Carnival of Journalism: Students in the Mix

Posted Sunday, January 23, 2011 at 2:17 p.m. by Chris Amico in Lessons From... about education and journalism

This month's inaugural Carnival of Journalism asks how universities can be better information hubs in a networked community. Since I've been away from college a while now (and haven't really looked back) I decided to look at a working program and get insight from someone wrangling with these questions daily.

Matt Mansfield runs the DC bureau of the Medill News Service, part of Northwestern University's school of journalism. Students participate in the program in their fourth and final quarter as a capstone course. They're Capitol Hill credentialed and their work appears in mainstream publications. The students' work is collected here.

I interviewed Matt about the program and where students fit in over email earlier this week.

What's the range of experience students come in with when they start writing for the Medill News Service?

Students are in their fourth quarter, the last of their graduate studies, when they come to Washington. That means they have been through three quarters of a learning ladder at Medill intended to prepare them for reporting across platforms. They will have some experience in audio, video and writing, as well the basics of Web standards.

Most students will have made a decision about what area they want to focus on as professional journalists. They will have also have gained depth in a reporting subject. That's why we structure the capstone reporting experience here around beats. And they cover those topic areas with the form that's best to tell the story at hand, whether that's video or a written story or making a database.

But the truth is that students, by the time they get to Washington, are learning to become specialists. I like that because it's the reality of the industry, which I would say demands a broad familiarity with storytelling across platforms and an expert skill set in one area.

What kind of support structure does the university provide for student journalists? Do professors edit work or simply give feedback?

There's a large support structure. To answer your question on editing and feedback, I'd say students get both.

Professors edit student pieces before our media partners get them, so there's a certain editing bar that must be met before, say, Marketwatch or Politics Daily, gets something from Medill in Washington. While we edit, we're providing feedback and offering story direction. We are also coaching and brainstorming individually and in story meetings.

We are a real working newsroom, with many media partners, so it's a fun and fast-paced experience for students. Everyone here is credentialed on Capitol Hill, so the reporters are running in the same media circles as the rest of the Washington press corps. You can see their work everywhere from The Washington Post to the Los Angeles Times.

They are also working on large-scale projects using data to reveal trends and tell stories as part of a class we teach here called "Watchdogs in Washington." Last fall, for instance, students worked with Tribune Newspapers and the Center for Responsive Politics to show how an army of congressional insiders -- from former aides and top staffers to ex-congressmen themselves -- have worked as registered lobbyists in helping hundreds of health care-related clients fight federal reform efforts. That's the kind of story and accompanying database that many news organizations don't have the time or resource to report alone.

(That story is available at CRP.)

Student work appears in a number of mainstream publications. What kind of feedback do you and your students get from those outlets? Can they assign stories or direct students toward certain topics?

Our media partners don't assign stories to students. Medill editors do that, if and when assigning is needed. But, to be honest, we're hoping that most of the idea generation comes from students themselves, just as it does from smart beat reporters everywhere. Reporters have to own their subject areas and be enterprising in selecting stories that work for a given media partner's audience. The needs at Marketwatch, which has a business audience, are far different than those at McClatchy, which aims to cover Washington from an outside-the-Beltway perspective.

That said, our media partners are active collaborators in the editing process. They will suggest things that are right for their audience, offer advice on everything from tone to length, and work with student reporters on getting it all right pre-publication. We are lucky to have committed editors who are pushing back hard on students because it offers real-world perspective.

Do students approach stories in a different way than veteran reporters might?

Of course. I like to say that one of the greatest assets a new Medill reporter has in Washington is her newness. It might seem like a detriment at first, especially in a media-saturated city, but it's those fresh eyes that can offer perspective on the (often) weird way Washington works. Our reporters ask questions that veterans might already think they know the answer to, so in that kind of curiosity we see different stories emerge.

I also think — and this is significant — that because Medill reporters grew up with digital storytelling, they are more ready to approach story form and presentation in new ways. It's a very different thing to imagine a game as a storytelling device or see complex connections as a graphic, as our recent Medill National Security Journalism Initiative students did in work for McClatchy and The Washington Post, than to see the long-form journalism world through the traditional 2,500-word narrative.

All parts have their place, as we know, so having enough familiarity with each form to suggest that it's the best way to tell a story is crucial. You cannot suggest making a game or a graphic if you don't understand its role in storytelling. Our students are trained to make use of the full range of tools available. It's the best part of being a journalist right now. So many options!

DC's about as saturated a media market as you're going to find. Does that make it difficult for students to find unique stories to tell? Do you worry about students getting sucked into the pack mentality notorious among the DC press corps?

I think it's a challenge. Because so many journalists are chasing essentially the same stories, though, it's easier than you might think to find the under-covered angle on important news. We work hard to identify those parts of federal policy that are going unnoticed and, yet, have profound effects on people's lives.


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