From Caitlin Ostroff: We need to find a new funding model for student news

Name: Caitlin Ostroff

College publication: The Independent Florida Alligator

Where I am now: Reporter at The Wall Street Journal

 It’s hard to think it’s been three years since I graduated from the University of Florida; three years since I set foot in the somewhat-affectionately deemed “closet” we rented as The Alligator’s newsroom within the Gainesville Sun building. So much has changed since then and so much hasn’t.

The Alligator is still doing important coverage of UF and the Gainesville community, uncovering data on the breadth of the health crisis and telling the stories of those lost, but it’s doing so remotely. Businesses have pulled ads because the mom and pop shops I used to frequent for coffee and burritos have struggled. The paper is relying on digital content more than ever, having further curtailed printing to once a week.

The pandemic has exacerbated what Melissa Gomez, Jimena Tavel and I feared when we started Save Student Newsrooms in 2018.

In many cases, students are the only ones covering their campuses and even communities as swaths of reporting jobs have been wiped away. They’re the ones going to university administration meetings to find out how student (and parent) money is being spent. They’re launching investigations into university policies and handling of everything from sexual assault on campus to the wages offered to student workers.

But without proper funding and support, many will have to re-affiliate with their universities. This could mean university oversight and halts or reviews of those important stories.

Even outside the threat of censorship, half the fun of being at The Alligator was our ability to do big, crazy projects because we were passionate. We sent reporters to three different cities, including Washington D.C., to cover the Women’s March in 2017. We scraped data to recreate maps alongside the national papers, just to prove we could. We committed to doing a podcast, without really knowing how to edit audio when we started.

Crazy? Probably. But that training ground made us into the reporters we are today. We pushed each other, rather than having adults tell us what to do.

We need to find a new funding model for student news — it’s too important not to. We need alumni, readers and nonprofits all committing to donating to student papers and elevating student voices. Students are used to being scrappy with the little money they do have. Imagine what they’d do with more.

From Mariana Alfaro: At the Daily Northwestern, I found lifelong friends

Name: Mariana Alfaro

College publication: The Daily Northwestern

Where I am now: Researcher at the Washington Post

I worked different jobs at the Daily Northwestern (peaking at Managing). It wasn’t just the newsroom experience I got out of it — reporting, editing, leading — but the friendships I made. Most of my friends in my life as a “real-world” adult now are kids I met at 18 in the cramped offices of our student paper. At The Daily, I networked, I got clips, I won awards, I found my voice as a reporter. But, more importantly, I met fellow reporters who are now my friends for life, because we bonded over late nights, messy corrections, bad coffee and punny ledes. I’ll forever be indebted to the Daily Northwestern for that.

From Ken Armstrong: Student journalists can compete with professional journalists

Name: Ken Armstrong

College publication: The Purdue Exponent

Where I am now: Reporter at ProPublica

 I worked at the Purdue Exponent. That was a long time ago. (I graduated in 1985.) I learned:

You can make, and survive, mistakes.

Student journalists can compete with professional journalists.

You learn more from writing for a newspaper than reading from a textbook.

I learned other things, too, chief among them that I liked working at a newspaper. The Exponent opened the way to an unanticipated career, which was nice, especially when I learned that I didn’t much like my anticipated career.

Student journalists today are better than the student journalists of my day. They have to be. They deal with so much, so early. But their impact is extraordinary. High school journalists in Louisville broke one story after another last year about the Kentucky State Police; afterward, the police commissioner resigned and the governor ordered a review. College journalists at The Daily Tar Heel sued to get sexual assault records from the University of North Carolina. They fought in court for four years, going all the way to the North Carolina Supreme Court — where they won. (The university then took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court — where it lost.) We need student newspapers now more than ever. Please support them.

From Emmanuel Morgan: Being a student reporter and editor gave me the tools to be successful in the real world

Name: Emmanuel Morgan

College publications: Elon News Network

Where I am now:  New York Times – Sports reporter

The late nights on producing the paper, hours-long discussions on potential ethical issue and the emails from angry sources helped forge the foundation to understand the day-to-day situations of a professional journalist. Being a student reporter and editor gave me the tools to be successful in the real world and helped me learn about the do’s and don’ts in the field.

From Melissa Gomez: Student newsrooms are scrappy. But they need the right resources.

Name: Melissa Gomez

College publications: The Independent Florida Alligator

Where I am now:  Reporter at the Los Angeles Times

I graduated from the University of Florida in 2018. And when I think back to my college days, I remember the long nights of reporting out student government stories, chugging iced hazelnut lattes from Karma Cream and eating one too many garlic knots from Leo’s. 

Well, Leo’s, a longtime Gainesville staple, is no longer around. The Alligator’s office is no longer on University Avenue. Karma Cream is still serving great lattes, it just takes a little longer to get there from campus. 

A lot has changed since those days. But one thing that hasn’t is the commitment from journalists at The Alligator to keep putting out important stories to serve the community. The newspaper business, like Gainesville, is going through a lot of change as well. As print revenue declines, newspapers across the U.S are looking at ways to reach an audience online. Student journalists are much scrappier: with limited resources, they make do with what they have. Luckily, with UF’s College of Journalism, some resources are often available, like advice from seasoned journalists or equipment to cover stories. 

But it doesn’t have to be like this. With more support, student newsrooms can have a greater impact on their communities. With the help of digital partnerships and collaborations, student journalists can come out of college with the skills and resources to succeed after college. Many student newspapers are making the transition to digital-first, but many others are going to need support from their alumni, and the journalism community, to survive the next decade. 

If there is anything I learned from my days at the Alligator, it’s that there is always a way to keep telling stories. Student journalists have proved that this past year. Even with classes being remote, they can keep reporting on institutions and holding them accountable. They’ve put together editions of the paper remotely, and made digital copies available. They’ve pushed for transparency from their universities because often they’re the only ones there to do the job. 

So if there’s one last thing I learned, it’s to never underestimate a journalist who learned how to report in a student newsroom. 

From Kari Williams: Student newsrooms are a haven for aspiring journalists

Name: Kari Williams

College Publications: The Alestle (Edwardsville, Illinois)

Where I am now:Associate Editor, VFW magazine

I started working for the Alestle, SIUE’s student-run newspaper, my first semester on campus. Without that, I guarantee I would not be where I’m at. I learned how to build rapport in a community, work a beat and cover controversial or sensitive topics with grace.

I was fortunate enough to serve as editor in chief my final semester. That opportunity gave me a world of knowledge about writing, editing, managing a diverse staff and working with reporters who need a little more guidance — all things that have transferred over to my professional career.

Our adviser, Tammy Merrett, and writer’s coach, Jill Cook, are people I still turn to when I need advise or guidance. Had I only taken journalism classes at SIUE, I would not have had the real-world experience that I truly needed to move into my first job after college.

In general, student newsrooms are a haven for aspiring journalists. They allow us to learn and make mistakes on a smaller scale so that we’re as prepared as possible to enter the “real world” after college. They are vital to the journalism industry.

From Connor Spielmaker: Why you should care about #SaveStudentNewsrooms

Name: Connor Spielmaker

College publications:  UNF Spinnaker (Jacksonville, Florida)

Where I am now:  Content Producer at CNN

Student journalism, or journalism as I like to call it, is the single most-important student-operated entity on a campus. Of course, this is easily true for a communications or journalism student, since it gives them on-the-job experience in a real-stakes environment. All my friends that I know from college just wouldn’t be where they are today without student journalism. But that’s easy, right? Of course student media is important for kids that want to be journalists. But why should a random education major, or engineering major, or faculty member, or staff member, or parent care about journalism coming from their campus?

Because it’s their community. And nobody else is going to cover it like the people living, working and learning it every day.

In being asked to write this editorial, I thought back to some of the bigger moments while I was involved in Spinnaker, and how some of the biggest stories to come from campus simply wouldn’t have broke without the Spinnaker.

Take the 2013 change-in-stance on UNF adding a football team. Early in the Fall 2012 semester, a Spinnaker journalist interviewed Athletic Director Lee Moon about UNF adding a football team.

It was essentially a firm no. Over Christmas break, a different Spinnaker journalist covering an Osprey’s away game (you read that right, during Christmas break) happened to be sitting near Moon when he was asking some pretty interesting questions about a college football program for someone who wasn’t thinking about it. The journalist was able to combine those notes with other notes from Spinnaker journalists involved in other areas of campus and boom – confirmed, there was a conversation happening about bringing football to UNF. That story took the campus, and Jacksonville, by storm. All from Spinnaker journalists.

Sports not your thing? How about public corruption? In the summer of 2013, thousands of Spinnaker newspapers were taken from campus racks and dumped – an effort to prevent the community from reading something in it. At face value, nobody cared. The papers were “free” (not really but that’s a separate editorial). The police weren’t helping, the State’s Attorney didn’t care, and someone was going to get away with it. But then a break – sources familiar with a few Spinnaker journalists that covered the campus crime beat got in touch and said the PD knows a bit more than they’re letting on. After a few more conversations and some bread crumbs, a Spinnaker journalist was able to connect the dots and broke the news – A Florida State Trooper was the one who had taken the papers, and he did it in an effort to prevent people from reading about a friend of his that had been arrested on campus for recording people in the bathroom.

This story was picked up by every Jacksonville media outlet, many other outlets around the country, and even the world.

These are just two examples. The vast majority of stories that were picked up by the rest of the world were reported after the Spinnaker broke the story. Stories that likely wouldn’t have been told if not for a Spinnaker journalist.

Beyond big stories with big headlines like that though were the day-to-day stories of life in the UNF community. Teachers getting awards, sports teams winning or losing, features on other members of the community, big names coming to campus, keeping an eye on how the campus’ money was spent, doing justice by those who were lost to tragedy, and offering comfort to their memory.

So yeah, sure, had I not been a ‘student journalist’ I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am today. And that’s important to me of course. But that’s not what is really important. What should matter to you is that without those ‘student journalists,’ things might be different. Your campus’ successes may go untold. Your community might miss out on something great. Your story may not be told.

Support journalism. Support journalists. Support community.

From TyLisa C. Johnson: At my student publications, we made something out of virtually nothing

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Name: TyLisa C. Johnson

College publications:  The Famuan, Journey magazine (Tallahassee, Florida)

Where I am now:  Incoming Lenfest Fellow, Reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer

When I became editor-in-chief of Florida A&M University’s Journey magazine, we had the tiniest budget in recent memory; about $1200 a semester. It was a moment that left me grappling with an industry-wide question: How do I make more with less?
Two years later, by way of creativity and finesse, I had overseen the publishing of six magazines — most printed, some exclusively digital. So early in my career, I learned about the issues plaguing the journalism field, but also of the field’s importance. Time and time again, my staff and I made something out of (virtually) nothing and then took that something and made it award-winning. I gained my deepest friendships and most cherished memories working until 4 a.m. in the magazine office to make deadlines, or reporting on a three-hour Board of Trustees meeting for our student newspaper, The Famuan. Reporting for The Famuan taught me bravery, compassion and the importance of having someone to hold the “higher powers that be” accountable. It was truly a highlight of my college career. The nights spent on my makeshift bed (office couch) are what eventually led to bigger journalistic opportunities for me, a black, female reporter. Outside of what wonderful things these newsrooms do for students, everyone should support student newsrooms, because those newsrooms help shape our country’s future. Those newsrooms are the foundation for people who will go on to write the news stories of tomorrow, potentially changing the culture or the country with their words. So please, support student newsrooms and continue to encourage young journalists to be the brave journalists our country needs.

From Ben Conarck: The Vermont Cynic ‘reaffirmed my commitment to the profession’

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Name: Ben Conarck

College publication: The Vermont Cynic ( Burlington, Vermont)

Where I am now: Investigative Reporter at The Florida Times-Union

As an undergrad, I went to a school without a formal journalism program (the University of Vermont). In my sophomore year, I decided I needed an extracurricular activity and, due to my interest in journalism, decided to start volunteering for the student-run newspaper: The Vermont Cynic. I learned some of the basics of the craft and began reporting. Within a semester, I was editing other students. I would have never entertained the idea of a career in journalism without the ability to try it out myself in a low-stakes, low-risk environment. This reaffirmed my commitment to the profession and helped inform my career decisions post-graduation.

From Daniel Funke: ‘The independence of college media isn’t granted — it’s earned every single day.’

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Name: Daniel Funke

College publication: The Red & Black (Athens, Georgia)

Where I am now: Fact-Checking Reporter at Poynter

When I started at the University of Georgia in 2013, I immediately knew I wanted to join The Red & Black. I remember walking from my freshman dorm to an open house in the newsroom, where I was intimidated but determined to meet the editors. I became a general assignment reporter, writing stories in between — and often during — classes. The place quickly became my life, and I worked there in almost every capacity over the course of three years.

I learned more at The Red & Black than I did at any of the internships I had while attending the University of Georgia. It’s where I learned how to write, report, take photos, edit stories, execute strategy and become a newsroom leader. It’s where I met all my best friends and made some of my favorite college memories. It’s the reason I got several internships and a fellowship in college before landing my current job at Poynter. It’s the reason I love journalism.

Thinking about The Red & Black without its financial and editorial independence is impossible. As editor-in-chief my junior year, I regularly impressed upon younger editors the importance of doggedly covering both Athens and the university. I told them about The Walkout in 2012, when, rather than ceding editorial oversight to a permanent adviser, the top student editors quit the paper in protest. I talked about how, in the 1990s, student editors sued the state of Georgia over an open records request — and won.

Those stories are important. The independence of college media isn’t granted — it’s earned every single day. It’s late nights in the newsroom writing breaking stories, cutting classes to go to press conferences and learning how to cover death and grieve simultaneously. It’s not giving up when a university official calls you on your cell phone and complains about a story, or when someone threatens a lawsuit via email. It’s doing the best work you can with precious few resources.

Support student newsrooms. Donate money. Give them clicks. Subscribe. Be loud on social media. Pressure your alma maters. Know that our mainstream press is only as good as our independent student press.

Exactly a year ago, I graduated from UGA. But I really feel like I graduated from The Red & Black — and it’s made all the difference.