Like many studentjournalists, Jessica Pourian’s time at her student newspaper has taught her theskills of the trade — from interview techniques to news sense to AP style.There’s just one detail that sets her significantly apart from typical studentjournalists.
Pourian isn’t studyingjournalism.
Pourian,editor-in-chief of The Tech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,is among many student editors who face the challenges of student media, eventhough the lessons they learn won’t necessarily translate in their futurecareers.
Schools like MIT dohave student newspapers, even though most students who attend those schools arehardly there to study journalism. And these “nontraditional” journalists facethe same hurdles as those at major J-schools, even if they don’t all dream ofreporting jobs after college.
The Oredigger student newspaper at Colorado School of Minesdoesn’t have a single staff member pursuing a journalism career — yet its50-person staff manages to produce a weekly newspaper with diverse content.
Oredigger Editor-in-Chief Katie Huckfeldt said thetoughest part about producing the paper is recruiting competent writers andeditors.
“A lot of us enjoyedEnglish in high school, but we didn’t pursue an English major,” Huckfeldt said.“There’s not many outlets for us here, so the newspaper is a nice way toexpress yourself with your writing and to get into a more fun atmosphere.”
There is no journalismprogram at CSM, and many of the paper’s staffers study complex subjects.Huckfeldt is studying environmental engineering, specializing in watertreatment technologies — and other staff members are pursuing similar degrees.
“It’s really hard toget someone to really pursue a story or get them to research a story thoroughlylike it needs to be,” Huckfeldt said. “Beyond that, a lot of us don’t have alot of journalistic practice. We’re figuring it out as we go along, and we’reall doing full courseloads on top of other things. Yeah, we don’t sleep a lot.”
On the other side ofthe country, if one were to take a random sample of college students inBlacksburg, Va., those studying journalism would be heavily outnumbered bythose studying engineering, biology or technology. The staff list at VirginiaTech’s Collegiate Times student newspaper isn’t so different.
Editor-in-Chief ZachCrizer said only about a quarter of the staff is actually studying journalism,though others intend to pursue journalistic careers through other fields ofstudy. As a result, his staff is made up primarily of students pursuing degreesin English, political science, engineering and biology.
Consequently,reporting the news at Virginia Tech can be challenging for new staff members.Non-traditional journalists, Crizer explained, are taught only the basics;problems are bound to arise.
“It’s hard to tell areporter they screwed up really bad when they don’t have any basis or reason toknow that what they did was wrong,” Crizer said. “We’re asking them to do this,and if they get into some really obscure part of media ethics or media law thatno one really thought they would ever run into, it’s hard to fault them forthings like that.”
It’s to combat thesesorts of situations that Crizer devised a training program for new Collegiate Times staff members. Reporters learn the basics of media law and ethics, thenshadow a more experienced reporter on a story. Only then are they turned looseon their own assignments.
“That (policy) wascompletely in response to being a non-journalism school.” Crizer explained.“Because we have a lot of people who might be interested, but if you just throwthem in the water and see what happens, most of them are going to say, ‘I don’tfeel comfortable doing this. I’m going to go try something else where I don’tpublicly embarrass myself.’”
Despite theseproblems, Crizer said he rarely faces problems that a staff at a more prominentjournalism school wouldn’t face too. At its core, the Collegiate Times is just like any other student newspaper.
The same can’t be saidfor student journalists at MIT. Their main challenge lies in recruitment.
“We will justessentially take what we can get,” Editor-in-Chief Pourian said. “We just haveto convince people that writing for the newspaper is fun, that writing is agood thing and that they should write for us, as opposed to having too manypeople that we need to narrow it down.”
She contrasted theprocess to The Harvard Crimson, whose editors must choose staff members verycarefully since they get so many applicants. The Tech struggles torecruit a staff of 100, though nearly 11,000 students attend MIT.
As MIT does not have ajournalism program, few students plan to pursue the career after graduation. Asa result, potential writers and editors may not be as committed as those at anewspaper made up primarily of journalism students. Even Pourian does not intendto work in the media after college; in fact, she’s double-majoring inneuroscience and music.
“Sometimes you end upwith editors who probably would not be editors at other papers,” she said. “Butsince there’s a lack of people, they’re editors instead.”
Once The Tech finds reliable writers and editors, though, Pourian said the paperfunctions much like a journalism class.
“We joke that we areMIT’s school of journalism,” she said.
From news sense,design and the inverted pyramid to AP style, ethics and editing, MIT’s studentjournalists “start from a blank slate” and must learn everything they know fromone another.
Last year, the rate ofstudent suicide on MIT’s campus was growing, but The Tech had trouble deciding how to present the issue. The editors didn’t want thestory to appear callous, so they ran a letter next to the story from MIT’schancellor, who encouraged students to seek help if thinking of suicide.
“Maybe we would havebeen able to come to that conclusion a little faster or done something a littledifferent,” Pourian said, “had (the editors) been more experienced with howpeople receive media, because none of us really know about that kind of thing.”
The University ofDenver, unlike Virginia Tech and MIT, has a relatively prominent journalismprogram on campus — but its newsroom is not made up primarily of journalistsanymore.
Cory Lamz, editor inchief of DU’s The Clarion, said the staff was largely journalism majorswhen he joined the paper in 2009. Now, however, it’s shifted so non-journalismstudents outnumber those looking to enter the field.
“Having them come inwithout that news sense so finely honed, there’s a lot of learning going onback and forth,” Lamz said. “While the journalism majors tend to be set in theirviewpoint of what’s news, there’s a lot of collaboration as to, ‘This might beinteresting to this set of people,’ or, ‘This might be interesting from aninternational perspective,’ or, ‘Let’s think of some new or different angles.’”
This has proved to behighly beneficial to the stories that inevitably get recycled every year.Instead of handling it just as they did the previous year, a story can take ona whole new face with a diverse staff taking a fresh look.
The Virginia Techstudent newspaper has its own advantage: a staff fluent in the latesttechnologies. Crizer confirmed this by praising the paper’s website. He jokedthe paper has “IT guys bursting out the ears.”
The Collegiate Times website, Crizer explained, works side-by-side with the print productionstaff, meaning the website isn’t just a place to display finished products.
The photography staffis also booming, he said, adding, “Engineers like cameras, I think.”
But Crizer said one ofthe biggest benefits is the diversity of knowledge. If a reporter is havingtrouble with a story on robotics, for instance, someone in the newsroom islikely to be knowledgeable in the subject — meaning a better quality story.
Finally, Crizer saidwith fewer journalism majors, the newsroom at Virginia Tech becomes lessintimidating for new staff members.
“It’s probably a lotgreater than the ones at schools with J-schools because the J-school kidsprobably dominate newsrooms,” he said. “It might be a little more uncomfortablefor outside majors or outside interests to step in. That is maybe a problemthat no one intends to create, but j-schools probably do foster that a littlebit. We don’t have that issue.”
Pourian agreed,explaining that The Tech at MIT is just as much a student group as itis a newspaper. Instead of career prep, staff members join the staff to havefun.
“We really get to getour hands dirty teaching people how to write,” she said. “In that sense, Ithink we’re more of a teaching organization than some papers.”
Like any newsroom, The Tech staff members spend a lot of time with one another; but unlike othernewsrooms, there’s more basic journalistic learning going on.
“Maybe this doesn’tmake us a better newspaper,” Pourian explained, “but certainly as a studentgroup, I think it brings us closer together that we get to build people fromthe ground up and watch them grow. And I think that’s a really rewardingexperience for everybody on staff.”
And maybe that’s whatkeeps papers like The Tech and similar papers reporting the news. Eventhough most of them aren’t planning to score that great newspaper job, thestaff camaraderie may be worth the newsroom stress.
Students don’t have togo it along, however. A range of resources are available to help bothtraditional and non-traditional student journalists thrive.
Frank LoMonte,executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said utilizing a paper’sfaculty adviser can be the most immediate reference in times of uncertainty —but not every news organization has one.
“It’s certainlypossible to have an excellent newspaper without an adviser,” LoMonte said.
Among the schoolsmentioned earlier, only the University of Denver’s newspaper has a facultyadviser that the editor said is directly involved with the paper. Some facultymembers serve as “advisers” in name only, because student organizations arerequired to have a faculty sponsor. Virginia Tech doesn’t have an adviser atall.
“The adviser’s mostimportant role seems to be helping to keep journalistic work on track,” LoMontesaid, “by reminding people what’s been done and tried in the past.”
Because of the highturnover rate in student newsrooms, the adviser is often the one who has beenthere longest, and knows better than anyone what works and what doesn’t.
As helpful as anadviser can be, LoMonte said having an adviser without a journalism background— often the case at schools without journalism programs — could bedetrimental to the paper. An untrained adviser could “do more harm than good,”because they may know as little about journalism as starting staffers at thoseschools, he said.
Aside from relying onan adviser, LoMonte suggested reaching out to other professional journalists.Forming a campus chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, heexplained, opens up a “direct line” to the national organizations, and buildingrelationships with local journalists at nearby papers could flatter them intoacting in an “informal advisory role.”
He also suggestedkeeping a contact list of the paper’s alumni to contact for advice, as well asattending journalism conferences and conventions to network with otherjournalists in similar situations.
Finally, LoMonte saidthere are a variety of free or low-cost resources online for studentjournalists. The Poynter Institute and iTunes University each offer onlinecourses and lectures, and websites for the Journalism Education Association,SPJ and SPLC also offer a range of free information.
By Nick Glunt, SPLC staff writer