I ventured to American University on Saturday afternoon to talk with a group of local student newspaper editors and staffers about finding story ideas on their campuses. I also shared some advice from my own days as a student editor — and figured I would pass that advice along to you, along with some tips from my Twitter and Facebook followers.
(Be warned, this is a long list. But if you have anything to add, make sure to leave a comment.)
+ Become a higher education news junkie. Read anything and everything having to do with college from a variety of sources. Subscribe to e-mail blasts from the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. Set up Google alerts for your school. Create Twitter lists. And carefully study what other college papers write.
+ Push yourself to use social media -- and not just to push out links to content. Use it to interact with students and faculty, pose and answer questions, start hashtags and bounce around story ideas.
+ When big news hits, don’t stop writing. You should be the paper of record for these events and reporting the little nuggets along the way will usually result in big scoops. (And if you break a big story, please let me know in an e-mail or tweet.)
+ Ask for documents. Lots and lots of documents. If you are at a public university, get in the habit of filing requests for public information, which usually includes administrator e-mails, reports following many internal investigations, strategic plans and memos.
+ There’s no such thing as a weekly college newspaper. Teach your reporters and editors to keep the Web site fresh and lively, even on the weekends. And encourage your classmates to bookmark the site, recommend articles to their friends and engage in conversations in the comment sections.
+ Figure out your university’s peer institutions and get to know them well. Use those institutions as comparisons in as many stories as you can. It’s not always fair to compare your school to the one down the street.
+ Cover every governing board meeting, as this is the place where the largest decisions are often made. If your trustees do not let you attend these meetings, push for access or call each of them afterwards for a recap.
+ Establish standing features, such as a weekly profile of a research project, interesting professor or university program. These assignments are especially good for new reporters.
+ Travel. College newspaper budgets are tight, but be creative and find ways to follow your sports teams on the road, visit other colleges or attend conferences. The world of higher education is bigger than your campus.
+ Schmooze. Get to know all of the higher ups and student leaders on campus and reach out to them for story ideas and input, not just spur-of-the-moment interviews.
+ Listen to your classmates. If everyone is talking about something, you better be writing about it, even if it seems trivial or unimportant. Make sure that your staff is diverse and properly reflects the campus you are writing about.
+ Expand your sports coverage so that you cover the athletic department just as you would the president’s office. Take a look at coach salaries and contracts, shift through the budget, ask questions about how NCAA regulations are followed, examine graduation rates and write profiles of lesser-known athletes.
+ Remember, student newspapers are classrooms. You have a duty to your staff to make sure they develop healthy, ethical and professional habits. Force them to re-report and rewrite stories that aren’t quite there yet. Explain your edits. Host workshops. Invite guest speakers. And take time to simply talk about journalism.
+ When it comes to “newsroom drama,” push your staff to resolve their own conflicts. If a staffer is dealing with a truly serious problem (alcoholism, eating disorder, mental health issues, sexual abuse, etc), you need to alert your professional adviser, a trusted professor or someone in student affairs. Such issues are often beyond your ability to handle, and it’s best to ask for help.
+ Go to class. Get some sleep. Eat somewhat healthy. And bring your own pillow if you are going to sleep on that gross couch that has been in the newsroom for generations.
And here are some more tips from Twitter:
@wpjenna Create thoughtful content, but don't take yourself too seriously. If you do, your readers won't.— Matt Sutherland (@sutherland360) September 10, 2012
@wpjenna Assign stories early in the day, source them during business hours-- harder to track people down at night.— John Lucas (@jplucas55) September 10, 2012
@wpjenna individualize communication with writers.Work and effort improves tremendously— Matt Balsinger (@Balszy) September 10, 2012
@wpjenna Always plan for photos. Your photo editors (and your paper) will thank you.— Ma'ayan Plaut (@plautmaayan) September 10, 2012
Another tip via e-mail:
+ Kelly Lux at the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University suggests creating a content calendar: “Look at what's coming up in the next month, three months and six months in the topic area of your blog. This will help you pre-determine a chunk of your content so that you're not scrambling for something to write at the last minute. Once you fill in the obvious, then you can brainstorm content for the remainder of your calendar. It also helps to have weekly/monthly features that you can count on to fill in more of the blanks.”
And here are even more tips from Facebook:
+ From Lexi Belculfine, who was editor-in-chief at The Daily Collegian when the Jerry Sandusky story broke last year: “Don't sleep. You only have one year to make the paper (or blog) better than you found it, to have a life-changing impact on your staff and to provide your community with the public service this job is rooted in. You'll sleep when you graduate; I promise.”
+ From Karen Wanamaker: “Remember, professional research help is free at your college/university via the librarians, so use them and the library resources to help verify facts or dig into your topics.”
+ From Keith Hautala, a fellow former Post intern: “Verify everything.”
+ From Brendan Garvey: “Even if your publication is free, you are asking someone to take time out of their lives to spend viewing it. If you write only for yourself and without an audience in mind, that's not a newspaper OR a blog; it's a diary, and should remain hidden away.”
+ From Kris Cole: “For letter-to-the-editor submissions, verify the source and the fact that the source intended the letter for publication. With emailed comments to editors, the line can be blurry.”
+ From Emily Liner, who once worked at The Hoya at Georgetown University: “Take the time to build relationships with your writers and show them how and why things get changed in the editing process. You don't want a writer getting discouraged from submitting articles when they don't see the final version of their article until it's in print and it doesn't resemble what they wrote.”
+ From Rhiannon Root of the Daily Nebraskan, where I once worked: “Read everything you can and ask yourself, ‘what's missing from the dialogue?’ If you can provide a fresh, different view that's well-written readers will come to you. Also, don't write controversial things for their own sake. Angering people for funzees will backfire and harm your credibility. Be honest, be yourself and dare to speak your mind.”
+ From Libby Ingrassia Bergman: “Before you contact a college (department, etc) for details about an event or story, do your homework -- search the college's website, for example, so you can ask intelligent questions that aren't already on the college's web page for the event.”
+ From Tony Leys of the Des Moines Register, where I once interned: “Don't spend all your time trying to write clever opinion pieces. Have the gumption to go out and report factual stories about what's happening on your campus and in your town. That's what readers want. It's also the experience that professional editors will be looking for once you're out of school and trying to get hired.
Okay... That’s tons and tons of advice. Hopefully, there’s one thing on this list that will help make your school year better. If you have any additional tips, please leave them in the comments section below.
(This post was updated on Thursday to fix Lexi Belculfine’s name.)