I'm studying environmental engineering... Oh, and I'm also a journalist

Student media at colleges with small or non-existent journalism schools face unique challenges, benefits

Like many student journalists, Jessica Pourian’s time at her student newspaper has taught her the skills of the trade — from interview techniques to news sense to AP style. There’s just one detail that sets her significantly apart from typical student journalists.

Pourian isn’t studying journalism.

Pourian, editor-in-chief of The Tech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is among many student editors who face the challenges of student media, even though the lessons they learn won’t necessarily translate in their future careers.

Schools like MIT do have student newspapers, even though most students who attend those schools are hardly there to study journalism. And these “nontraditional” journalists face the same hurdles as those at major J-schools, even if they don’t all dream of reporting jobs after college.

Unique challenges

The Oredigger student newspaper at Colorado School of Mines doesn’t have a single staff member pursuing a journalism career — yet its 50-person staff manages to produce a weekly newspaper with diverse content.

Oredigger Editor-in-Chief Katie Huckfeldt said the toughest part about producing the paper is recruiting competent writers and editors.

“A lot of us enjoyed English in high school, but we didn’t pursue an English major,” Huckfeldt said. “There’s not many outlets for us here, so the newspaper is a nice way to express yourself with your writing and to get into a more fun atmosphere.”

There is no journalism program at CSM, and many of the paper’s staffers study complex subjects. Huckfeldt is studying environmental engineering, specializing in water treatment technologies — and other staff members are pursuing similar degrees.

“It’s really hard to get someone to really pursue a story or get them to research a story thoroughly like it needs to be,” Huckfeldt said. “Beyond that, a lot of us don’t have a lot of journalistic practice. We’re figuring it out as we go along, and we’re all doing full courseloads on top of other things. Yeah, we don’t sleep a lot.”

On the other side of the country, if one were to take a random sample of college students in Blacksburg, Va., those studying journalism would be heavily outnumbered by those studying engineering, biology or technology. The staff list at Virginia Tech’s Collegiate Times student newspaper isn’t so different.

Editor-in-Chief Zach Crizer said only about a quarter of the staff is actually studying journalism, though others intend to pursue journalistic careers through other fields of study. As a result, his staff is made up primarily of students pursuing degrees in English, political science, engineering and biology.

Consequently, reporting the news at Virginia Tech can be challenging for new staff members. Non-traditional journalists, Crizer explained, are taught only the basics; problems are bound to arise.

“It’s hard to tell a reporter they screwed up really bad when they don’t have any basis or reason to know that what they did was wrong,” Crizer said. “We’re asking them to do this, and if they get into some really obscure part of media ethics or media law that no one really thought they would ever run into, it’s hard to fault them for things like that.”

It’s to combat these sorts of situations that Crizer devised a training program for new Collegiate Times staff members. Reporters learn the basics of media law and ethics, then shadow a more experienced reporter on a story. Only then are they turned loose on their own assignments.

“That (policy) was completely in response to being a non-journalism school.” Crizer explained. “Because we have a lot of people who might be interested, but if you just throw them in the water and see what happens, most of them are going to say, ‘I don’t feel comfortable doing this. I’m going to go try something else where I don’t publicly embarrass myself.’”

Despite these problems, Crizer said he rarely faces problems that a staff at a more prominent journalism school wouldn’t face too. At its core, the Collegiate Times is just like any other student newspaper.

The same can’t be said for student journalists at MIT. Their main challenge lies in recruitment.

“We will just essentially take what we can get,” Editor-in-Chief Pourian said. “We just have to convince people that writing for the newspaper is fun, that writing is a good thing and that they should write for us, as opposed to having too many people that we need to narrow it down.”

She contrasted the process to The Harvard Crimson, whose editors must choose staff members very carefully since they get so many applicants. The Tech struggles to recruit a staff of 100, though nearly 11,000 students attend MIT.

As MIT does not have a journalism program, few students plan to pursue the career after graduation. As a result, potential writers and editors may not be as committed as those at a newspaper made up primarily of journalism students. Even Pourian does not intend to work in the media after college; in fact, she’s double-majoring in neuroscience and music.

“Sometimes you end up with editors who probably would not be editors at other papers,” she said. “But since there’s a lack of people, they’re editors instead.”

Once The Tech finds reliable writers and editors, though, Pourian said the paper functions much like a journalism class.

“We joke that we are MIT’s school of journalism,” she said.

From news sense, design and the inverted pyramid to AP style, ethics and editing, MIT’s student journalists “start from a blank slate” and must learn everything they know from one another.

Last year, the rate of student suicide on MIT’s campus was growing, but The Tech had trouble deciding how to present the issue. The editors didn’t want the story to appear callous, so they ran a letter next to the story from MIT’s chancellor, who encouraged students to seek help if thinking of suicide.

“Maybe we would have been able to come to that conclusion a little faster or done something a little different,” Pourian said, “had (the editors) been more experienced with how people receive media, because none of us really know about that kind of thing.”

Unexpected benefits

The University of Denver, unlike Virginia Tech and MIT, has a relatively prominent journalism program on campus — but its newsroom is not made up primarily of journalists anymore.

Cory Lamz, editor in chief of DU’s The Clarion, said the staff was largely journalism majors when he joined the paper in 2009. Now, however, it’s shifted so non-journalism students outnumber those looking to enter the field.

“Having them come in without that news sense so finely honed, there’s a lot of learning going on back and forth,” Lamz said. “While the journalism majors tend to be set in their viewpoint of what’s news, there’s a lot of collaboration as to, ‘This might be interesting to this set of people,’ or, ‘This might be interesting from an international perspective,’ or, ‘Let’s think of some new or different angles.’”

This has proved to be highly beneficial to the stories that inevitably get recycled every year. Instead of handling it just as they did the previous year, a story can take on a whole new face with a diverse staff taking a fresh look.

The Virginia Tech student newspaper has its own advantage: a staff fluent in the latest technologies. Crizer confirmed this by praising the paper’s website. He joked the paper has “IT guys bursting out the ears.”

The Collegiate Times website, Crizer explained, works side-by-side with the print production staff, meaning the website isn’t just a place to display finished products.

The photography staff is also booming, he said, adding, “Engineers like cameras, I think.”

But Crizer said one of the biggest benefits is the diversity of knowledge. If a reporter is having trouble with a story on robotics, for instance, someone in the newsroom is likely to be knowledgeable in the subject — meaning a better quality story.

Finally, Crizer said with fewer journalism majors, the newsroom at Virginia Tech becomes less intimidating for new staff members.

“It’s probably a lot greater than the ones at schools with J-schools because the J-school kids probably dominate newsrooms,” he said. “It might be a little more uncomfortable for outside majors or outside interests to step in. That is maybe a problem that no one intends to create, but j-schools probably do foster that a little bit. We don’t have that issue.”

Pourian agreed, explaining that The Tech at MIT is just as much a student group as it is a newspaper. Instead of career prep, staff members join the staff to have fun.

“We really get to get our hands dirty teaching people how to write,” she said. “In that sense, I think we’re more of a teaching organization than some papers.”

Like any newsroom, The Tech staff members spend a lot of time with one another; but unlike other newsrooms, there’s more basic journalistic learning going on.

“Maybe this doesn’t make us a better newspaper,” Pourian explained, “but certainly as a student group, I think it brings us closer together that we get to build people from the ground up and watch them grow. And I think that’s a really rewarding experience for everybody on staff.”

And maybe that’s what keeps papers like The Tech and similar papers reporting the news. Even though most of them aren’t planning to score that great newspaper job, the staff camaraderie may be worth the newsroom stress.

Facing the challenges

Students don’t have to go it along, however. A range of resources are available to help both traditional and non-traditional student journalists thrive.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said utilizing a paper’s faculty adviser can be the most immediate reference in times of uncertainty — but not every news organization has one.

“It’s certainly possible to have an excellent newspaper without an adviser,” LoMonte said.

Among the schools mentioned earlier, only the University of Denver’s newspaper has a faculty adviser that the editor said is directly involved with the paper. Some faculty members serve as “advisers” in name only, because student organizations are required to have a faculty sponsor. Virginia Tech doesn’t have an adviser at all.

“The adviser’s most important role seems to be helping to keep journalistic work on track,” LoMonte said, “by reminding people what’s been done and tried in the past.”

Because of the high turnover rate in student newsrooms, the adviser is often the one who has been there longest, and knows better than anyone what works and what doesn’t.

As helpful as an adviser can be, LoMonte said having an adviser without a journalism background — often the case at schools without journalism programs — could be detrimental to the paper. An untrained adviser could “do more harm than good,” because they may know as little about journalism as starting staffers at those schools, he said.

Aside from relying on an adviser, LoMonte suggested reaching out to other professional journalists. Forming a campus chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, he explained, opens up a “direct line” to the national organizations, and building relationships with local journalists at nearby papers could flatter them into acting in an “informal advisory role.”

He also suggested keeping a contact list of the paper’s alumni to contact for advice, as well as attending journalism conferences and conventions to network with other journalists in similar situations.

Finally, LoMonte said there are a variety of free or low-cost resources online for student journalists. The Poynter Institute and iTunes University each offer online courses and lectures, and websites for the Journalism Education Association, SPJ and SPLC also offer a range of free information.

By Nick Glunt, SPLC staff writer

reports, Spring 2012