Going Pro  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2011

Going Pro   

More and more student-produced journalism is being showcased by professional news outlets. Posted: Thur, March 3, 2011

By Andrew Damstedt
Andrew Damstedt (adamstedt@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     


It wasn't the average college semester of attending classes, completing homework and partying with friends. Instead, student journalists this past year traveled to far-flung locations, combed through federal documents and interviewed experts – looking for a story.

And instead of just having a professor read the final result, the work was disseminated worldwide after it was posted on their projects' Web sites and published by major news organizations, among them the Washington Post, msnbc.com and McClatchy News Service.

Students in the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative tackled the issue of climate change as a national security threat, while students from around the country in the News21 project, based at Arizona State University, looked at national transportation safety issues.

Both projects received widespread attention after the work was highlighted by major news organizations that also directed people to their Web sites: www.global-warning.org and national.news21.com.

"I think student journalists don't often get the respect that working journalists get," says Heather Somerville, who got a master's at Medill. "I think we proved that when you have all the pieces in place, have the right students and have the right topic, you can do innovative stuff."

Somerville says it was gratifying to see her story on glacial melt in the Andes published in the Washington Post in January. She says while she was proud of the team effort in creating a Web site for the project, there "was something to say for having that sort of play in the Washington Post, because you'd be hard-pressed to find a more well-respected and prominent news publication."

When Somerville traveled to the Peruvian Andes this past fall to research glacial melt, she reported and shot her own video, all the while thinking of fresh ways to present her material.

Josh Meyer, director of education and outreach for the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative, says the need to report on national security issues in a more accessible and innovative way was one reason for launching the program in early 2009.

"There's been studies showing that young people, in particular, are tuning out national security news because they see so much of it just coming in little chunks in the traditional, dead-tree version of the newspaper, and we believe there are ways to do it in a more innovative way," says Meyer, a former Los Angeles Times reporter.

Meyer says the students' interaction with the Washington Post and McClatchy News Service came after the stories were completed, comparing the process to "having another layer of editors and copy editors." He adds, "The Post and McClatchy gave us input that allowed us to revise and retool the story."

He says the editors had several specific suggestions and seemed glad to have the articles in an era of dwindling resources. He says they were especially interested in the stories where student journalists were sent to far-flung venues such as the Arctic Circle, Peru or Bangladesh. The initiative was underwritten by the McCormick Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, he says.

Elizabeth Spayd, a Washington Post managing editor, says the paper runs more outside work than in the past, but not a huge amount of it. "In this day of a changing journalistic climate and more limited resources than we and other newsrooms have had in the past, it's smart for us to do and gives us insight into areas that we might not otherwise have," she says.

Frances Stead Sellers, the Post's editor for health, science and the environment, says the Medill pieces from Peru and the Arctic complemented the Post's own environmental coverage and enhanced her readers' experience. "In all these cases, we run pieces that reach our standards," she says.

Ellen Shearer, director of Medill's Washington program, says when Medill students embark on major efforts, such as the first national security project, she and her colleagues look for partners, so students can get the benefit of seeing what it's like to work with major media outlets. She says that also shows students the impact journalists can have.

The amount of student work in professional outlets is increasing as news organizations cope with shrinking staffs. The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism is using student journalists for investigative projects (see "Young Guns" on ajr.org) and the University of California, Berkeley's journalism school launched a nonprofit with KQED Public Media focusing on online coverage of the Bay Area (see "Plugging the Holes," Winter 2009).

Jody Brannon, News21 national director, says its investigative project about transportation safety was picked up by a number of media outlets, including the Washington Post and msnbc.com.

"Last summer was our best year as far as placement; the journalism was strong, but it also coincided with news operations more willing to look at exceptional student work," Brannon says. News21's first pieces were published in 2006, with this past year being the first for a collaborative national project.

The series was researched and reported by 11 fellows from 11 universities across the nation, who came together at News21 headquarters at Arizona State in Phoenix. The students spent the summer examining National Transportation Safety Board documents given to the program by the Center for Public Integrity.

Brannon says News21 is about producing innovative, in-depth and investigative content in new ways with student journalists at the forefront. Besides a national News21 project, eight universities produced their own media packages on various issues around the theme "Reporting on a Changing America." For example, Arizona State students took an in-depth look at Latino issues, while University of Maryland students focused on the Chesapeake Bay's economy and environment. Stories written for those projects were picked up by regional papers, Brannon says.

While each project had multimedia components, a lot of the focus was on reporting and writing because, she says, "text is one kind of format that a lot of media partners are most eager for."

Bill Dedman, an msnbc.com investigative reporter, praised the students' work on the project and said his role merely was acting as a final editor before the selected stories were put up on the site. "This was student work with professional and professor editors, and it struck me as carefully done on a complicated subject," Dedman says. "We were glad to run it."

Wendell Cochran, senior editor of American University's Investigative Reporting Workshop, says his program is different from others in that it teams students with working professionals.

The workshop, which started in 2008, has collaborated with PBS' "Frontline" and has had its work picked up by the Financial Times, msnbc.com and ABC News, according to Cochran. Students have covered issues such as lobbying by German companies to get federal stimulus money and airline maintenance practices.

"I think our best thing is they are not left alone," he says. "They are working with, in the case of 'Frontline,' an experienced producer."

Somerville says she appreciated her experience reporting and collaborating with a professional news organization.

"It's a great résumé builder," she says, "great for getting your name out there and recognition [that] what we're doing is great journalism."

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