It’s just beyond the half-way point in the second year of the Poynter College Media Project. Our mid-year review shows that the nine student media operations selected from more than 60 applicants to receive intensive training, support and $3,000 to support community-focused campus reporting projects illustrate the power — and challenges — of taking on projects that tackle deep and divisive topics in a nonstop news world.
During our in-person training sessions last fall, staff at The Daily Utah Chronicle (University of Utah) acknowledged the importance of a campus issue they often discussed — an issue of culture and philosophy that looms large over daily life in Utah — yet rarely addressed openly in stories. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They talked and even joked about it among themselves, but their stories rarely tackled the impact of state’s dominant religion on controversial campus issues. Many of the story topics that inspired them in our discussions about the need for civil discourse — from Title IX policies to protests on campus — led back to conversations about Mormonism and its influence on campus. Their resulting project, “Are ‘U’ Mormon?,” reflects their decision to explore the many facets of Mormonism and its practice on campus.
In contrast, in Texas A&M’s The Battalion’s newsroom, editors eagerly focused on their own culturally significant taboo topic: the Corps of Cadets. The military group, which comprised the entire student body until the 1960s, still looms large in the school’s identity and traditions even though it now includes only a small percentage of students, Rumors of hazing and a lack of transparency fueled their CMP application and their project ambitions. Their resulting project, Corps Values, reflects a multi-pronged strategy to put the Corps — its past, present and future — into greater context.
Both schools represent an exciting shift in thinking about the role of journalism and the job of journalists.
Instead of shying away from everyday complexities, the kind of topics that feed deep-rooted divides and festering misunderstandings, the student journalists embraced them. Instead of focusing on a single point-of-view or dramatic event, they committed to deeper, sometimes uncomfortable research that made them question their own baggage, beliefs and biases. In the end, both projects — like the work happening as part of the CMP in the seven other schools — require intentional efforts to build trust with communities across conflict and difference while holding the powerful accountable.
But challenges also abound, and through them students are learning how to work through their frustrations and practice both persistence and flexibility. We can’t imagine any more appropriate training for their post-collegiate journalism careers.
Insights we’ve gained along the way include:
· Staff changes, a natural part of college media life, don’t have to be project killers, but they do require project adjustments. When editors’ class and work schedules required a shift in project responsibilities at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUe), the new top editors had to reassign responsibilities for some of their daily operations and their project focused on increasing understanding across their campus, “What I Wish You Knew.”
· Project pivots can expand project potential. At North Carolina A&T, leaders of The Black Narrative project at The A&T Register have started working in collaboration with the very local journalism outlets they targeted for investigation for biased coverage of campus.
· Embrace big news days, and share the lessons and exposure they provide. The death of George H. W. Bush on Nov. 30, 2018, was major news at Texas A&M, home to his Presidential Library. The Battalion went all in, with extensive coverage, and gained opportunities to work alongside journalists from around the world, bringing their experiences back to campus and their project, Corps Values.
· Group webinars provide common ground for conversations. So far, CMP-hosted webinars have enrolled more than 100 participants, with all nine schools well represented. The first webinar focused on civil discourse strategies, and participants shared ways they are building trust with their communities. During the second webinar, which offered social media tips, the digital natives connected with one another’s social channels and traded both project-specific as well as general advice. The third webinar featured ProPublica’s Alexandra Zayas, who highlighted best practices and tips of investigative reporting tips. A fourth bonus webinar offered web design advice from the innovators at Setka.
· Sharing weekly stories, as participating schools do on group CMP Slack channels, allows them to highlight common issues and share strategies beyond their specific projects. With three campuses reporting about targeted, offensive graffiti — St. John’s University in Queens, SIUe and Bowdoin — and others reporting on proposed changes to Title IX, student journalists can learn from each other’s approaches and sourcing as they offer one another feedback.
As these student journalists continue their daily news pursuits, they are also figuring out ways to make progress on their ambitious projects. Along the way, they are building connections and support networks that not only enrich their CMP work, but also help expand the way they think about practicing journalism and creating community.
Poynter’s College Media Project is tuition-free, thanks to support from the Charles Koch Foundation.