The SPJ National Convention seminar ‘Stories We’re Missing on Our Campuses’ started off with a note of frustration from Oren Campbell, publisher of the University of Washington’s The Daily. ‘I read 50-60 [college] papers every week and am disappointed in the lack of depth and
breadth,’ he said. Ruth Schubert, the education reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, said the first problems that student reporters face are simply finding something to write about. Schubert, along with panelists Ieva Augstums, editor of the Daily Nebraskan at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Marshall Maher, editor of the Daily Texan at the University of Texas at Austin, discussed resources students could use as leads: lawsuits (large universities were always getting sued, according to Schubert), public records (such as contracts that detail the perks for the president or a football team), school processes (such as in-state and out-of-state requirements), and school funding for research programs. ‘Don’t pass up the obvious, either,’ said Augstums. Old bell towers, the names on building and plaques, and ongoing issues like drinking, drugs and affirmative action still have story angles yet to be explored. Talking to ‘fringe groups’ and people other than the obvious campus leaders were also stressed. ‘Never take anything for granted,’ said Campbell. Maher’s paper recently investigated the designated driver program, a school-funded project that taxied students from downtown Austin to their residences for free. While researching the appropriation of funds, the paper discovered that cab rides home were costing an outrageous average of $128 per ride. Without investigative reporting, they would never have broken the story. Augstums stumbled onto a controversial story when she noticed a seemingly insignificant hole in a campus sidewalk. After making a few phone calls, Augstums discovered that the hole previously held a plaque. Landscaping services told her they had no intention of returning the plaque because it was being displayed in someone’s office. The plaque’s keeper, knowing about the story and not wanting any more controversy, returned the plaque to its rightful place. Another anecdote illustrated the importance of talking to fringe groups. At the University of Texas, the group Radical Action Network organized a large-scale silent protest against guest speaker Henry Kissinger. School administrators canceled the speech, blaming it on RAN’s ‘grand planned protest.’ While covering the story, the paper discovered that the administration had informers or paid undercover agents that befriended fringe groups. When running controversial stories, student journalists sometimes run into difficulties obtaining interviews or information from needed sources. A solution Augstums presented is to keep writers on their own beat, such as student government. That way, each writer can create a detailed source list and act as a mentor to new writers, sharing lists and specific tips. Augstums also encouraged weekly meetings with top members of the university administration. But when diplomacy doesn’t work, writers can and should get tough. For instance, Maher’s paper isn’t on good terms with the school administration. When he needs a quote, he touts the story to twist the administration’s arm. ‘We’re going to write a story about this – here’s your chance,’ he tells reluctant sources. ‘If I run a quote that says no comment from vice president x, it’s going to look a lot worse than whether or not [president x] just talks to me,’ he said. Most sources would call Maher back within the hour. Campbell said that tactics like this wouldn’t get you on good terms with an administration, but stressed that that should not be a concern for journalists. ‘Most active, vibrant campus publications care more about their readers than about having friends in the administration,’ he said. If administrators insisted on withholding information, or gave the run-around until the story wasn’t newsworthy, he encouraged students to do everything possible to incite them (especially at private universities, where there isn’t the same obligation to share records). For instance, Campbell noted that the editorial page could be used to inform readers of an administration’s stalling tactics. ‘Even the dumbest administrators are going to catch on that they’re really screwing themselves, because all the students on campus [will] know that [they’re] just trying to put up a smoke screen,’ he said. Panelists also discussed the recruitment – and retention – of strong student writers. Augstums and Maher both agreed that getting the entire school involved was a good starting point. For instance, Augstums recruits students from the art department to help with design and business school students to do copyediting. To enlist journalism students, both Augstums and Maher remind students of the importance of writing samples when applying for journalism jobs. Maher told attendees to explain the importance of working for the paper. ‘No other student group is as visible as the student newspaper,’ he said. ‘You’re a campus leader … you shape the dialogue … you shape the issues. You kind of move everything on the campus.’ Maher and Augstums both have large editorial staffs – 150 and 170 editors respectively. But keeping good writers once they get them is a difficult task. Maher complained that his paper’s biggest problem was senior reporters moving into editor positions after only a semester of writing. To keep writers writing, Maher suggested assigning juicier and more interesting stories to veteran writers. And to keep writers from burning out, Maher suggested allowing longer deadlines for stories. Augstums said that strong organization, weekly team meetings, and one-on-one meetings have also helped.
Connie Kim is a free-lance writer to Seattle publications such as Metropolitan Living and Tekbug.