Image by Taylor Blatchford

What student newsrooms can teach the journalism industry

By on July 8, 2020

Let’s take a moment to imagine the journalism industry not as it is, but as it could be.

What would journalism look like if newsrooms audited the diversity of their staffs, published the results and laid out detailed plans to improve? 

What would journalism look like if newsrooms embraced the experiment and didn’t say “But that’s the way we’ve always done things?”

What would journalism look like if newsrooms really listened to their audiences, took their feedback into account and tailored their reporting to best serve them?

Today’s student journalists are leading us down those paths.

I’ve written The Lead, an independent newsletter for student journalists, for almost two years. Student newsrooms are innovating, serving their communities and working to improve.

There’s a lot the journalism industry can learn from them. Here are just a few things we  should pay attention to right now.

Examining diversity and making public plans to improve

The journalism industry is grappling with longstanding issues with its own lack of diversity and how it covers marginalized communities. Student newsrooms are a pipeline into the industry, and they have their own issues with accessibility.

The Minnesota Daily and other student publications have looked inward at the makeup of their staffs. The Daily also created a Content Diversity Board, spent a year tracking its coverage and communicated its findings with readers in a comprehensive report. “Our work lies in pushing for institutional improvement and challenging the norms of how news has always been told,” the board wrote.

The Independent Florida Alligator examined its staff diversity and took concrete steps to improve how it represents the campus in terms of race, ethnicity, major and grade level.

Student newsrooms are taking these actions with a fraction of the resources of professional newsrooms.

Pivoting quickly and experimenting with distribution methods

The cycle of graduations means student publication staffs are constantly turning over. While this makes it hard to pass down institutional knowledge, it also means it’s easier to experiment. The Daily Emerald and The Daily of the University of Washington put their sports rivalry aside to collaborate on a gameday issue and corresponding fundraiser. The Pendulum created the first bilingual issue in Elon University’s history.

The willingness to adapt applies to changing distribution methods, too. When the coronavirus pandemic stopped in-person classes at American universities this spring, student newspapers had to decide if it was worth printing a paper when few students were on campus. Many stopped their print publications and ramped up ways to reach readers online: newsletters, social media and e-editions.

Listening to audiences for feedback and story ideas

Student journalists at The Daily Northwestern came under fire last fall for publishing photos of campus protesters — an issue that’s also come up during recent demonstrations against police brutality. The paper apologized in an editorial, and many professional journalists lambasted them for apologizing.

“We aren’t unclear about our rights as a newspaper to cover student protest, but also understand the need to do so with empathy,” Editor-in-Chief Troy Closson wrote on Twitter. The incident underscores an important point: There’s a way to do responsible journalism while rethinking how we treat sources, especially those from marginalized communities.

Taking audience feedback into account also leads to excellent story ideas. The Shorthorn launched an engagement-driven reporting project to ask readers what they wanted to know about the University of Texas at Arlington. It’s led to stories ranging from “Why aren’t pets allowed in on-campus apartments?” to “Why are there so few restaurants in the College Park District?”

“We want to educate the public and make them feel like they can walk into our newsroom, join a meeting and ask us questions,” then-social media editor Narda Pérez said.

Students are the first to tell you that they don’t have all the answers and are learning as they go. But they’re challenging existing industry norms and building better ones, and I see this as a great sign for the future of our profession.

The journalism industry might not easily shift to new ways of thinking about diversity, engagement or experimentation. Newsroom leaders and professional journalists should pay attention to the world of student journalism, rather than writing off their ideas as idealistic or unrealistic. These students will be in our newsrooms soon, and they can help us change them for the better.