Supporting student newsrooms in meeting community information needs

Student newsrooms are a training ground, a place where students work out how to do journalism and get hands-on experience in the fundamentals of writing, story structure, sourcing and editing. They’re also a vital resource for many of their surrounding communities that look to student newsrooms for local news coverage.

Covering communities beyond campus comes with its share of challenges for student newsrooms: academic calendar restraints, ever-revolving staff members, and varying connection to and understanding of the local populations they cover. At the virtual potluck for educators that Journalism + Design hosted in April, we talked about how student newsrooms are working to fill local information gaps and different ways that faculty and staff advisors can support them. 

The main dish for our April potluck was a robust conversation between two guests: Lisa Armstrong, associate dean and professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism who teaches a class that covers Oakland for student newsroom Oakland North; and Sarah Bennett, assistant professor and chair of Communications and Media Studies at Santa Ana College, and advisor to el Don, their student media organization.

We compiled a few key challenges that emerged during our wide-ranging discussion, along with how Armstrong and Bennett approach them with their respective student newsrooms. 

Challenge: How do we help students understand the processes behind making good journalism that centers community? 

Bennett uses design thinking–both as a tool and a mindset–to help her students place information in a larger news ecosystem while centering deep listening and community needs. She emphasizes the importance of iteration by having her class workshop articles from past issues of their own student newspaper as well as edit newspaper articles from schools who have won collegiate media awards. 

Armstrong models the process for making good journalism for her students by using her own published articles as a guide. Step by step, Armstrong covers how something goes from a topic to a story, such as what questions will help someone decide who to interview all the way to how to respond to an editor’s comments. 

Challenge: What are ways to approach reporting on a local community when the advisor and/or students are new arrivals?

As a recent transplant to the San Francisco Bay Area, Armstrong says she felt the challenge of covering a new community acutely. 

So, she started by setting up a collaborative relationship with a local newsroom that was already covering the city. Her partnership with The Oaklandside offered her students guidance from working journalists, the opportunity to cross-publish on The Oaklandside’s website and also receive stipends for their work.

To situate students within a beat, when they nearly all come from outside of the area, Armstrong sends them out into the community to talk with people early in the semester. Beats can be assigned to or pitched by the student. But first, the students must demonstrate they have thoroughly researched the topics and communities they will or want to cover – including building a list of potential sources – by submitting a beat memo, which involves a list of questions about the community.

Looking ahead, Armstrong aspires to better ground the newsroom by seeking funding to bring in community members to serve as editors in addition to Chistine Schiavo, who serves as local news editor for the site. This will help Oakland North embed deeper local knowledge into the reporting process, and be a way to support members of the community who are aspiring editors, especially people of color and people from marginalized backgrounds who are underrepresented in these types of newsroom leadership roles.

Challenge: What tools can help rookie student reporters think about their community and cover it in different ways?

Bennet starts by assigning community listening exercises. Students are expected to find and interview someone in their community – a large swath that includes the college, the district, the city, and the county – and submit the transcript of their interview. The listening exercise is part of a larger information needs assessment Bennet uses to guide the students’ reporting.

She gets them to answer two main questions:  “What do you want to know more about Santa Ana and the college campus community?” and “What do you want others to know about it?”

Another tool Bennett uses is one she created herself as a riff on a sushi menu. It’s a template that breaks reporting tasks into micro-assignments to help students visualize journalism as a process composed of many small steps. As combinations of assignments come together, it becomes easier for students to digest how to produce good journalism that responds to community needs.

Here’s a roundup of all the resources and links that participants shared during our April potluck:

J+D’s educator potlucks are going on summer break! We’ll be back in touch in late summer with a new lineup of educator potlucks for the fall. Drop us a line if you have ideas for topics you’d like to see covered.

In the meantime, check out our recaps of past potlucks we’ve hosted this year: