The Challenges of Student-Run Journalism Ventures

The following post is part of a larger online conversation for the Carnival of Journalism. The topic for discussion is “the changing role of universities for the information needs of a community.”

I teach journalism at a university that embraces the role of providing quality news and information to the public. Our students produce award-winning radio, television, documentary films, print publications, and web sites. And I’m always looking for new ways to provide our students with a newsroom experience that also serves the needs of the local community.

But I am also familiar with the challenges of creating and supervising student-run news publications.

I don’t consider these roadblocks that should stop innovation, but rather real-life issues to be considered. I post them here because they are often glossed over in discussions of how universities can be “hubs of journalistic activity.” (I’ve heard numerous presentations that go something like this: Newsrooms are cutting back. Journalism students already create news content. Set up a web site. Post the stories. Inform the public.)

Here are some of the challenges I have encountered. I welcome responses and advice.

Graduate vs. undergraduate journalism students
When people talk about journalism programs serving as regular sources of news for a local community, they are often talking about graduate schools with students who are older, more experienced, and more focused on their future careers. Undergraduate journalism programs, I believe, must also provide a broad liberal arts education to students who may — or may not — work as journalists.

Getting quality reporting from part-time reporters

Many of my students commute to school, take a full course load, are involved in existing student publications and clubs, do internships, freelance for or the local newspaper, and work a part-time job to pay the bills. My students want to do quality work, but time and energy are in short supply.

A space for trial and error
I believe that student journalists should publish their work and be required to cultivate and interact with real audiences. At the same time, learning involves making mistakes. The public deserves quality, in-depth information. Students need spaces to fail without serious public consequences.

The news cycle vs. the school year
Each semester, our student blogs and web sites thrive and then are abandoned when students move on. To build a real audience, a news publication must be published continuously. The 9-month, two-semester school year means gaps in news coverage. As a result, I encourage “evergreen” stories that have a longer digital shelf life, but that is not the same as a regularly updated information.

Working with the best students vs. teaching the whole class
Many of the best student-run news operations (i.e. News21) select participants through a competitive process to ensure they get the most committed and qualified students. This works for special programs, but not in the traditional classroom.

Creating partnerships with news organizations is difficult
Our journalism program has explored various ways to partner with local news organizations. So far we haven’t found an arrangement that really works for both parties. There are issues of staffing, liability, licensing, and who has the final say on publishing a student piece. But we will keep trying.