We need to abolish the news “article.”
Maybe all of us in journalism should. But I’m pretty positive we in student media should. Why?
- The biggest writing problem I see in college media, up to and including the elite publications, is that we try to force basic facts into a false “article” narrative. The writer, especially a new writer who of course is assigned a less-than-inspirational set of facts to assemble, battles bravely. He inserts transitions. He throws in quotes because, well, you’ve got to have quotes. It’s too long, and it’s boring. But we told him to write an “article.”
- Our biggest design problem (except at a very few outstanding programs) is that those “articles” are accompanied by photos and graphics dreamed up after the fact — or at least separately from the reporting process — to “illustrate” the boring text. We all want to smartly integrate design elements and text, but how often do we accomplish that goal? Is it acceptable to fail at this?
Update, April 11: Bill Neville at the University of Alabama-Birmingham points out that the Poynter Institute’s “Eyetracking The News” study found that readers remember more information from a collection of facts arranged in “alternative,” more graphically appealing forms rather than in a traditional news story. So it’s not just about enticing them. It’s also about how much we help them.
I’m rather defiant about my self-diagnosed attention deficit. I like to hop around from topic to topic — except when I like to drill like a laser for hours on something important and ignore absolutely everything else. I suspect a lot of college media leaders are like that. I suspect that, like me, they need some time management tools so their joyful work style doesn’t overlook important tasks or deadlines or otherwise blow up in their faces.
I’ve never been able to find a book that I thought applied directly to the time management challenges of a college student working as a media leader. So when I decided to cover this topic at our in-house “Leadership Academy,” I resorted to writing a brief guide based on my own attention-challenged experience. I call it:
“@adviserdavid’s Guide to Setting Priorities and Managing Your Time … or, When You’re Up to Your Ass In Alligators, It’s Hard To Remember That Your Job Is To Drain The Swamp.”
How would you like to add 700 students to your next issue’s readership?
How big a story would you have to splash on your cover with bold, exciting art and type? How long would it take to build an editorial operation that could pull that off every issue?
News flash: I handed out 700 papers last Thursday.
As an experiment, I spent about three hours repeating “Have a paper” to students walking between classes, waiting to get on a shuttle bus or on the way to lunch. Our administrative assistant found a good spot at lunchtime and handed out 350 in less than an hour. Our combined 1,050 papers would boost even our best rack pickup numbers by 25 percent.
So I know what I’m going to do about the ever-declining number of students who will look at a newspaper rack. I’m hiring (at modest stipends) student “street teams” who will cheerfully hand out papers, engage students and post observations to social media.
Can’t afford the hiring? Maybe your staff will pitch in. My staff has, but not the hours at a time I think it will take to do this right. They are too busy with classes and their demanding student media jobs to be street team members. If volunteers aren’t the answer and you can’t afford hiring, ask yourself: Can you afford to watch your readership continue to drop?
Of course this isn’t the whole answer. The paper still needs to interest the student who allows me to slip it between two fingers she extends from her coffee cup. Erica Perel’s great advice about your above the fold rating still applies. But if the paper interests that reader, I think she’ll be happy to accept it from a street team member whenever it’s offered.
A year from now, I think I’ll be spending considerably less money stocking racks. Racks that don’t post big numbers will be phased out. Time and money will be diverted to student-to-student distribution.
And if some business wants to buy a sponsorship on the street team T-shirts … OK, I’ll let you know how it goes.
The student leaders at my new college media home could teach seminars on collaboration and accountability. In the absence of a full-time adviser for almost a year, the five department heads who form the executive board of Georgia Southern University Student Media ran a twice-a-week newspaper and four once-a-semester magazines, produced digital extras, recruited and trained new staff — and met twice a week (at 8 a.m.!) to make sure it all got done without inter-departmental warfare. They squarely and calmly settled disagreements and called each other on unmet commitments.
It’s because they are so good at this that I can afford to think mostly about another question as I prepare to train future leaders of our program. Yes, it’s absolutely critical that college media leaders be accountable to each other. To whom else do we owe accountability?
I’m thinking about framing this as internal vs. external accountability. Here’s my first pass at defining those external constituents: