How the state of the industry is affecting my college newspaper

October 30, 2008 by Jessica DaSilva

I can’t speak for college newspapers across the U.S., but The Independent Florida Alligator is in a position quite different from the professional journalism industry.

From my understanding, the paper is on very solid financial ground, though I won’t get into specifics. We have enough money for a full staff, which is more than many newspapers can say, and I’m very thankful for that.

However, here I am, with seven weeks left in the semester, and there is still a drastic shortage of writers.

Our budget allows for five university desk writers, three metro writers and one features writer. Right now, we have three university writers (one who was just hired within the past two weeks), two city writers and no features writers (just freelancers).

It doesn’t seem too bad at first. These are shortages we normally face. But let me put this into context.

We started this semester off with almost a full staff. University had a desk of five strong writers, leaving metro with the opportunity to have its pick of the freelancers.

Within a month, four of those writers quit, and only one had a valid excuse (16 credit hours). Meanwhile, barely any of our freelancers seem to be interested in staff positions.

We were not given any warning or reasoning as to why three of them left. I won’t lie. I was angry. But I thought we would find replacements relatively soon, especially as freelance writers started sending in assignments for their reporting classes. Not so.

I’ve been at this paper going on three years, and I can say recruiting has never been this difficult. For the first time, I’m hearing students turning down staff positions because they have to keep their GPA up just in case they have to choose a backup career if journalism doesn’t work out.

My hypothesis is that journalism students are jumping ship. They see the numbers, and they’re scared. I think we can’t find student writers because students may be switching majors or using journalism to prepare for law school. I plan on speaking with the college to see if enrollment data reveals any trends.

I understand the industry is in a bad state right now. Believe me, I’m scared about not having a job after graduation. However, this bad news is just a reminder that I have to try harder at what I’m doing now to prepare myself.

Not going into journalism isn’t an option for me. It’s my calling. Could a nice salary and designer shoes replace passion? I don’t think so.

I’m OK with shopping at Payless.

Live blogging the presidential debate for NYTimes.com

September 26, 2008 by Jessica DaSilva

Just a quick update for anyone stopping by tonight.

Almost 20 college newspaper editors and I will be live blogging tonight’s presidential debate for The New York Times’ political blog The Caucus.

Enjoy!

From intern to editor

September 12, 2008 by Jessica DaSilva

Busy does not even describe my schedule the past few weeks.

After I was selected as editor, I immediately started putting together my staff and working on issues for the Alligator. Now the end of my internship and the beginning of my editorship seem blended together in my memory.

Still, I’ll try and give an overview of the lessons I learned in Tampa and the lessons I’m learning in Gainesville.

The Tampa Tribune

I can’t really say I’m a better writer than I was at the beginning of the summer, but I still learned so much (and so much more than just the blog post experience).

During the summer, I learned different methods of interviewing sources from the experienced beat reporters who sat around me. I also got some of the best journalism advice during my last days.

I’m just going to list my favorite advice here:

  • “Learn to work for yourself and not for anyone else. If you don’t, you’ll drive yourself crazy.” –Emily Seawell, online producer/copy editor
  • “You need to read more Hemingway; you need to learn to say things without saying them. You’re writing too much and trying too hard.” -Copy editor from the CND (this was the best writing advice I’ve gotten in about a year).
  • “Get used to bad editors. For every 10 editors you have, you’ll be lucky to get one good one.” -Metro desk reporter
  • “Don’t expect nurturing or praise when you’re in the real world. Do your job well because you should.” -Another metro reporter
  • Learn to keep your head up when newsroom morale is low. You’ll forget why you love journalism otherwise. -I got this from a few people
  • Limit the amount of time you talk and read about layoffs and the scariness of the industry. You won’t be able to keep going every day if you don’t. -I picked this up from Mary Shedden, health reporter

The Alligator

When I started, I was confronted with a broken staff. My managing editors (Hilary Lehman and Ken Schwencke) and I spent our first week back in Gainesville meeting with members of every desk to assess their needs and hear what they wanted from us.

I think taking the extra time to come up with gameplans with the section editors really helped us earn some street cred with them early on. It showed them we cared to work with them to get their goals accomplished, so long as we worked within the constraints of their lives outside of the job, i.e. class, tests, boyfriends/girlfriends, family events, etc.

We’ve gotten the ball rolling on a lot of what we discussed, including starting a discussion about a new content management system. I already feel like Hilary, Ken and I have done so much, which gets me excited to find out where we’ll be at the end of the semester. I think our being excited and involved really makes the staff feel like they’re a part of something truly great.

I really feel like I was just born for this job. I like managing people and brainstorming with all the brilliant people who work here.

And following editors who haven’t been especially conscientious about the way they interact with the staff, I make sure to check myself before I wreck myself. This newsroom has always been a haven for me, and it would kill me to know I ruined that for someone else.

For example, the other night, I know I stepped over the line and snapped at a section editor for a late story, which I shouldn’t have done. Late stories happen. We didn’t miss deadline. The world was still intact. After I was done editing pages and talking over the night’s events with Hilary, I went and apologized. We hugged it out, and all was well.

I think that event really sums up why I love this newsroom and how much I love this job. At the end of the day, we’re all friends — regardless of deadlines or mistakes.

Pre-semester jitters

August 10, 2008 by Jessica DaSilva

For the past few weeks, I’d been applying, researching and preparing to run for editor in chief of The Independent Florida Alligator, which is billed as the nation’s largest student-run newspaper.

As of Aug. 1, I have the job. I’ve been looking forward to this since I started at the Alligator, and I’m surprisingly feeling a lot of mixed emotions now that I’ve got it.

When I started, I knew I would stick around out of loyalty to the paper and hoped to one day head the organization. However, as I started getting more involved with online journalism, the burning desire to take over grew from frustration with editors who ignored or looked down on our Web site from their high horse.

Some past editors saw the site as nothing more than a way to archive print stories and occasionally scoop The Gainesville Sun. As a student at a college newspaper, I can see the potential for our Web site to take risks and do some truly great journalism – with less bureaucratic oversight than a traditional news organization.

And knowing the types of people we’ve had on our online staff (i.e. Brett Roegiers and Megan Taylor), there’s no reason we shouldn’t be producing consistently stellar online content.

One concern I have is the content management system our site is running on. After some severe miscommunication, our well-meaning general manager signed a two-year contract for a very rigid and outdated CMS. The online staff should not have to spend most of its night shoveling stories onto the Web site.

It’s been a year, and I don’t see why we should continue dealing with the problems this CMS is causing. At the same time, it’s a matter of weighing the penalties of breaking the contract and switching to an open-source CMS with keeping the contract and letting the same limitations persist.

I know what I want, but I’m not a dictator, and I need to involve others in the decision-making process.

In the mean time, I’m getting these great online ideas from people who are returning for the fall, and I get so excited to hear them. Then I wonder how long it would take to make it happen or if we can even do them on this CMS, and I worry.

I just want the best for the Alligator. I want to make Alligator.org a journalism juggernaut. I lose sleep over potential setbacks.

All this time, I’ve imagined myself as being the one who could better the online product while maintaining the integrity of the print product. Now, I feel frustrated that maybe I won’t be the one to get the staff or administration to change their print-centric mindset.

I get discouraged, and I worry about my qualifications. I only know multimedia basics, but I guess it is a matter of mindset over skill set. At the same time, I know it’s going to be long and arduous process and that I have to keep my chin up.

I have so many ideas to start improving our Web site, but now I’m starting to feel overwhelmed. There is a big mess to clean up. It’s like I’m Ty Pennington on Extreme Home Makeover, except he’s not sure how many volunteers are going to show up.

Then when I feel down, I think of past editors who did a great job with the paper yet were rigid when it came to innovation and an understanding of the Web site’s potential. That’s the difference. I can see that, and I’m open to so many ideas.

As I’ve been telling prospective staffers, this is the semester for innovation and ideas. I don’t care how crazy it sounds; I will try any idea once. The way I see it, if we try something and it flops, well, we just won’t do it again. This semester is our chance to experiment.

My spirits have been picking up this week, though. One of my section editors agreed to stick around even though it meant turning down an internship.

“I just knew I would be leaving at the wrong time,” she said. “I didn’t want to look at the paper and Web site every day and wish I had been a part of it. I know you’re going to do a good job.”

Those were words I needed to hear.

LoudounExtra doesn’t make hyperlocal a “flop”

July 15, 2008 by Jessica DaSilva

In my last two posts, I had a couple of comments critiquing my praise of “hyperlocal news” coming to The Tampa Tribune and asking me what I thought about LoudounExtra.com.

The comments said Rob Curley’s Loudoun project was nothing new and insinuated that it was a failed project, which seemed based on a headline from the Wall Street Journal.

Based on the actual article, I don’t think LoudounExtra is really presented as a failed project. It seems to be fairly shown as a hyperlocal project that just wasn’t as good as it could have been because of a few key elements overlooked by Curley.

In Curley’s blog post about the article, he mentions that Russell Adams, the reporter, was concerned about the headline. As we all know, sometimes headlines don’t reflect the story as well as they could. Adams and Curley both agree on this point – Loudoun was not a “flop,” but it could have been a lot better.

Also in Curley’s post are the three missing elements that lead to LoudounExtra’s downfall: promotion, integration and communication.

I think we can all agree that if you don’t promote a Web site, link it to its mother Web site or communicate the site’s use to the community, there isn’t a good chance it’s going to develop a steady flow of visitors. LoudounExtra didn’t have an audience mostly because Curley didn’t connect the audience to the site, which he took full responsibility for.

The way I see it, there are other reasons that Loudoun wasn’t as effective as it could have been. Namely, the fact that the county is too large and diversified. As it says in the WSJ article, “Loudoun County is a 520 square-mile area with seven towns whose residents share little else besides a county government.”

This project of following a large county is really just doing the job of a regular regional newspaper. While I wouldn’t consider this a traditional hyperlocal experiment, it’s hyperlocal in comparison to The Washington Post’s average readership.

Still, look at that site! It’s a masterpiece of local journalism. I wish all local newspapers had a site like that.

For it to truly be hyperlocal, the site should be broken down even further to cities or even neighborhoods. This would require the same amount of extreme reporting effort focused on much smaller demographic areas.

I think that would be a great move for local journalism. If news organizations could evaluate the population of the community they’re serving, that could lead people to figure out what kind of news to play up. What’s the biggest group? Young families? The elderly? College students? News Web sites could easily play up issues or features that relate to the community the best.

That’s what the audience editors are for in the new structure at the Trib. They’re supposed to evaluate the demographic and what news it values. To me, that’s what hyperlocal is: Finding out who your readership is and getting them the news that relates to their lives.

Of course, the news won’t solely be tailored to the demographic. The readership needs its meat and potatoes news, too. But when it comes to placement on the Web site, audience information might make all the difference.

I was talking to some of my fellow interns over dinner last Friday, and they brought up a valid point. If the Trib is really committed to going hyperlocal, they’re going to have to rely on the bureaus a lot more. Because most of the layoffs came from those, I would hope to see more reporters distributed there from the main news center.

And to really make TBO a local information powerhouse like LoudounExtra, Internet training is a must. If it’s only to get people thinking in terms of Web site potential, even that would help. But it’s going to require a lot of footwork and database building. That data team in the reorganization is going to be the crux of the hyperlocal movement.

Also, I think TBO needs to find a few designers to come up with a site design that’s cleaner and easier to navigate. The site has all this great content and tons of great packages, and they get lost in the complexity of the design. It needs to be simple and effortless.

So while LoudounExtra might not have worked as well as it could have, that doesn’t speak for the entire hyperlocal movement. Local news is part of the job, but breaking it down into the hyperlocal will make it more personal to the audience.

It’s a move that could really improve coverage and the relationship with the audience, so long as a true commitment to it is made.