She only had a cell phone and a Twitter account, but that’s all Brigitte Snedeker needed to scoop local outlets on breaking news of a shooting at a student apartment complex near the University of Central Florida campus.
Snedeker, the 2015-16 editor-in-chief of KnightNews.com, a digital news organization, arrived on the scene at 2 a.m. and would stay for another three hours to report on the situation.
“I enjoy the thrill of it,” she said.
KnightNews.com aimed to “revolutionize” news at the university, she said, by becoming the first online news source on campus and focusing on breaking news.
Now, KnightNews.com has a Twitter following of more than 14,000 and a staff of about 40 consistent contributing writers. And they’ve done it all without a newsroom. But like any other student media organization, they file reports on breaking news, sports, student government and campus life.
Welcome to the world of alternative student media. In many ways, they act in competition to mainstream student media and often operate solely independent of the university. Like KnightNews.com, some are heavy in news content and provide breaking news to the campus. Other organizations, like The Odyssey Online, grow their influence through opinion-based articles and gain their audience by driving campus conversations on newsworthy topics.
Kelley Callaway, president of the College Media Association, said new alternative publications give students the stories they want to read, instead of the content students need to read, which is often supplied by traditional student media. She said the new alternative press is growing their audience with modern websites and pop-culture articles. And on some level, she said their label as alternative media appeals to students who are looking to reject establishment institutions, such as a traditional campus newspaper.
Meanwhile, some student editors of traditional papers are frustrated at how much attention some of these alternative sites’ clickbait stories and listicles get from college students, while their more substantial and in-depth reporting fails to gain the same attention. Students who write for alternative sites, however, often see traditional student media as stuffy or outdated.
A tricky relationship
Dan Reimold, the late college media blogger, outlined the trend of alternative, digital-based student publications in his 2007 article “‘Ink Stains Are So 20th Century:’ The Resocialization of Student Journalists at Online-Only College Publications.”
In the article, Reimold gave an overview of how student-run online newspapers and magazines revolutionized how news was provided on their campus and redefined what it meant to be a student journalist.
“The subsequent impact such outlets are making on campuses nationwide and beyond is a testament to their embracing of the new but also their ability to provide such innovation with a level of long-term permanence, always with their target audience in mind,” he wrote.
And in 2009, the Student Press Law Center explored how students have increasingly been turning to alternative press to counter perceived bias in mainstream student publications. The story detailed how students who felt they were censored at traditional student media outlets started underground publications to get their message out.
When listicles and open letters or first-person essays start gaining more attention then well-reported news, it can be frustrating for a mainstream student media editor.
Paige Ladisic, the 2015-16 editor-in-chief of the Daily Tar Heel, said several alternative sites have popped up on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and while they’re not necessarily competing with the DTH, it can be frustrating to see their work gain a large audience online and create attention on social media.
“I think they have interesting takes on accuracy,” she said, referring to The Tab.
Founded in 2009, The Tab is a journalism platform that has since grown to dozens of colleges in both the United Kingdom and the U.S. Like The Odyssey, The Tab publishes first-person stories and is marketed toward students as a grassroots, bottom-up content system.
“It is based on the belief that newspapers and TV networks suck so much at reporting on young people that we should now just do it ourselves,” the organization’s website reads.
Matt McDonald, U.S. editor for The Tab, said the site began with the idea that students should be able to report about the world around them, and write about the topics and subjects they know the most about. The site, he said, is a way to offer students the opportunity to report without having to jump through bureaucratic hoops at traditional student newspapers.
Since its beginning at the University of Cambridge, The Tab has gone on to launch at 61 colleges in the U.S. and receives 1.4 million unique visitors in the U.S. a month.
Ladisic said she didn’t start paying attention to The Tab at UNC until the site published a story on a program that would provide free Uber rides to students.
Published with the headline, “UNC introducing free Uber rides for all students,” the article stated that the trial program would be operational by the end of October. Ladisic said the story left readers with the impression the program was certain, but when a DTH reporter contacted sources and looked into the program, she discovered there was no set start date for the program and the program did not have the support implied in The Tab story.
“The Daily Tar Heel came out with the bummer piece,” Ladisic said.
Ladisic, who first heard about The Tab when it tried to recruit the newspaper’s editors, said she wonders why some students put so much confidence in alternative student press while also criticizing a traditional media like the DTH, which celebrated its 123rd birthday earlier this year.
“It is frustrating, because we work very hard to be reliable,” she said, adding that it can be tough for staff members to see their friends reading Tab articles over their own work.
The Tab at UNC also uses Facebook ads to promote their content and gain a large audience, something Ladisic said is a luxury of being part of a large company instead of an independent student newspaper.
McDonald said there is a “disruption” whenever they launch The Tab on a new campus, often because their reporters break stories online before reporters from mainstream media outlets. But unlike traditional media, he said The Tab allows freshmen and sophomores to assume editing positions.
At Central Florida, Snedeker said KnightNews.com has a “friendly compeition,” with the Central Florida Future, the traditional student-run campus paper, which is run by students but owned by Gannett. While she said both organizations are supportive of each other, having another news organization on campus adds a level of competition to the work and motivates staff members to stay on their game.
There is some recruiting competition, she said, between the publications to see which organization can get a hold of the most promising students. Still, she said they maintain a healthy relationship with the Future and in the end, most students and professors realize everybody is there to learn and get better.
Bernard Wilchusky, the 2015-16 editor-in-chief at Central Florida Future, said the two publications have a “cordial relationship,” but seem to attract different kinds of student journalists. He said those with a focus on multimedia are attracted to KnightNews.com while print-oriented students find there way to the Future. Either way, he said having competition pushes all the publications to be better.
“I’m honestly glad that we have (students) working from so many perspectives,” he said.
And alternative press, Callaway said, seem to be filling a void that student newspapers are not reaching. She said many alternative publications have a down-up content model that allows reporters to develop content ideas and write on topics that matter to them — something she said traditional student media could learn from.
Ladisic said it’s no secret that college students often prefer quick, digestible news stories, such as listicles, over long-form news articles. At the DTH, she said that need has influenced the paper to create digital content that is more accessible to readers, while also allowing students who want to write those sorts of stories to still contribute to the paper.
In 2009, University of Indiana students Evan Burns and Adrian France set out to create a site that would the traditional editorial model “upside down” by providing people with a platform to publish a diverse range of opinions and perspectives. They would call it The Odyssey Online.
The Odyssey is now active in 650 local communities and has a presence on dozens of college campuses, large and small, across the country. Last year, an Odyssey story with the headline “Why Girls Love The Dad Bod,” went viral with news outlets like The Washington Post, BuzzFeed and GQ picking up the story.
The site features a variety of content published every day, from listicles like “10 Struggles All Students At Small Universities Understand,” to reporting on sexual assaults on college campuses with headlines like “Hoosier Sexual Assault Victim Tells All.”
“Our vision is that Odyssey will democratize news and content creation, around the world, and personalize content discovery,” a Odyssey spokesperson wrote in an email. “We exist to enable stories, that would otherwise go untold, break through to the surface.”
Devin Baker, the 2015-16 editor-in-chief of The Odyssey Online at Centre College in Kentucky, describes the site as a “writing forum.”
“It’s written by millennials, for millennials,” Baker said, adding that they often publish listicles, opinion articles on the news and articles written on students’ personal experiences. “You are given the opportunity to write about things that you find important.”
They aim to localize content, she said, but at the same time, hope their content can connect with a national audience. By including stories that are based off personal experience, she said the site gives students a platform to express their concerns about about campus life and the institution.
In March, the site published an opinion piece that addressed gender inequality at Centre. In the article, entitled “A Declaration Of Independence From The Patriarchy,” author Emily Rodes drew attention to gender inequalities on campus and highlighted a number of instances where she felt victimized as a woman.
Baker said the article sparked a conversation on campus and even inspired a supportive follow-up column from the college’s student-run newspaper, The Cento. And by putting it on social media, she said the content also has the opportunity to influence people well outside of campus.
Differences in structure
Although they provide students with more autonomy over content, Callaway said the corporate alternative press, like The Tab and the Odyssey, does not provide students with the structure provided in mainstream student media outlets. Student media programs have professional advisers, who teach students the basics of journalism and guide students through problems they might run into, unlike a corporate model that makes student communicate remotely with their bosses.
Student-run newspapers have levels of editors in place, she said, and there is an institution that can back up a reporter if they write about controversial content.
“[Students at alternative publications] are not getting the benefit of that,” she said.
Still, since becoming Odyssey editor-in-chief at Centre, Baker said she has built an online portfolio, grown as a writer and learned how to lead a team of staff members thanks to the help from her Odyssey managing editor, who she communicates with remotely.
“It has kind of shaped what I want to do with my life,” she said.
At an alternative publication, Callaway said it’s often easier to get a editor position, unlike mainstream student media organizations where it can take time to rise in the ranks. In fact, Baker said she had no prior journalism experience, but decided to cold call Odyssey to ask if they were interested in starting a publication at Centre.
Ultimately, Callaway said competition keeps student media on their toes, which can improve their journalism.
“If you’re the only person doing something,” she said, “it’s very easy to rest on your laurels.”