Three beats campus media should start — and how

First, I propose beat reporting on three topics either much on the minds or very important to college students but severely under-reported by student media. Then, I answer the obvious question, “Can we really find enough stories about that to make it a regular beat?”

Three new beats to start right now

  1. Relationships.  How much time do students spend thinking/talking/worrying about romantic relationships? This isn’t all flirty and funny. Intimate partner violence and even rape are part of this.  Here’s an earlier post on rape awareness and another  with links on the sometimes shameful treatment of rape victims by colleges, a story which is only getting bigger. Relationships with friends and parents also could go into this beat.
  2. The environment. Ask students what they’re concerned about in the world, and this is one of the top answers. And they want to do something about it. But what? Answer that question, and you’ve got a loyal audience. (See below.)
  3. Staying alive. Not really a conscious priority for most students, but the truth is that young people do a lot of things that can kill or maim them or at least make them pretty sick. Near the top of my list would be texting and driving, about which I previously ranted and posted links (5th graf). Smoking, binge drinking, abuse of Adderall and even energy drinks, other drugs, thrill seeking (especially during spring break), refusing to get a flu shot, unprotected sex … the list is endless.

“But there’s not enough THERE to make it a beat …”

As design guru Tim Harrower asks students in his seminars, “Are you putting out your grandfather’s newspaper?” I have the same question about how we look at content in college media. Yes, in the old days it could be difficult to launch a beat without a steady supply of government meetings and press releases to produce “stories” that fit the definition enforced by your newspaper.

Those days are gone.

The modern beat reporter writes “stories” but also has unprecedented opportunities to be a discussion leader/guide/curator thanks to the web and social media. Every beat reporter has (at least) three platforms:

  • The print product and/or the main website.
  • A beat blog.
  • Social media (at a minimum, Twitter).

A quick summary of how to start a college media beat, taking “the environment” as an example:

Provide unique content by focusing on the local. On your campus, you can be the best at telling students about local environmental groups and about the environmentally responsible (and irresponsible) practices of your college. This will be the basis of many stories for your print product and/or your newsroom’s main website. All this content also gets posted on your beat blog and linked in your social media stream.

Curate the most interesting content from elsewhere. Part of daily digital discipline (see earlier post here) is checking important sources every day. Identify favorite/important sources of environmental news and commentary, follow them on Twitter (my favorite social medium) and retweet (or repost in other SM) the items of most interest to your audience. For example, you as the environment beat reporter probably won’t link to every article you find about coal, but you would link to a ground-breaking or particularly comprehensive story about coal or one about colleges trying to replace coal with solar power. (Use a SM account devoted to your beat, not the “institutional” account of your newsroom. See my previous rant about college journalists’ social media mistakes.) And use Google Alerts to find stories from places you don’t ordinarily monitor.

‘Curate-plus’ when appropriate. I don’t know if I coined that term or stole it. Anyway, I use “curate-plus” to mean what used to be called “localizing” — adding local reporting to a national (usually wire service) story. In the digital world, it often means simply using your background knowledge to add value. Explain to YOUR readers why the story you’re linking to is particularly relevant to them or to your college. (HuffPost College and Jezebel do this very well.) Link to your previous stories if relevant.

Engage the audience. Ask for their questions about local practices. (“Why aren’t there recycling bins near the gym exit where everyone leaves the game holding plastic bottles?”). Get answers from appropriate authorities and hold their feet to the fire if necessary. Follow your most active readers on Twitter or Facebook, etc., and repost generously items like “Earth Club meets at 2 p.m. Friday,” and their photos of a stream cleanup or a guest speaker. Engagement becomes reporting, which draws more readers, who increase your engagement — hey, now we’re getting somewhere!

In short, the modern student media beat reporter need not crank out a “story” about a topic every day (or week). Instead, she follows a daily discipline of monitoring her topic and engaging her audience.  Prediction: It won’t be long before she has more material for original reporting than she ever would using her grandfather’s newspaper’s beat system.

Footnote: Steve Buttry has wonderful advice for blogging a beat and approaching a new beat. (Follow him on Twitter: @stevebuttry.)

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About adviserdavid

Student media director, Georgia Southern University

Posted on January 28, 2013, in Leadership, Reporting, What to cover. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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