Industry Insight

Why News Orgs Should Be Collaborating with Student Journalists

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If I were running a college journalism program right now, I’d be losing sleep over some pretty basic questions. Are there far more students pursuing journalism than there will be jobs available in the field? And how will journalism students gain real-world experience as part of their education as both unpaid internships (because they’re bad) and paid internships (because there’s not enough money) disappear?

Running a newsroom, I worry about not having a strong enough pipeline of future journalism talent, and not playing a role in how our future employees are trained. Is the “teaching hospital” approach to journalism education threatened by the newspaper industry’s tumult?

But then there are the numerous examples of college (and even high school) programs putting theory into practice through student media outlets and projects that are actually filling gaps in local news coverage and scooping traditional media outlets.

Student media is so important in college towns such as Ann Arbor, Mich., Columbia, Mo., and Phoenix that any analysis of the country’s “news desert” problem and potential solutions would be incomplete without considering such outlets.

Their strength should show traditional news organizations that collaboration with students (and educators) can lead to improvement and expansion of their own journalism. It’s not a luxury or some kind of charitable pursuit.

It could be a tough case to make at budget time, but when direct staff reporting resources in the newsroom have shrunk, why wouldn’t we invest in programs that leverage a network of outside contributions to local journalism?

A good start would be taking student journalism more seriously. When students at Arizona State beat the entire Washington press corps on news that a diplomat at the center of Trump administration foreign policy controversy was stepping down, they were widely credited and celebrated. If the college paper scoops you, link to them, amplify their work, send them some audience, encourage more.

What if news organizations worked with college journalism programs that require a senior year capstone enterprise or investigative reporting project, agreeing to publish them, and working intermittently with students to provide guidance and editing? The standard for a passing grade could include the news organization feeling that it’s worthy and ready to be published.

Working out a formal relationship with student media outlets in which you have permission to reprint the best of their work is another option.

Enlisting the best student journalists in your world as paid freelancers or stringers could give a news organization and them a paid internship-like experience in lieu of a more formal program.

In Michigan, local independent online news site East Lansing Info has enlisted a “local news militia” –citizens of all ages—who cover public meetings and other issues. This includes local high school and Michigan State University students who receive training from the organization’s editors and are paid for their work.

In Chicago, the local news site City Bureau pays residents to attend, take notes, and/or record city and neighborhood government meetings. Paying students to do some of the “feet on the street” work, and pairing them with a professional journalist for the final product, would be an interesting model.

Journalism professors who want to teach their students about the Freedom of Information Act and original sourcing are sitting on what could be a “shoe leather army.” How about partnering with a news organization to have students test noise levels at local party spots, file Freedom of Information Act requests with every police department in the state, track down every former client of a business that has been accused of defrauding people?

In Pelham, N.Y., longtime journalist Rich Zahradnik serves as an advisor to the Pelham Examiner, an online local news site owned by students.

Student media outlets struggle with funding and business models, too. In some cases, it would make sense for traditional news organizations to more fully partner with college programs by taking over their web hosting, printing or advertising sales.

The one thing that should be clear: News organizations with zero connection with or investment in student journalism leave are missing opportunities to bolster the journalism they’re doing now and failing to invest in the journalism that they’ll be seeing in the future.

Matt DeRienzo has worked in journalism as a reporter, editor, publisher, corporate director of news for 25 years, including most recently as vice president of news and digital content at Hearst's Connecticut newspapers, and previously serving as the first full-time executive director of LION Publishers, a national nonprofit that supports the publishers of local independent online news organizations.

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