No one comes to Oregon State University to study journalism.
For one thing, there’s no J-school here. It’s been 10 years since the word “journalism” has been printed on any OSU degree. Administrators and students held an old-fashioned wake for the program in 1992 – after voters approved a tax-cutting measure that diced higher education into several bite-sized pieces.
If you care to visit the student media office and leaf through the hardbound archived copies of the student newspaper, The Daily Barometer, the effects of the now-infamous Measure 5 can be seen fairly easily.
The writing got sloppy. The layout was worse. And the lull continued through the rest of the decade.
Then, something happened. The paper hit an upswing that carried it all the way to the “final four” this fall in SPJ’s Mark of Excellence competition. That put The Barometer in an elite group of college dailies.
Then, in what came as a shock to everyone at this relatively small school, SPJ declared “The Baro” “the best.” At the SPJ National Convention in Fort Worth, The Barometer was named best all-around daily student newspaper. To win that honor, The Barometer had to beat out papers with talent pools several times bigger and budgets up to six times larger.
And it had to do all that without the resources of a journalism program.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, though, the lack of a J-school was anything but a handicap. In fact, many students see it as The Barometer’s biggest strength.
That’s the position of Katie Pesznecker, now an education reporter at the Anchorage Daily News. An English major who had her first tryst with reporting in high school, Pesznecker came to The Barometer looking for a fun extracurricular activity.
At many schools, the freshmen would have been forced to take several J-classes and endure a rigorous and competitive process to break into the paper’s ranks.
But Pesznecker didn’t have to break in. In fact, her name was on the staff list before she even walked through the office door. “I mentioned to a girl during the week before school that I wanted to join the newspaper staff and she freaked out,” Pesznecker said. “She was the feature editor at the time and said there would surely be a spot for me at The Baro.”
Not only was there a spot – there was story assignment waiting for her the first day of school.
By the end of her freshman year, she’d penned scores of stories and was an assistant editor. By the end of the next year, she was the paper’s news editor.
And by the time writers her same age were breaking into the lower ranks of bigger, better college newspapers, Pesznecker was a senior-level editor with a cache of impressive clips. As editor in chief her final year, Pesznecker could fall back on everything she had learned from four years of mistakes. She had four years of lessons to share with junior reporters. She could help them learn from her experiences as well as their own.
“You learn by the experience, by the day-to-day,” she said. “No one can teach you how to interview a grieving mother, or a tight-lipped cop, or a school district superintendent who is on damage-control mode. No one can give you a lecture or test on how to approach those situations. The ability to handle those delicate and tough interviews comes from doing.”
Pesznecker gleaned even more experience from her part-time job at a local daily and subsequent summer internships. Others brought back similar experiences.
Steve Bagwell, managing editor of the McMinnville (Ore.) News-Register and instructor for the only two upper-division journalism classes at OSU, said summer internships are more important for students who don’t already spend the rest of the year studying journalism.
“These students didn’t go out there acting like they already knew everything, so they soak up so much more.” said Bagwell.
Bagwell conceded that OSU students don’t get the same expansive classroom training as their counterparts down the I-5 corridor at the University of Oregon or up the I-5 corridor at the University of Washington. “But there’s a lot of very experienced professionals out there willing to help out on points of ethics, interviewing, voice and such. You don’t need to learn that in the classroom,” he said.
Meanwhile, students spend their classroom hours developing expertise in other areas. In Pesznecker’s year as editor in chief, the paper’s editorial board included students majoring in English, Spanish, political science, business, biochemistry, history and math.
But those were just subjects of study, said Frank Ragulsky, OSU’s director of student media.
“What they all really majored in was The Barometer,” he said. “They brought in an interest in newspapers, maybe from high school or just because, and they piggy-backed that interest with their academic disciplines.”
Contrary to losing out on a journalism education, OSU students are responsible for putting one together, Ragulsky said.
“Maybe you’re a political science major, and so you take an interest in press law,” he said. “Maybe you’re a history major, and so you write your thesis on yellow journalism.”
Ragulsky said the diversity of student backgrounds not only brought in specific expertise to the paper, but also provided The Barometer with a variety of academic, social and political influences.
Even at very large schools, journalism students tend to see the same rotation of professors and fellow students, especially in the often specialty-specific junior and senior years.
At The Barometer, students come back to the office from classes with a wide variety of instructors and students. That helps when it comes time to come up with diverse stories, sources and perspectives, Ragulsky said.
It has also helped draw students who otherwise would have spent their time concentrating only on their major.
“What’s so amazing is just a small percentage of Barometer employees have journalism ambitions, but they still gave us everything,” said Troy Foster, a former editor in chief who is now the news editor at The Pioneer in Madras, Ore. “That made us better as a group, and I think it made us better as a paper.”
The dividends began paying off late in the decade. Previously shunned in regional newspaper competitions, Barometer staffers started coming back from conferences with hardware. Meanwhile, graduates were scoring jobs at The Oregonian, The New York Times, the Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times.
The Barometer hadn’t won a regional “best of show” trophy since 1990, but in 2001 the paper took the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association’s General Excellence Award – and 27 other individual awards.
Still, when SPJ announced its four national finalists for the Mark of Excellence competition, it just didn’t seem to make sense. “We thought, ‘Well, that’s a very nice honor indeed, just to be a finalist,’” Ragulsky said.
Foster said the very idea of being honored as the best college daily in the nation runs contrary to one of the tenants that made The Barometer a decent paper in the first place. “We’ve always been the underdog,” he said. “That drives us to want to scoop the local paper. It drives us to want to put out a better sheet than the other colleges do – especially the ones with the big-budget J-schools.”
Matthew D. LaPlante is a former editor of The Barometer who now works as a staff reporter at the McMinnville News-Register. Scott Johnson was editor in chief of The Barometer for the time that won SPJ’s Mark of Excellence award for best student daily. He is now a copy editor for the Anchorage Daily News.