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.

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