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A Q-and-A with yours truly

The folks at the Flytedesk college advertising agency were nice enough to ask then-intern Megan Graft to interview me to build up some comment for their “flyteboard” discussion board. They’ve rolled out the content to their members now and agreed to allow me to post it here.

Megan did a good job provoking me to carry on about some of my favorite topics, so I wanted to save it to remind myself every now and then what I get worked up about. Enjoy.

David Simpson is the director of student media at Georgia Southern University. His 31-year journalism career also includes a position as coordinator of student media at Georgia Perimeter College, 17 years with The Associated Press and ten years at the Atlanta Journal Constitution. He can be found on Twitter (@adviserdavid), on his blog (adviserdavid.wordpress.com), and at the College Media Association conferences he helps organize. The next CMA conference will be held in New York City from March 11-14. We sat down with David to ask about his experience advising student papers, his opinion on current trends in journalism and his advice for student journalists.

Q: Why are you involved in student journalism? How did you get into it?

A: I really got into it my first semester at the University of Alabama many, many years ago. I just thought the newspaper looked kind of cool, and a few weeks into that semester I walked into the newsroom and said, “What do you do to work here?” And they gave me a story to write. And I always have to add, I did a really terrible job, which is what all of us do at our first story. But I really enjoyed it, and wound up spending most of my collegiate career in that newsroom, and was just completely hooked on journalism.

Q: What are some of the career moments that you’re most proud of?

A: It’s hard to say… At the AP, I was involved in some big things: I was assistant PR Chief in Atlanta when the Olympics were there in ’96, I helped cover the Democratic National Convention in ’88. So you have things that really make a big impression…

I think probably, when I think about my favorite experiences, it’s more about being satisfied – just feeling that this was a good thing – than being super proud… To really work with people on difficult subjects and feel like, at the end of the day, you’ve done a good thing, you’ve done good journalism, those stand out to me.

Q: If you had two minutes to give general advice to a college newspaper staff, what would you tell them? Do you have any characteristic one-liners?

A: I’ve got one-liners that my students are so tired of hearing.

I would say, first and foremost, ‘The mission of journalism is to build community’… A corollary to that is, ‘It’s not about you.’ College journalism is not about college journalism. Yes, they’re pretty cool people, and they’re fun to hang out with, and you make friends who you’re going to keep your whole life, I guarantee. But, you’re there to do a very important thing: you’re there to serve an audience, and if you’re not serving an audience, why again are you there?

We’ve gotten awfully complacent in this business until very recent years about, ‘we think we know what journalism is, and so we just produce it, and if nobody on our campus reads it, well, they must be dumb.’ Well, you know, [they’re] not, if you’re doing something that nobody wants to read nor look at. So, what I spend the great majority of my discretionary time on is thinking about, how do we engage more students on our campus… and really understand their part in our community?

Q: What are some of the ways that newspaper staff can engage students in campus news? I read that you passed out 700 papers, personally, to students.

A: I did! At Georgia Perimeter College, which has no dorms, no students living on campus, five different campuses, 25,000 students. There wasn’t a lot of identity there that students felt, that they would go pick up a newspaper. And I think, frankly, today’s college students have never picked up a newspaper anyway… so yes, you’ve got to hand them a paper… because people will not walk out of their way, put down their phone, set down their coffee, to find a newspaper rack.

The other thing, I mean, social media now makes it so easy to find people in your community and engage with them. You can follow other people, you don’t just have to tell them to follow you. You can find out what they’re interested in. All across America today, people are going nuts for Pokemon GO… And while people like me cannot for the life of me understand why everyone wants to do Pokemon GO, it’s an activity that is bringing people together, so let’s capitalize on that. And yes, let’s do write a story about it and not feel guilty about it…

There’s a lot of ways to engage, and on a college campus there’s just no excuse not to. Your whole community is within close proximity… Just go see what’s [happening] on your campus and what people are doing.

Q: How do you get a newspaper staff to work as a successful team? How do you make sure they’re hitting deadlines and being involved consistently?

A: Nobody knows. I’m very, very fortunate in that we have a twice-a-week newspaper here that’s been coming out like clockwork for many years, and it’s just the inherited culture that those deadline tasks get done.

When you want to improve… look at what your mission is again: why are we here? And then do your best to bring everybody on board and talk about that mission, and talk about what we want to do that would help us fulfill that mission better.

The more training you can do, the better… We have semester-long training for everybody who’s going to join our staff, and they don’t officially join until the end of that semester. I joined in the old throw-you-in-the-deep-end-and-see-how-you-do method of training, so training can help a lot; but so much of it is culture. Do your peers in your newsroom, or your ad department, or your marketing office, have a culture where they keep their commitments and make their deadlines?

Q: Many of the editors that I’ve talked to are cutting back on their print copies in favor of expanding their paper’s online presence. What’s your opinion on that trend?

A: This is, of course, a $64,000 question for a lot of colleges right now, and we in the adviser community talk about it a lot. I think every market is different, and every institution is different. There are some institutions where revenue is not terribly important, and they may decide for professional development reasons that they don’t want to do print, because they see digital as the future. A lot of us are like me, and revenue is important. If revenue is important, those advertising dollars in print are still far, far superior to what you can make in the digital world.

In addition – and I think this is more important – while every college student is looking at their phone every day, they are not necessarily looking for campus news all day… But…if you hand out a newspaper, they are willing to sit down with it when they get to class, when they get to lunch, and flip through it, and there’s news in there that they would not get any other way…

So, I do think it’s still… an important part of reaching our audience. I think there are people we reach with print who we would not reach otherwise. As long as that’s true, I’m very happy to have print.

That said, I’ve changed our staffing structure this year so that many more people have only digital responsibilities. More of a model like The New York Times has now, where there’s a print desk, and that desk is putting together the paper. […]

Q: Talking about print copies, a lot of editors have asked me: what are some of the pros and cons of broadsheet and tabloid format?

A: I cannot think of an advantage to a broadsheet. Maybe here or there it’s just a tradition. Maybe here or there it might endanger their ad rates; maybe they’re selling a lot of full-page broadsheet ads and they don’t really want to have to go down on the price to sell a smaller tabloid ad. But in terms of readers, I just don’t think you’re going to find a lot of people who really want to hold up a broadsheet newspaper.

…If somebody’s doing something that works with their audience, don’t change. But all things being equal, with a college audience, and I think pretty much any audience, you want a magazine-style cover… that communicates very quickly that this is an interesting product, and it’s easy to hold, easy to accept between two fingers while the rest of your hand is wrapped around your Starbucks cup. There’s just a lot of reasons why that tabloid format, I think, is going to be friendlier for readers.

Q: Earlier you talked about training and the importance of training. What are some of the best ways to train good writers and ensure good writing?

A: Writing is such a difficult task… If you’re a writer, you’re learning your whole life. That’s probably the first thing we have to say, is that it really doesn’t matter how much talent you have, and how many great words you know. It’s a process. And it’s as much about observing human experience as it is about putting words together…

I think, as has always been the case, you just have to write a lot if you’re going to learn to be a writer… Once upon a time… your student basically wouldn’t go wrong writing in inverted pyramid. That’s no longer true – you’re not going to hold your audience writing in inverted pyramid now… In a way, it’s more complicated, but maybe it’s more liberating. I think what we need to be talking about is, communicate with your audience… Communicate with your peers. And yes, let’s please try to get our grammar and spelling right while we’re doing it.

Q: How would you encourage a college paper to cover national or statewide news when it happens?

A: I have two answers. One is: don’t. But here’s what I mean by that: don’t rewrite stories that everybody already knows. Nobody cares. Next week, if I write in my college newspaper that there’s a lot of upset going on right now in American cities about police and race, and I just recap all the terrible things that have happened, nobody needs that. They already know it. There’s nothing special about it appearing in college newspapers…

Now, definitely a lot of national, international stories have impacts on our campuses. So, what are they? Let’s talk to students who really feel strongly. And I don’t mean let’s offer them 400-word op-eds so they can repeat what they heard on cable news. I mean, let’s talk to them. How does it directly affect them? How do they feel? Do they have a connection? As far as international stories go, [are there people] on our campus from those countries – and maybe they do have connections, or maybe they at least have some insight. A lot of times we have faculty members who are experts. In a year like this, there are activists on our campus. Let’s go talk to activists…

[It] was really true when I was in college that maybe a student really didn’t pick up another paper or magazine or watch the evening news during the week, and those were the only sources of news, so a college newspaper recapped the news for them. That’s just out of the question now. The people who are not seeing major national and international news do not want to. And if we’re going to reach them, we should reach them through, ‘hey, this really might matter to people you know.’

Q: So, either don’t, or cover it in a way that’s applicable to campus?

A: Right. Don’t waste your time… there are a hundred college newspapers this fall who are going to have a story about, ‘well, the presidential election is coming up, and here’s who’s running.’ And there is no need, whatsoever, for that to appear in a college newspaper.

Q: What are some of the trends in journalism that you want student news organizations to follow, and why?

A: I always say, if you’re going to be a journalist you’ve got to be on Twitter following journalists, and when you do that, you will see a lot of very cool things going on. You’ll see Carrie Brown-Smith at the City University of New York (@brizzyc), where they’re in their second year now of having a graduate program in social journalism… The New York Times, The Washington Post are doing very interesting things. There’s no shortage. If you just pay attention to journalists on Twitter, you’ll find the things that interest you and the areas you’re really interested in. It may be design, it may be video, or it may just be how to serve a community.

…I would have to say overall we at college media have been too stuck in the mud and have not said, “Gee, we’re college students, let’s go try that!” We don’t have to worry so much that if it doesn’t work, we’ll lose a hundred subscribers next week. We can try things… What can we do that will engage this audience, solve a problem for the audience and, bottom line, make that audience want to spend time with us?

Q: Are there any trends you don’t want student journalists to follow?

A: Yeah, probably…There are a lot of cranky old journalists out there who are still complaining that the internet will ruin journalism, and there’s a lot of anxiety about saving print. Surely I don’t have to say this to the college students, but who knows: don’t waste your time thinking about how we’re going to save print, because we’re not going to save print. I strongly believe that future technology will give us platforms that allow us to do everything we can now do with print, but it’s not going to be print. We already see people reading long stories on their phones. There’s already a lot that we can accomplish digitally that we could never do in print.

Maybe the number one trend is ‘don’t listen to Chicken Little.’ There’s a lot of, ‘Oh, journalism has gone down the toilet.’ I don’t think that’s true at all. It is true we don’t have as many people covering local communities as we used to, which is a very bad trend, but I think we’re going to train today’s college students to help figure out business models so that we can return to those communities and do a good job. I’m optimistic about journalism, so I would say don’t listen to pessimists.

Q: Why is the field of journalism important? What role does it play in society?

A: Well, without cueing The Star-Spangled Banner, I would say there is a reason for the First Amendment. There is a reason that the one private enterprise mentioned in the constitution is a free press. The founders – and it has certainly proved to be true – believed that if you’re going to have self-governance to the extent that we do in this country, whether you think it’s too much or not enough, you have to have a citizenry that’s engaged with the rest of society. And we all may lament the state of civics knowledge in our society, but more or less, citizens feel like they’re part of the country. And we go out, and we have elections, and the loser… concedes eventually, and we go on and have a new government. That also takes place at a local level: the ability to have good schools, the ability to have police work that serves our communities and is not considered a hostile force. All these things depend on citizens being able to engage, ultimately make decisions. And I think that’s why we’re here. We can find a million other reasons to be here, and we have to in order to support ourselves, but I just think it’s critically important. And I think that’s also why it’s critically important that we not be the high priests of journalism who think we know exactly what needs to be written and shown at all times, because if we don’t engage that audience, we are weakening that civic structure that’s supposed to hold up our country.

Also, it’s tons of fun.

(Q&A conducted by Megan Graft at 2pm MST on Monday, July 11, 2016 via Google Hangout. Full transcription stored in Google Drive.)