When The Technician started planning its 2012 election coverage, editors at the North Carolina State University student paper wanted to make sure they gave readers balanced coverage of both campaigns.
Coverage of the Democratic convention a few hours away in Charlotte, N.C., would be easy; more difficult was the Republicans’ in Tampa. Down in Florida, student editors faced the same problem but in reverse.
In the end, The Technician partnered with student newspapers at the University of Tampa and the University of South Florida in order to produce coverage of both the Democratic and Republican conventions.
“I knew that a lot of student publications are criticized for being too liberal, so I made sure that we were covering the RNC,” said Mark Herring, The Technician’s editor-in-chief. “I did it not just to show, ‘hey we’re not taking the convenient route,’ with the coverage in the DNC, but I wanted to make sure we were covering the entire thing to inform our readers.”
The three papers’ agreement is just one of many one-time partnerships being forged between student and professional media aimed at adding value for readers in a time of cutbacks to staff and reporting budgets.
More broadly, the partnerships seek to keep and grow stagnating readership figures, one of the top challenges indicated by student newspaper executives nationwide.
The types of partnerships vary from projects led by professors in a class to journalism programs built around sharing content with professional outlets.
Many of the arrangements between professional outlets and students come from a recognition of the superior access college journalists have in terms of reporting on issues of concerns to their peers, said Dan Reimold, who blogs about college media and advises The Minaret at the University of Tampa.
“I do think the hierarchy still exists of professional first, student second, but there seems to be a realization that in some cases the student paper may have more access to the sources that are breaking the news,” Reimold said.
Before the convention, USA Today College and Yahoo! Voices both offered Minaret reporters the opportunity to freelance. The student freelancers used their perspective as college students to their advantage, he said.
“That’s what we decided to focus on from the beginning,” Reimold said. “The two things we could provide were trying to be the eyes and ears of the students, and also giving some sort of local perspective just in the sense of knowing Tampa like the back our hand.”
Local perspective was important to Herring too, who in addition to partnering with the Florida papers also reached out to college publications in other swing states.
“I wanted to get our readers to see what’s going on where these guys are duking it out,” Herring said. “At that point in the campaign North Carolina was still kind of a toss-up, so I wanted to see how they were appealing to other swing states.”
By the end of the election, The Technician had published stories from eight different college newspapers.
“I think our biggest challenge was trying to find a way how we can get college students to read this, and how we can get them out and going to the polls,” Herring said. “The biggest part was showing them how they had a stake in this.”
Chris Poore, who advises The Kentucky Kernel, said partnerships have long existed — like agreements between sports sections to obtain photographs from away games — but that both student and professional media are approaching partnerships with new interest because of tightening budgets.
“I think financially independent student newspapers … are willing to consider more because times are tighter or money’s tighter,” he said. “It’s the same with the professional newspapers. They’re reaching out to college newspapers for the same reasons — they would like to increase audience but don’t necessarily have the manpower to do it these days.”
Staff cutbacks helped prompt the formation of one of the more closely watched partnerships, where at Mercer University students have begun working alongside professional print and broadcast reporters to cover Macon, Georgia.
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation awarded the school a $4.6 million grant after editors at The Telegraph and Georgia Public Broadcasting expressed interest in working with Mercer in order to bring their newsrooms into the digital age, said Beverly Blake, the Macon program director for the Knight Foundation.
The program, which launched in August, operates through what is called the “medical school model,” Blake said. Students learn the basics in the classroom and then get to practice their skills working side-by-side with veteran journalists.
There’s an educational value to students who have the opportunity to partner with professionals, but Reimold cautioned that it might not lead to future employment. Still, he thinks opportunities for student journalists will keep growing.
“I think it’s fascinating for its irony because students have never had more of an opportunity to build a more impressive resume, but I’m just not sure it will mean anything at all,” Reimold said. “For now I don’t see a direct correlation other than the sheer joy of doing great journalism and getting your work out their for readers.”
There are also potential legal risks to students working in these types of partnerships between schools and professional media, said Frank LoMonte, the Student Press Law Center’s executive director.
It’s unclear whether students are covered by shield laws in these roles, which protect journalists from being compelled to testify or disclose sources and information in court, he said. Almost all states have some type of shield law, but the degree of protection becomes murky depending on the amount a journalist is paid.
Because students in these types of partnerships typically work in exchange for credit, not pay, “it’s not at all clear that a student who’s working at some kind of partner arrangement is going to have the benefit of the privilege,” LoMonte said.
“We’ve got to get really ironclad First Amendment protection for students that are doing journalism in their off-campus time for off-campus news outlets,” he said.
For his part, Herring said the relationships he built through the partnerships The Technician pursued were more important than any content the paper received.
“It’s just been energizing just seeing how supportive everyone is in the journalism community,” he said. “When I started it’s like, ‘oh man we’re all competing against each other,’ and that’s true to a certain degree, but in the end everyone’s trying to do the same job, trying to help each other out.”
By Samantha Raphelson, SPLC staff writer.