State of the newsroom report

After the Friday meeting that selected the top three editors for the spring semester, the Alligator’s board of directors met with the Alligator staff to review the problems discussed at the crisis meeting and take suggestions for solutions.

As the outgoing editor, I summed up the problems/answers I could see in a state of the newsroom report, which I’m sharing here:

  1. Turnover – our biggest problem
    1. It has become very easy to ascend the ranks of the Alligator. What were prestigious leadership positions have become burdens and responsibilities for lower-level staff to be take on (or be pressured into) each semester. Instead of spending three to four years at the Alligator, staffers are able to reach the top positions in fewer than two.
    2. Factors contributing to high turnover are:
      1. Trimester system – This forces the staff to take over positions before they are necessarily ready or willing. Staffers aren’t given enough time to reach full potential; by the time they master their beat, they have to take over as a section editor because there is no one else.
      2. Small staff – It has become increasingly difficult to recruit and maintain staff members. This has become a vicious cycle where fewer people take on more responsibility, become burned out and leave, forcing others to take on more work.
      3. State of the industry – The outlook is not good right now for newspapers, which is scaring people from the profession, the major and especially the paper, where their grades (which will now be used to break into other jobs) tend to suffer from the workload.
  2. Solution to turnover
    1. Get rid of the trimester system – Internships are usually only 10-12 weeks long. It’s usually relatively easy to finagle the time you spend to fit with this schedule. If not, one of the managing editors could step up to take over for summer. Because the Alligator only prints twice a week during the summer, having one managing editor and an editor-in-chief is do-able, even if it’s not ideal.
    2. Increased recruitment efforts, see next section.
    3. Offer internship/independent study credit to top three editors – By offering credit hours, editors have more time to balance school and work. This would also encourage lower-level staffers to compete for these positions because they would feel like they could manage the workload and their schoolwork.
    4. More involvement with alumni (ideas courtesy of Rick Hirsch of The Miami Herald, Ron Sachs of Ron Sachs Communications and posts on the message board from the “I’m an Alligator Alum” Facebook group).

      1. Alumni could visit the Alligator on a twice monthly basis to talk about the journalism industry and how to succeed. This would show the staff what kind of journalists come out of the newsroom and give staffers a place to start when it comes to networking. Meeting successful journalism types would be reason enough for some to stay at the Alligator.
      2. Alumni could be matched with staffers in a mentoring system. It would not require much work outside keeping in touch by exchanging e-mails or phone calls. It would give alumni the opportunity to see how the current each staffer is doing, provide feedback and give individual advice from an industry professional.
  3. Recruitment and Image
    1. Not as many people want to work at the Alligator anymore. With The Gainesville Sun publishing unedited student stories (according to one faculty member) students have less of a reason to submit work to the Alligator, so they’re not exposed to the electricity of the newsroom.
    2. Everyone has a certain perception of the Alligator. Here are a few:
      1. Journalism students who don’t work here see us as elitist and snobby. This might not be the case, but our behavior can be perceived this way when we ask professors for leniency on assignments or attendance because we had a story to write, or when we fall asleep in class because we were working all night. This goes hand-in-hand with recruitment because this behavior makes us seem as if we think we’re better than other students—even when we don’t think this—which makes them not want to be part of our “clique.”
      2. Greeks always see us as hating Greeks and multicultural groups always see us as a white newspaper. Although we’ve tried to reach out to these groups by allowing members of each community to blog their news, it hasn’t been as successful as we hoped.
  4. Solution: Bring back the ombudsman
    1. The position of ombudsman should be to work on recruitment and the Alligator’s public image. By making this a job at the Alligator, this takes the responsibility of recruitment and image off the shoulders of the editor and managing editors, leaving them a little more time to channel their efforts toward more pressing issues.
      1. Recruitment – the ombudsman can work with the promotions department of the Alligator to promote itself and its reputation. This could be efforts as simple as sitting behind tables on Turlington Plaza, the Reitz Union Colonnade and in the J-school, answering questions about who we are and what we do. We could even take it one step further and hold forums on campus to get reader and contributor feedback.
      2. Image
        1. Weekly or biweekly column – The ombudsman should write a column that would explain how the newspaper works and address reader feedback. This would allow for transparency of the newsroom and dispel the idea that the Alligator has some kind of hidden agenda.
        2. Involve multicultural groups – Because this is the ombudsman’s job, they would have time to reach out to multicultural groups on campus—such as the National Association of Black Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association, etc.—and let them know that the Alligator wants their involvement at the paper. This would also promote recruitment from these groups and diversify the newsroom.
        3. Get that ad fixed – The ombudsman could get some quotes from more diverse alumni to change the promotional advertisement in the Alligator that only showcases quotes from old, white men. That information could be handed off to advertising so they could change the ad and thus, the image we portray.
  5. Technology
    1. Our lack of technology (and this includes software and equipment) is hurting the quality of the Alligator and our reputation. We are no longer seen as the place for cutting-edge journalism; just a newspaper with a history. If we want to have a reputation as the best student-run newspaper, then we need to make a name for ourselves in online journalism.
  6. Solution to technology – not as simple as buying some
    1. A technology budget – The editorial department needs a budget to take into account more than just payroll. No one knows what editorial needs better than those who work in editorial, and by giving the department a set budget, you allow it to decide how to spend the money. This would allow the department to take care of its most dire needs without subjecting it to the judgment of the business division.
    2. Alumni donations – Alumni love the Alligator more than any other group of people. If a monthly newsletter were sent out to include what the paper has accomplished (i.e. presidential election coverage) and list needs of the newsroom, I’m sure alumni would be more than willing to donate money or equipment with or without a tax deduction.
    3. Transparency – Revenue and expenditures should be made transparent to all departments of the Alligator, including editorial, to show what (if any) elbow room there is in the budget. By making this information open to ONLY the heads of each department, each department becomes more aware of what’s best for the Alligator: spending the money in its budget, or saving it to prepare for the future.
  7. Power
    1. Editorial, which provides the content and thus the *product* of this *news* organization, is given little clout in how the Alligator is run. Even though it was not intended this way, Editorial has become subject to the business division for all of its needs. Although business has the best intentions and is usually accommodating, the department does not understand what it is the editorial staff does, how it works or what it needs.
  8. Power solution
    1. Monthly board meetings – The board can and should be a body of people who can straddle the fence and find compromises between business and editorial. By establishing monthly board meetings, you give an opportunity for equality between the departments to evolve. At each meeting, department heads can give status reports to inform the board about how the Alligator is functioning as a whole. If there are issues or problems, the board can use this time to accommodate them and offer advice. And because the board only has one acting member from editorial, fairness is ensured through the other members.

I should probably note that the new editor-in-chief, Nicole Safker, and I spoke and decided to have me stay on staff as the Alligator’s ombudsman. I’m hoping this will take some of the burden off Nicole, allowing her to channel her efforts toward more pressing issues. It will also allow for some continuity between my efforts at recruitment and image from the fall to the spring.

As always, if you see problems or solutions that are missing, let me know. I’ll make sure to add them in and pass them along to Nicole.

Thanks again to everyone who has helped our staff through this difficult time.

9 Responses to State of the newsroom report

  1. Teach_J says:

    I think this is a well written, concise summation of what is facing many college and even high school newspapers across the country. I think it is great that you are going to stay on as the ombudsman. Keep your head up and keep doing great journalism.

  2. Interested reader says:

    Isn’t it that The Gainesville Sun offers the best clips? I doubt The Gainesville Sun publishes “unedited student stories.”

  3. @Interested Reader

    Honestly, I wouldn’t say so. One of the J-school professors told us that they run unedited student stories, which is why he stopped offering extra credit for articles published in The Gainesville Sun.

    I guess I shouldn’t offer this as fact, but as hearsay. I’ll fix that.

  4. […] Outgoing Independent Florida Alligator editor-in-chief Jessica DaSilva outlines what she feels are the biggest problems facing the paper — and their solutions — in a new blog post. […]

  5. Greg Linch says:

    Looks like a great plan. Good luck in your new role next semester!

    Are you also going to do an ombud blog? That’s something I’d love to see news organizations everywhere adopt. NPR has one, but it’s not updated very often.

  6. Observer says:

    Editorial doesn’t have a say in how the paper is run? Then it really is good training for the real world.

    Look. I’m not disagreeing with your argument. Yes, the editorial department provides the content that makes the paper valuable. But it doesn’t bring in revenue, and I have yet to find a publisher who finds the quality of editorial content to be more important than the bottom line. It sucks, it’s shitty, and it’s part of the reason newspapers are circling toward the drain. But it’s also reality, and demanding a seat at the table doesn’t change that.

    Subject to the business department? Welcome to any paper in America. If the paper doesn’t make money, then the paper cannot exist, and if the paper cannot exist, then it cannot shine light into dark corners.

    FWIW, your top-level editors should stay in those positions for at least a year. Change them every few months and they hardly have time to learn their responsibilities. More importantly, your staffers have to get used to new direction every semester. Inconsistent leadership begets unhappy employees. As it’s extremely easy — and not particularly costly, in any regard — for your employees to quit, then they’ll continue to do so.

    Oh. One more thing. You need an ombudsman to change a lame promotional ad? Just change the damn thing. You don’t need a committee, or an ombudsman, or a five-step process. The ad sucks? Then change it, or at the least stop running it.

  7. Lyndsie says:

    Hi Jessica,
    I stumbled upon your blog awhile ago looking for industry blogs that I could relate to.
    As a former editor of my campus newspaper, I think the issues you’ve posted here are some of the biggest, most universal problems that face all campus newspapers – especially turnover. Most campus newspapers make the same mistakes over and over again for years on end.
    Thanks for posting this! Lets me know that I wasn’t alone in my thoughts (which, to be honest, I blamed on lack of funding more than problems with the paper itself)

  8. […] conversation with the Alligator’s audience and implement some of the ideas I mentioned in my State of the Newsroom Report from December. I would like to start an ombudsman blog to make the newsroom more transparent and […]

  9. Hi, Jessica. I read these with interest, and my sense is that all these problems — as vexing as they are — can be overcome if you have a sense of purpose that transcends mere survival of the paper. It’s good to keep publishing, but thriving is another matter.

    So, just thinking out loud. We live in an era where local papers, big and small, are in very tough times; most are shrinking. Yet most college papers cover the college, not the city or town or region they’re in.

    Maybe it’s time to stop being a college paper and start being a Gainesville paper. (Apologies if you do this, as I imagine you already do to some extent). There’s a big, and growing, newshole in most towns and cities, waiting for anyone with the ambition and drive to fill it.

    Check out this exchange between Dan Gillmor and I for another take on this issue.

    As far as the tech goes, I’d be happy to talk with you about what I know about open-source CMSes. One of the winners of the Knight prize was also working on an open-source (read: free) content management system aimed at college publishers. I’m not sure where they’re at with their project, but I’d be delighted to make an introduction if you’re interested. Email me, or ping me on Twitter, where I’m @lisawilliams.

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