Future of College Media: What role should collegiate outlets have on national issues?

This post is the third 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 how collegiate newspapers can stay financially solvent in a depressed market for advertisements.

Image courtesy of blog.oncampusadvertising.com

Two days ago, The Daily Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina published this column by DTH news reporter Memet Walker, detailing his attempt to interview Newt Gingrich at a rally in Greensboro. According to Walker, after asking one question about a spat between Gingrich and Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, he was immediately and forcibly detained by security. The subsequent column has been making the rounds, from a Washington Post blogger to College Media Matters to Dave Weigel, and the response from Gingrich’s side has been typical- “It didn’t happen and the journalist is lying.”

While most of the reaction has seen this as yet another example of Gingrich being a cranky old man, I think it reveals a larger issue; collegiate journalists covering non-relevant topics. Of course, collegiate journalists want to cover ‘Big Events’ such as a presidential candidate coming to town, but oftentimes it can backfire (as with the must-discussed Onward State incident and death of Joe Paterno) or not reach the same quality as other, more professional organizations. The audience for a college paper is college students and campus life; unless there’s a direct or plausible connection (such as Barack Obama coming to campus) there’s little value in reporting on it.

Let me explain. One of the many, many of excellent pieces of advice I received from my old editor-in chief is that there’s no point for a college paper to report on something another outlet can do better and faster. While it’s tempting to try and get an interview with a big name like Newt Gingrich, any story coming from such an event should have some connection or tie to your campus. What kind of direct or indirect connection is there between Gingrich and that specific area of North Carolina?

Here’s an example using my own work: last September, I wrote a story detailing the congressional special election between Democrat Kate Marshall and Republican Mark Amodei. Rather than give an overview of the race, which had been done to death by the RGJ and Las Vegas Sun, I decided to make the main focus of the article related to how the race would affect higher education, as well as the relationship between the candidates and the state’s colleges and universities. Although there is plenty of room for improvement in that story, I believe it accomplishes my goal of having a unique viewpoint distinct  to my audience (UNR students).

Compare that story with this recent one, about the visits Republican candidates made to Nevada before the state’s primary. There’s no direct link to higher education at all in that article; it’s primarily concerned with the national race. If the audience for the Sagebrush wants to know about what GOP candidates are saying, they’d most likely check first with national outlets, then local media outlets, and then the school newspaper. There’s no point in covering any event or story if it isn’t relevant and unique to your audience. Especially online, where readers can pick and choose the articles that interest them, writing and reporting on unique content is critical to attracting readers and separating one media outlet from the rest.

Now, this isn’t to say that a college paper should be confined entirely to cover on-campus events or student government affairs. While there’s nothing wrong with covering those events, no enterprising journalist wants to cover that during their college careers. The answer to this quandary is to find a piece of unique content that has at least some relationship with one’s home university. A great example of this is something I’ve blogged about before, when the University of Oregon Daily Emerald partnered with a professional  paper in Eugene to investigate some of the financial dealings made by a former Athletic Director. A few days ago, the Daily Princetonian published this investigation into the reasons surrounding a former professor’s suicide, one year later. These examples are potentially state-wide or even national news, yet their reporters were able to find a unique angle for their readers.

While collegiate outlets understandably won’t have that kind of in-depth reporting week-in and week-out, there are hundreds of awesome stories happening at college campuses every single year. Collegiate media shouldn’t try to cover national stories that don’t have anything to do with their campus, just because it’s a prominent issue. As a college media outlet, you have a responsibility to understand, follow and write what’s happening on your campus, because more often than not other local media outlets will either ignore or only reprint press releases from your university.

Agree? Disagree? Think I’m an idiot? Let me know in the comments. I’ll try to respond to all of them.

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