College papers capitalize on Chick-fil-A spectacle

By Wednesday afternoon, I was so sick of hearing about Chick-fil-A. I was tired about hearing how the CEO made public claims (via social media) about the company’s already well-known stance on homosexuality. I was tired of hearing people rooting for the company. Tired of hearing people bash the company. Just… TIRED.

Media fatigue.

But, as much as I believe this whole charade was nothing more than a PR stunt to increase publicity, I have to give credit to the college newspapers that took this ridiculousness and localized it.

My former paper covered the issue, as well as the Daily Egyptian, SIU Carbondale’s student newspaper. I didn’t look into any other papers, but I don’t doubt that others are doing similar stories as well.

Examples like this show just how easy it is to take national stories and bring them down to the college level. Granted, both campuses have a Chick-fil-A on campus, but my point still stands.

More often than not, there is always a connection between a university an a national issue. And the coverage doesn’t just have to come across through the news section. When the Egyptian uprising was occurring, the Alestle had two international students write guest opinion columns on the issue (here and here).

It’s good to see college journalists going outside of campus and bringing stories back in, rather than waiting for events and controversies to pop up on site.

BREAKING NEWS: College doesn’t prepare you for the real world

I thought I learned everything I needed to know to land a good first job and start my journalism career off right. I did get a good first job. And I am doing quite a bit of work at my first “big kid” job. But I wasn’t prepared for what I was going to see, not necessarily in my newsroom, but the real world journalism industry as a whole.

The industry drives people away. It turns good journalists into burned out shells of their former selves. And it does so faster than I’d like admit.

It’s sad. There are at least two people I know who are turning away from journalism for that reason. Both of them are looking to get into public relations.

Journalism isn’t what they thought it’d be. It’s not what I thought it would be either. I had these ridiculous fantasies of ethics being commonplace in newsrooms across the country, people working together to make their product the best it can be and everybody loving what they do.

I can see that that’s not true in all cases. And college doesn’t tell you that. The best (or worst) advice anyone ever gets is, “Don’t go into journalism. It’s a dying industry.” The theory is that it’s dying because everything is shifting to a more online/digital focus. But I beg to differ.

I would propose the reason the industry is dying is because the good, ethical, passionate journalists get turned away by the depressing realization that people don’t hold themselves to high enough standards like we all did in college.

It was ingrained in my mind by former editors, fellow editors and professors alike that ethics, honesty and accurate reporting are the most important things. They are. I still believe that. But outside of the collegiate bubble, some people don’t see it that way. Or, if they do, they don’t realize that those qualities have been slowly slipping away.

If not for meeting the group of journalists who attended the SPJ Reporters Institute in July, I fear I might have already started to run away. But I love this business too much. All it takes is one person to try and make a change and pop the collegiate bubble so the  “real world” can get a taste of what it’s been missing out on.

I don’t think I’m that person. I’m probably not. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try and be that person. I have to. Otherwise, I might end up out of the industry like so many other talented journalists.

Press releases are NOT journalism

Press releases should GENERATE story IDEAS. They should not be stories themselves. Or even part of a story.

That’s why it surprised me that a poll on a recent Poynter. story about a Kansas City Star reporter being fired for using press releases in his columns had more than 50 percent of (presumably) journalists saying it’s okay to use press releases as long as they’re attributed (as of July 5).

Um… WHAT?

Running press releases is my least favorite part about journalism. Why? Because it’s NOT. JOURNALISM. Running press releases lets someone else — who was not properly trained in the journalism industry — fill precious space that, in most cases, could be filled with original, better work from staff reporters, freelancers, editors, etc.

Though readers don’t see it, it makes the paper look lazy (which, by the way, was my vote on the Poynter. poll). Printing press releases as if they are original news deceives (perhaps, unintentionally) the reader into believing they are getting quality, original news when, in fact, a dozen other media outlets in the area could be running the same story. Word for word.

Plus, what good does it do for a newspaper or website to have large portions of its space/webpage devoted to information that can be found anywhere?

I come from a strict no-press release background. I just wish the rest of the real world held to that policy as much as my college paper and its adviser did.

Ethics Shouldn’t Disappear After Graduation

When I first started writing for newspapers (including my high school paper), I would constantly worry about quoting people wrong, having facts wrong or doing something unethical. I put thought into every story. Read each story to make sure I gave both (read: all) sides of an issue equal time. But somewhere along the way, it seems that worrying process disappears.

Not for me specifically, but just in general. Stories I hear from fellow journalists and things I see in various newspapers are kind of disheartening.

The number of stories printed or posted online with one source just to be the first one with the news is sad. What happened to real, in-depth reporting? What looks better to the readers, a brief with one source or an in-depth story with multiple interviews that give a good overview of the entire issue? I know that some stories can’t be much more than a brief. Those aren’t what I’m taking issue with. It’s the bigger stories, the real news gathering, that gets slighted so one newspaper can beat the other.

Editing photos to please individual readers is also absurd. If I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times — Don’t crop photos. Don’t flip photos. Don’t alter photos to change the message they portray. DON’T. DON’T. DON’T. Then when I hear through the grapevine that some editors request items to be photoshopped out of photos because it would embarrass the person in the photograph, I am stuck in a state of disbelief. If you’re embarrassed by something, don’t submit a photo to a media outlet, simple as that. An editorial staff shouldn’t be forced to make unethical decisions for fear of backlash from a community member.

The amount of press releases passed off as legit news items also stuns me. We had a very strict ‘no press release’ rule at my college paper, and I followed that rule like it was a religion. Sure, we used press releases as story ideas quite a bit, but to run a press release just about word-for-word never even crossed my mind. We were the content makers, the ones getting the news out to the campus, not someone who, most of the time, can’t even use AP Style correctly. The immediacy of the internet has pushed public relations to the forefront of the news business, allowing journalists to slack off and editors to essentially give away free advertising when it could use the space for original content.

I have also heard of newspapers that refuse to run corrections. When I was EIC in college, I erred on the side of caution and probably ran more corrections or clarifications than the last few editors in chief. It wasn’t my favorite thing to do, but I wanted to be upfront with our readers, and if we made a mistake, I wanted people to know we are aware and regretful of said mistake. Not running corrections or clarifications, to me, shows blatant disrespect to the readers. If you’re not willing to own up to your mistakes, why should readers trust anything you report in the first place? Granted, if citizens don’t read other publications covering the same issues, they would never know. But even so, that could be just as bad. Probably worse.

As much as I love this industry, there are just some stains on it that don’t seem to want to wash out. But, I will do my best to bring the most accurate, precise and engaging content to the forefront of any publication I write for — and I have no doubt that former (and current) Alestle staff members and former high school journalism friends will do the same.

Four Things They Don’t Teach You in J-School

A friend’s recent status update brought to mind some of the things we have to deal with in the real world of journalism that aren’t always in the textbooks we fork over our hard-earned money for while in school. I’ve decided to compile a few of those tidbits on this here blog.

1. How to use your phone voice.

Everybody has one, even if they don’t realize it. The second you pick up the phone, your voice changes. You have to learn how to use that to your advantage. It’s not really something that can be taught. Like Nike, you just… do it. When you’re working on a feature story, your voice should be calm and happy-like. When you’re working on a hard news story, trying to force answers from an official who doesn’t want to tell you anything, you need to be more assertive, a teeny bit aggressive. And adding just a bit of hesitance to your voice, like you don’t want to ask the question, but you know you have to, that’s the key. Realizing when you shift from one voice to the next will be important because once you become aware of the changes, you can master them.

2. The art of leaving a voicemail.

Voicemail No. 1:  “Hi, my name is [insert first and last name]. I’m a [reporter/editor/photographer] with [insert news organization]. I’m working on a story about [insert story assignment], and I was hoping to ask you a few questions. I can be reached at [phone number], and my deadline for the story is [insert deadline]. Thanks so much, bye.”

Voicemail No. 2: “Hi, this is [insert first and last name] with [insert news organization]. I  just wanted to follow up with you about the story I’m working on about [insert story assignment]. I’d like to ask you a few questions. I can be reached at [phone number], and my deadline is [insert deadline]. Thanks, bye.”

Voicemail No. 3: “Hi, this is [insert first name] with [insert news organization, abbreviated, if applicable] calling again. I’d really like to ask you a few questions about [insert assignment/interview topic] for the story I’m working on. My deadline is [insert deadline]. If you could get back to me as soon as possible, I’d greatly appreciate it. Thanks.”

Voicemail No. 4: “Hi, this is [insert first name] with [insert news organization, abbreviated, if applicable]. I’d really like to talk to you about [insert story assignment/interview topic]. If you could please contact me as soon as possible, I’d really appreciate. My deadline is [insert deadline]. Thanks.”

Any questions? Nope. Okay. Moving on.

3. How to answer the question, “Will you charge for this article?”

“Well, um. There’s no charge for news, but if you’d like to run an ad, I can put you in touch with the advertising department.”

4. How to respond to people who sent you a press release and called to follow up (this specifically applies if you’re an editor in chief or managing editor).

“Yes, I did that email. I can’t guarantee coverage, but I’ll make sure to pass the information along to the appropriate editor, and if it’s something they’re interested in covering, either a reporter or the editor will be in touch.”

If you have anything else, add it in the comments!

Five Pieces of Advice For High School Journos

I had a million questions and concerns when I wrote my very first news story. And it wasn’t even for my high school paper. It was just a practice assignment.

How was I supposed to format the story? Which font should I use? What size should the font be? How do I know which quotes to use? How do I do this? What do I need to fix? And so on and so on.

So, this post is dedicated to a list of things I wish someone would have told me when I first started writing for my high school paper. And this also acts a suggestion to high school newspaper advisers to have a college journalist visit sometime early in the year, before all the “real” work starts, to put young, stressed out minds at ease (or, possibly, stress them out even more) about what they are getting into.

1. Avoid email interviews like the plague.

In high school, I relied on email interviews far too often, and I can guarantee that my stories suffered because of it. And most of those interviews were with students or teachers. It’s really not that hard to walk down the hall or down a flight of stairs to meet with a teacher in person. You’re going to get better quotes, be able to read body language and you can ask follow up questions on the spot, instead of waiting to hear back via email. Plus, email gives the interviewee way too much time to think about their responses.

2. Establish a beat system.

One of our biggest issues (no pun intended) at my high school paper was coming up with story ideas. We didn’t have press releases bombarding our inboxes as starting points. Every idea in the paper was staff generated. If we would have had a beat system set up for more than sports, there is no doubt in my mind that we would not have had a shortage of story ideas. Some ideas for beats could be athletics, counseling, library services, PTA, school board, band, choir, English department, social studies department, etc. The possibilities are endless. Is there a new class being taught next year? Is the school year being extended next year? How many awards did the band win at its last competition? These are things that you can find out ahead of time, rather than through word of mouth, to make your publication as current as possible.

3. Get added to the school district’s media list

School districts absolutely love to send out press releases about every, little (and big) accomplishment. Granted, not every press release will relate to your high school, but that doesn’t mean they don’t matter. Create an email for the newspaper that the adviser and editor in chief have access to. Talk to the school’s communications department about being added to its media list. If nothing else, this could start a “district news” column, similar to a news briefs section, but it’s strictly about the school district.

4. Cover school board meetings

I won’t rant about this one again, but head over my previous post if you haven’t done so!

5. Stay in touch with upperclassmen after they graduate

Upperclassmen have a wealth of knowledge about the goings on of the newspapers, at the high school level just as much as at the college level. And 99 percent of the time, they won’t have a problem with an email or a phone call about how to do one thing or another. Plus, keeping that professional relationship alive can help with selling subscriptions, increasing readership and potential recommendations down the line. Just to prove a point, I can honestly say I’ve been out of high school since 2009, and I have subscribed to my high school paper every year since. And I’ll continue to do so for the foreseeable future, even though by the next school year, I won’t know a single person on staff.