Journalism Students Offer Solutions That Will Help Newspapers Succeed in the Digital Age

  • The Journalism 500 class at Central Michigan University (Photo by Brianna Hughes)

Editor’s Note: In December, we reached out to the department of journalism at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Mich. (Disclaimer: I’m a 2003 graduate) to see if they were interested in having some of their students take on a project that would answer the question, “How can newspapers remain relevant and influential in a multiplatform digital age?” Students in Jim Knight’s Journalism 500 class took on the task during their spring semester, and here, you will find their piece. We hope you find their information not only compelling, but insightful.—NY


“What about Snapchat?”

“Oh, yeah, you have to be there. Add that.”

The 19 of us meet twice a week for our Journalism 500 class at Central Michigan University. The course serves as a capstone for journalism and public relations majors, and we’re split in terms of which career path we plan to pursue in a few months.

Ask us where news outlets need to succeed, and the result is a lively discussion in the plain cinderblock room in Moore Hall.

“Video isn’t for all stories; you have figure out where it makes sense.”

In class, we debate ethics cases in the journalism and public relations worlds, and we explore the current state and direction of both. Some of us work at Central Michigan Life, the student-run newspaper that has produced a long history of reporters, editors and executives. Others work for Grand Central Magazine—an online publication—or are active with the Public Relations Student Society of America.

On this we agree: We believe in journalism, and we are eager to hold public officials and others accountable and shed light into every corner of the community.

Editor & Publisher challenged our class at CMU to come up with creative, forward-thinking solutions for publishers. To inspire our brainstorming, each student wrote an essay on an area of journalism. We reached out to industry leaders, journalism professors and recently graduated peers to understand the struggle of covering the news while building an economic model that will ensure newsrooms can thrive in 2016 and 2026.

So after 40,000 words worth of essays and 90 responses to a 36-question survey of CMU students and recent graduates, we feel slightly wiser and bold enough to offer advice to career journalists. Essay subjects covered the financial (paywalls, micropayments, crowdfunding), platforms (podcasting, video, virtual reality, print, mobile technology, social media) and reporting (ethics, algorithms, social awareness, journalism schools and more.)


Build On Our Enthusiasm

Our parents wonder about our decision to major in journalism. So do our friends. We worry what types of jobs we’ll land after graduation.

Still, when we wrote primary ideals news outlets need on sticky notes during a brainstorming session, the yellow messages on the wall were clear and concise: “Talk openly about ethical concerns.” “Strong ethics.” “Collaboration.” “Authentic.” “Stories about people.” “Clearly defined audience and mission.” “Objectivity and accuracy.” It turns out we are as idealistic as the generation of journalists inspired by Woodward and Bernstein.

We want to cover hard news and be part of organizations that dig deep on important issues and find ways to spotlight important events and people in our communities. We want to be edited by veteran journalists, and we want feedback on how we can improve.

Include the newsroom veterans and newcomers when developing strategy regarding engaging readers to the point they make your products a part of their everyday life, even if it costs them a subscription fee.


Ethics Matter

Even with the need for speed in a 24/7, digitally driven world, the best news sites are transparent and accountable for articles they produce. Age-old conversations about how and when to use anonymous sources and not relying on one-source articles are more relevant than ever, with readers questioning every story in the comments section.

Conversations about ethics need to extend outside of the newsroom and reach readers so they have an opportunity to understand what the news organization stands for and why it is different from sites that traffic quick opinions not always based on quality reporting.

Our admittedly unscientific survey of CMU students and recent graduates did show some strong feelings, particularly regarding ethics and journalism. Some key questions:

Do you believe objectivity should be a goal of news sources? Seventy-one (80 percent) of the 88 respondents said “Yes.”

Do you think journalists should be professionally trained? Seventy-five (86 percent) said “Yes.”

Do you think ethics are important in media? Seventy-six (86 percent) said “Yes,” 12 responded “Sometimes” and zero responded “No.” This question included 25 comments, such as, “Ethics are key. Journalism is threatened by mistrust and damaged credibility,” “Things need to be reported to the full and honest truth,” and, “I feel like it’s obvious.”

The consumers of news have high expectations. The more we can bring readers inside— show how the news is gathered and why—the more comfortable and trusting they will be with the newsgatherers.


Understand the Social Awareness of Our Generation

As newsrooms evolve and find long-term financial solutions, publishers need to ensure staffs are diverse and reflect their communities. This is an ongoing topic in our class, on our campus and across the nation. “How people are viewed is how they are treated,” class member Justin Toliver quoted a political science professor in his essay.

As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote in March in a piece about why the media failed to take Donald Trump seriously soon enough: “We inhabit a middle-class world and don’t adequately cover the part of America that is struggling and seething. We spend too much time talking to senators, not enough to the jobless.”

“This is currently playing out in our country with people who identify with the Muslim religion,” Toliver said. “We see people who have a platform through media instilling fear of Muslim people. Then people typically have no positive images or representation of Muslim people to reflect on and dismantle the negative messages.”


Go Beyond Analytics

It makes sense for reporters and editors to use data and algorithms to find and predict what content will best secure a loyal audience. But we, as a group, also want to identify and report the most important stories, even when they are not the most popular. Analytics should not be the sole decision-maker of what news should be covered and presented to readers. For instance, the water crisis in Flint, Mich. was not a national conversation at the start, but MLive/Flint Journal covered the issue consistently, long before it was a trending story.

We want to work for organizations that serve as the credible source in the community. In his essay, class member Dominick Mastrangelo quoted Detroit News reporter Chad Livengood: “Anybody can observe a fire and take photos of it and put it on Twitter and Facebook. They become a news source. I just carry the cache of a news organization with excellent journalism behind me. Anybody else can take video of a news event and be the gatekeeper of that information.”

We have one overriding, frequently discussed fear in our class—that we’ll end up writing click-bait headlines (“You won’t believe what happens next …”) and articles that draw an audience, but don’t leave the reader any more informed about their community or their lives.


Mobile is Only Going to Grow

The numbers show digital growth is real, and every storytelling platform must work well on mobile devices. To succeed on mobile, a news outlet’s site has to be the best in its market to succeed. “People are going to take the path of least resistance,” a cellular service expert told class member Kirstie Mason. “Whether that path be to their news, entertainment news or what’s going on with their friend on Facebook—regardless of the topic or media or whatever service it is—it’s in their pocket.”


So is Video

Video works well on every mobile platform, and the best will be shared on social media. In our survey, 61 of the 89 responders (74 percent) said they get more than half or all of their news from videos. Compelling videos lead to engagement on social media platforms, particularly on Facebook.


Virtual Reality and 360 Video May Be Worth the Expense

These new storytelling platforms work with the right subject—such as USA Today’s Blue Angels experience in virtual reality. “I think VR could draw a new audience, especially younger viewers who are interested in a more immersive experience,” Des Moines Register executive editor Amalie Nash told class member Kelley Zimmerman. “VR drives up the engagement time because people spend more time with it rather than the traditional story forms or video.”


We’ll Podcast For You, Too

MLive regularly produces a 30- to 60-minute “The Wolverine Beat” podcast for fans of University of Michigan athletics, and it draws a strong audience of 18- to 34-year-olds. “We can put out an hour-long podcast and thousands and thousands and thousands of people will listen to it without a problem,” MLive’s Brendan Quinn told class member Jennifer Weingart. “It would be very unlikely for me to write a 15,000-word story and expect people to spend an hour with it.”


Work with University Journalism Programs

The conversations publishers are having are often similar to what we hear from faculty members in regards to how university journalism programs need to evolve to keep up with the demands of the modern newsroom. The best programs—and we believe we have a strong tradition of excellence at CMU—work with professional newsroom leaders to put students on a path to success as multi-platform reporters who carry the traditional values of accuracy and storytelling.


We’re OK with Robot Journalism—to a Point

Natural language generation programs can crank out data-driven articles such as earnings reports and basic sports game stories. We’d like to believe the time savings from robot journalism will allow reporters to work on more in-depth coverage and analysis.


We Like the Printed Product, Honest

Our survey of CMU students and recent graduates showed a desire for news (79 percent of 89 responders consume news daily or multiple times a day) and a traditional print product (30 percent say they get their news from print). And a national survey from the American Press Institute’s Media Insight Project also showed millennials are willing to pay more for the print magazines and newspapers. But our generation reads the breaking news online, so we are looking for more in-depth reporting. “Readers of simple, dumbed-down news are worth less,” MLive vice president of content John Hiner told class member Jake Bush. “Longform is more credible. Doing better work attracts more educated readers and demographics for the better sell. It’s not the same return as Powerball stories. Good readers are the hope to getting good demographics of readers.”


Don’t Give Up on Paywalls

When our class was asked if we pay for online media, such as Netflix, nearly everybody raised their hand. Some of us subscribe to the New York Times. Train us to love—and need— your site, and we’ll pay for it. “The content has to be so interesting to the consumer that they are willing to pay for it and the community so important that they wish to remain a part of it,” class member Victoria Saylor wrote.


Sure, We’ll Work for a Nonprofit News Outlet

This business model may not work in every market, but seeing ProPublica’s number of donors rise from 100 to 3,400 in six years is interesting, as is its 2015 revenue of nearly $13 million, class member Lisa Levandoski reported. Other sites run much leaner, but are focused on meaningful journalism for their audiences. A Pew Research Center survey of 93 nonprofit news operations found 71 percent had no more than five paid, full-time staff members. Those numbers show the nonprofit model may work best for publications focusing on journalism niches, Levandoski said.


Facebook—and the Rest of Social Media—Are Only Going to Grow Stronger

“Everything has to be shareable; we are the shareable generation,” Society of Professional Journalists digital media expert Alex Veeneman told class member Elizabeth Benson. Instant Articles on Facebook have not been around long, but there is no avoiding them now.

Our in-class discussions, our campus survey, the Media Insight Project and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg agree: Millennials find news by what their friends share on social media. “All I see on my feed now are shared links to articles,” class member Dylan Anderson said.

For much of the last decade, every editor and publisher in the daily news industry has searched for the best answers to build a profitable news organization with enough staff to cover the events and people of its community. The main social media platforms—including Snapchat—are more and more news media friendly. National Geographic and the Wall Street Journal are on Snapchat. Are you?

Are there any new answers here? Doubtful, we know. We are encouraged by our research, however, that showed us our peers value quality news gathering and new models, such as the nonprofit publications, that offer another way to look at how watchdog journalism can continue in communities large and small.

We want to be considered leaders a decade from now who were part of the solution. It doesn’t matter if we are reporting for print, the Web, podcasts or another platform. Put us to work.

Meet the Students

How much video training should journalism students have? How many social media platforms should they master? How much of an advantage do students who are familiar with podcasting have when it comes time to apply for a job?

The journalism faculty at Central Michigan University are proud of the program they shepherd, one of just two accredited university journalism programs in the state. Regular faculty meetings have several agenda items, but ultimately the focus is on maintaining a quality program that continues to produce students who go on to fulfilling careers in journalism, public relations and advertising.

Journalism 500, “Current Issues in Mass Communications,” is the capstone course for journalism and public relations majors. The request from Editor & Publisher to examine the future of journalism served as a focus for a large portion of the spring semester, and the 19 students explored some of the same types of questions faculty ask each other.

The partial answer: More than ever, news platforms will continue to evolve. But more than ever, the building blocks of a good journalist start with accuracy, news gathering and storytelling skills.

“It does you no good to be great at social media if you have no news judgment or writing skills,” Amalie Nash, editor and vice president for news and engagement at the Des Moines Register told Kelley Zimmerman for her essay on virtual reality.

Zimmerman also spoke to Detroit Free Press Assistant metro editor Steve Pepple about the many responsibilities digital reporters are challenged to carry. “It’s a lot to juggle, but those who can do it will be in demand,” Pepple said.

The Journalism 500 class: Dylan Anderson, Elizabeth Benson, Jake Bush, Kate Carlson, Wenjie Chen, Shelby Cox, Austin Denean, Nicholas Green, Ebby Harris, Joe Judd, Lisa Levandoski, Kirstie Mason, Dominick Mastrangelo, Edison Miller, Victoria Saylor, Justin Toliver, Jennifer Weingart, Amanda Woodbury, Kelley Zimmerman. Instructor: Jim Knight.

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2 thoughts on “Journalism Students Offer Solutions That Will Help Newspapers Succeed in the Digital Age

  • May 9, 2016 at 5:40 am

    Great article. Relevant in so many ways and extremely encouraging. I love students and the way they think. This group really went after it. Way to go!

  • May 17, 2016 at 11:36 am

    The only thing that I think they are overlooking is a period of mass consolidation. We are still at this beginning of this period (perhaps marked by the NY Times buying The Boston Globe years ago), but certainly, family newspapers getting bought by corporations, who are now merging will be a game changer in all newspaper operations. (like this: )


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