignations. Yes, they made a mistake. Yes, they should apologize. But remember that college papers are primarily a learning institution, a place where mistakes happen and lessons are learned. There are certain rules that every journalist has to follow, but I believe there should be additional leeway when it comes to college papers. Should writers who break rules be punished? Yes. Should they be fired and excommunicated from the world of journalism? No.

My first year in high school, I decided to write a column in the school newspaper about why I thought Global Warming was false (I wasn’t very smart back then). Even stupider, I decided to copy and paste a few paragraphs from another article that I had read earlier that year, thinking them to be of a higher quality than what I could write. After the column was published, my journalism teacher took me outside and forced the truth out of me. Now, this man had every right to remove me from staff. If I had worked at an actual publication, I would be fired on the spot. Yet he decided to be lenient, and let a 14-year-old kid have a second chance. Two years later I was editor-in-chief of that paper, and here I sit, nearly six years past, and I have never forgotten that lesson. I will never fabricate anything that I write ever again, not because a journalism professor told me to, but because I actually lived through that experience.

So for the Sagebrush, I offer this advice: take these decisions more carefully. I know that a lawsuit is the last thing anyone wants, but it’s also important to remember the service they offer to the world of journalism in the future. In a blog post about helping fund the Daily Illini, Roger Ebert said, “Many, including myself, would say that they owe their careers at least in part to their experience at Illini Media. It’s now time to give back.” A huge number of journalists in this country got their start at a campus publication, and I’m sure that they made plenty of mistakes along the way. Does it help journalism at all to treat these learning vehicles as actual businesses? The answer to that question is no, and I would recommend to any senior staff on a college paper to remember that mistakes may hurt now, but they will only build you up stronger in the future.

First vs. Right: The role of social media in the false HIV outbreak at UNR

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Things got a little crazy at the University of Nevada, Reno last Wednesday when a handful of rumors about a possible HIV outbreak began to spread through social media outlets (I’m going to try my hardest to avoid any ‘viral’ based puns) and ended up as features on local broadcast news affiliates. In order to help clarify what exactly happened, I’ve attempted to put together a comprehensive narrative via Storify (which you can find here and recommend reading if you missed it.)

As one can see, the ‘rumors’ increased dramatically as soon as members of the Nevada Sagebrush began to tweet about it and post details of the story in their Opening the News Facebook group. Although they were careful to use words such as ‘possible’ and ‘rumored,’ most of the responses that I saw ignored those words and assumed that there actually was an HIV outbreak. What I can gather from group messages is that there was some kind of newsletter posted in the bathrooms of Nye Hall, which convinced Sagebrushers to start scouring through the social media landscape.

The allegations of someone trying to spread a sexually-transmitted disease aren’t something to be taken lightly. But even the process of launching an investigation into such a sensitive topic should be taken extremely seriously, and with the upmost caution. What the Nevada Sagebrush did, and more importantly how they went about reporting on this issue, was in my opinion irresponsible and not serving to the interests of their readers. While the rules of social media are constantly evolving and changing, there’s no reason why a serious news organization would publish inquires into rumors on their official social media accounts. To provide some criticism and context, I’m going to go bullet-by-bullet point through this event, and point out what the staff of the Sagebrush should of done to avoid the shitstorm that they partially caused.

  • Unreliable Sources:

It’s one thing to listen to rumors from friends, and then try to look into their veractiy. It’s another level entirely to take something published in a dorm bathroom as anything close to factual. If reporters heard additional rumors about an HIV outbreak, it might of made sense to give someone at Health Services or the dorms a call, but posting questions all over Facebook and Twitter is unlikely to lead to any kind of useful information, and is more likely to cause the kind of panic which happened on Wednesday. Keep any story which has the potential to be this damaging quiet, or the flood of rumors, half-truths and lies can overwhelm a news staff.

  • Suggestive headlines and a failure to update

A few hours after posting the HIV-related statuses on Facebook, a story went up on the Sagebrush website called, “BREAKING NEWS: Investigation over rumored HIV outbreak continues.” Rather than post any information in the story, the page suggests readers visit their Facebook page and ‘Opening the News‘ group. Although the last actual information about the story comes from Wednesday afternoon, the story is still up on the Sagebrush’s website six days later. After a letter from Health Services came out, news reporters on the Sagebrush have not commented or posted any additional information on the group, or on their website. It’s a bit of stretch to say that a rumored HIV investigation is continuing when there is no investigation. While I appreciate the sentiment of having an open group for students to comment and contribute to the Sagebrush, it’s not going to work if the staff doesn’t update, confirm and moderate the page.

These kind of social media mishaps aren’t uncommon. Although it happened on a much larger scale, Onward State got into a similar mess when covering the death of Joe Paterno. As documented in this Poynter article, editors at the site were deceived by an untrue email, and the subsequently false tweet was picked up by @BreakingNews and CBS Sports, both of which reached millions of readers. Subsequent criticism and outcry lead to a kind of infamy for the site’s editors and warning lesson about the power of social media.

Social media is a great tool to reach readers directly- there’s no argument there. What I’m saying is that it’s always better to be right than to be first. Readers commit to a publication when they feel that they can trust what it’s saying. Every error you commit, whether it’s a spelling error in a story down to an erroneous tweet, chips away at the public’s trust for a publication. And in an era of lower profits and decreased readership (especially for small collegiate papers), it’s more important than ever to be factually correct and responsive to the truth.

UPDATE: Turns out I’m not the only one who saw an issue. Enjolie Esteve of the Sagebrush wrote a column for the latest edition of the Sagebrush, detailing her issues with the over-reliance on social media. She hits a lot of the same points that I made, as well as some more unique perspectives. Definitely worth a look.