As the news industry contracts, evolves and changes in other ways, the role of students continues to grow in the newsgathering and reporting process across all platforms. Consider this:
At Florida International University, journalism students operate the South Florida News Service, generating stories for daily newspapers in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach and their Web sites.
At Arizona State University, under the banner of the Cronkite News Service, students produce stories not only for newspapers and the Web but also for television stations in Phoenix, Tucson and Yuma.
At San Francisco State University, students take a course called News Bureau, in which they write stories, take photographs and create multimedia packages for Bay-area newspapers.
Across the country, journalism schools are establishing student news services, news bureaus and courses to produce work for professional news outlets. Such programs have proliferated in recent years as financial problems have squeezed the news industry.
There is a wide range of student news operations; they exist at big schools and small schools. Most services are local or regional; others are national or even international. Most operate only during the fall and spring semesters; a few keep going during the summer. Some have a permanent place in the curriculum; others mobilize only for major news events. Many provide stories for free; some get financial or in-kind support from the media outlets they serve.
One thing’s for sure: Student-operated news services are growing.
“I don’t think there is any question that there is a lot more demand for student work,” said Wendell Cochran, an associate professor at American University. In 2008, he co-founded the Investigative Reporting Workshop, in which students help produce stories for media partners. In June, The Associated Press announced that it will distribute the workshop’s articles.
“I think you’ll see more of these partnerships,” said Neil Santaniello, who teaches a course at Florida Atlantic University that generates stories for Scripps’ six Treasure Coast newspapers and TCPalm.com. His students serve as freelance correspondents, each producing four articles and two videos or other multimedia packages during the semester.
“As newspapers downsize, they will turn more and more to student journalists,” Santaniello said. “It’s a big new direction.”
Big enough that Len Downie, former executive editor of The Washington Post and now a faculty member at Arizona State, is examining the trend. He is conducting a study for Columbia University on alternatives for producing news, and his research includes looking at student
“Students are filling voids” in short-staffed newsrooms, Downie said. A case in point: Arizona State students contribute to AZCentral.com, the Arizona Republic’s Web site. That wouldn’t have happened five years ago, Downie said.
He said students “cannot run professional news organizations” but might help in some way. In his report, due Oct. 1, Downie plans to assess the role universities might plan in future news reporting.
“I think the future is going to hold increasing collaboration,” he said.
Point Park University’s News Service
For many J-schools and media partners, that collaborative future is now.
Andy Conte contributed to the news service at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism while he earned his master’s degree in 1997. Now he is a reporter at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and an adjunct instructor at Point Park University, a seven-minute walk from his newsroom.
In 2005, Conte launched the Point Park News Service, in which students write stories for the Tribune-Review and its Web site. The newspaper pays students a stringer fee, about $35, for each article published. So far, the paper has shelled out more than $4,000. Stories also are offered to other publications.
“It’s a great opportunity for both the media outlets and the students,” Conte said. “The students are getting clips and experience. And the news organizations, especially with cutbacks, are always hungry for new content.
“I see a growing opportunity for news-papers to partner with journalism schools. I don’t think students will replace professional reporters. But especially as newsrooms go through tough times, the students can provide fresh content.”
Such partnerships offer advantages for:
• Students: They do their best work, and sources take the students more seriously, when stories are for public consumption. Moreover, students develop a portfolio and contacts that can lead to employment.
• The university: News services strengthen a journalism school’s hands-on offerings and raise its profile.
• The media partners: As the Point Park News Service says on its Web site, “News outlets in the Pittsburgh region and across the country are scrambling to reach young readers but too often miss the one thing needed most: fresh perspective.”
Students can come up with story ideas that elude older reporters. Conte recalled one student who wrote about his schoolmates’ use of the drug Adderall to stay focused while studying. Conte and the student subsequently developed that story for the Tribune-Review, prompting national media to follow up, Conte said.
University of Maryland’s Capital News Service
The most prominent J-schools, such as Missouri and Medill, have long operated news services. At some schools in state capitals, including Virginia Commonwealth and Michigan State universities, students cover the legislature for media clients. The Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland operates a multimedia Capital News Service, with bureaus in Annapolis and Washington, D.C.
Students pursuing a master’s degree in journalism are required to work for CNS, said Assistant Dean Steve Crane. Undergraduates must apply; they are chosen “as they would be selected for a job,” based on experience, clips or tapes, recommendations and desire.
CNS bureau directors vet every report. They transmit about 300 stories each semester to daily and weekly newspapers and radio, television and online news outlets. Stories have appeared in The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun and, via the McClatchy-Tribune News Service, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Jose Mercury News.
Clients include The Star Democrat, a daily in Easton, Md. “We have really come to rely on CNS to cover state issues and issues that affect the Eastern Shore,” said Barbara Sauers, the paper’s managing editor. “They’re very good about customizing their stories so that they incorporate people from our area.”
Besides serving print clients, CNS has online staffers producing videos and slide shows for the Web. There’s also a broadcast component. This spring, in addition to its own student-produced TV news program, students on the broadcast side began offering packages and other video elements to several Maryland television stations as well as Web sites at a number of local newspapers.CNS is what attracted Catherine Dolinski to the master’s program at Maryland.
“I was transitioning out of another career and wanted as much practical experience and training as I could get,” she said.
Dolinski worked in the program’s Washington bureau in 2002. “Four days per week, roughly eight hours a day. Days varied. Some were mostly deskbound, working the phones; other days I hiked up to the Hill. I wound up covering one event at the White House, and everyone took turns gathering case information at the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Once, Dolinski and another CNS staffer ran into then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as he was signing autographs for congressional pages.
“I’m pretty sure that he spoke to us because he thought that we were pages,” Dolinski said. “When he found out we were reporters, he was visibly disappointed but polite, dishing out some great-sounding but worthless quotes about the briefing he’d just given Congress.”
Like many students, Dolinski got a career boost from CNS: She is now The Tampa Tribune’s state capital reporter.
Arizona State’s Cronkite News Service
When Chris Callahan left Maryland and the Capital News Service to become dean of the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State, he transplanted the CNS initials. Begun in 2007, the Cronkite News Service uses mostly undergraduates to provide a mix of daily and enterprise stories.
Steve Elliott, former AP bureau chief in Phoenix, is Cronkite’s digital news director. He oversees distribution of stories to about 30 newspapers and news Web sites.
The Cronkite News Service’s broadcast director is Susan Green, who had been the managing editor at ABC15 in Phoenix and executive producer at WABC-TV in New York. She said the students’ video feeds are broadcast across Arizona.
“The CBS and NBC stations in Yuma use our packages pretty much every week when we are offering them,” Green said. AZCentral.com also posts the videos: “Last semester they placed more than 50 packages on their site.”
Chris Kline, executive producer for new media content at ABC15, features the students’ work on his station’s Web site, too.
“The great thing about Cronkite News Service is that the content is very unique,” Kline said. “It’s not the run-of-the-mill” stories that the station otherwise would cover.
For example, the Cronkite students did bios of all new state legislators, said Christina Leonard, politics editor for The Arizona Republic, another client. She uses the students “as a fill-in, as a backstop,” freeing her reporters for the “heavy-hitting stories.”
Students have parlayed their news service experience into jobs.
Jonathan Cooper, who graduated in May, landed a paid internship with the AP after two semesters with the Cronkite News Service.
“It was an opportunity to cover real events and real issues and have them published in real newspapers,” Cooper said. In the wire service environment, he added, students must “make sure you’re on top of your game, really striving for accuracy and excellence.”
The students’ stories have impact: Cooper’s report about the theft of saguaro cacti, Arizona’s treasured symbol, prompted editorials and government action. So did Sonu Munshi’s story about the lead poisoning of condors in the Grand Canyon.
Munshi worked for the Cronkite News Service in 2007 while pursuing her master’s degree. “I was able to travel across Arizona for stories,” she said. That experience helped her land a job as a reporter for the East Valley Tribune outside Phoenix.
The Debate: Charge for Content?
Student-powered news operations take on a variety of forms:
• California State University, Northridge, produces bilingual multimedia projects for Pacifica Radio, New America Media and education radio and TV stations in Latin America and Europe.
• The Colorado Film School organized a news bureau to cover the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. The bureau’s 40 camera crews focused on the street protests and provided content for community television and radio and for ABC and Telemundo.
• Hastings College in Nebraska for the past two years has had students cover the NAIA Division II National Women’s Basketball Tournament in Sioux City, Iowa, 250 miles away. The students produce full-game video and dozens of print, radio and television features.
• Wichita State University for the past two summers has sent a team of students to Greensburg, Kan., which was leveled by a tornado in 2007. The students slept in the Sunday school rooms at a local church and reported on the town’s efforts to rebuild. The stories — print, photos, Web and video — were made available to newspapers throughout Kansas.
While everyone agrees that students benefit from the clips and experience, the programs have spurred debate: Should J-schools offer free content to profit-oriented newspapers and TV stations?
“There are real costs behind these programs. Professional news organizations should recognize this and pay a portion of those costs,” said Cochran, a senior editor at American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop.
A few programs do charge: To receive stories from Maryland’s Capital News Service, weekly newspapers pay $75 per semester and dailies and TV stations pay $150. Some clients contribute in other ways: The Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers have a reporter and editor work closely with the Florida Atlantic University students, critiquing stories and sending them back for rewrites, as many as six times.
“That can take a lot of time,” said Mike Canan, the papers’ local-news editor. But it’s worth it: “Let’s face it: Newsrooms have been hit hard with staff reduction. We’ve had to find other ways to get good local news content. That’s where this course came from. We’re getting some stories that wouldn’t get done otherwise.”
On the heels of Florida Atlantic’s program, Florida International’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication announced an agreement to generate stories for The Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and The Palm Beach Post.
“It’s an unheard of opportunity for students. It doesn’t get any edgier than this,” Allan Richards, the school’s interim associate dean, said in a press release.
“It doesn’t get any cheaper either,” one journalist posted on Poynter Online. “This is
what journalism’s been reduced to; how pitiful.”
Neil Reisner, a professor at Florida International, expressed mixed feelings.
“The papers seemingly will use students in roles once filled by full-time reporters. That’s sad,” he wrote on Poynter. But Reisner said the news service will help students get their feet in the profession’s door.
“I mourn and rage at what’s happening to the craft I love and spent 25 years practicing,” Reisner said. “But I also care about my students and cheer anything that’ll help them make their ways in that craft.”
Jeff South is an associate professor in the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he directs VCU’s Capital News Service. Sue Kopen Katcef is a lecturer in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland and executive producer for UMTV.