Should you work for the student newspaper? Some good reasons--and some drawbacks
Comments (in random order) from former student newspaper staff members, advisors, and professionals on the value of working on a student newspaper, September 2009, compiled by Ross Collins, professor, North Dakota State University, Fargo; email@example.com; www.ndsu.edu/communication/collins.
Amelia Felz, NDSU Spectrum:
Cloy Tobola, NDSU Spectrum:
Benefits to working at a student newspaper:
Bryan Clapper, NDSU Spectrum:
Off the top of my head, here are some of the benefits of working at a student newspaper:
Deneen Gilmour, MSUM Advocate:
I edited the ADVOCATE -- like you did.
The benefits: It gets you a job after graduation.
The drawbacks: No sleep for a year; and student reporters and editors who don't complete assignments. Student editors have a lot of responsibility but no real authority over staff.
Editing The Advocate was the most difficult job I've had in journalism. It was also the most necessary because it laid the groundwork for the other jobs. I edited my senior year (1985-86) at MSUM.
Dave Wahlberg, former advisor, NDSU Spectrum:
I had a version of this conversation the other day with a student here at Northland. We don't have much, if any, real journalism courses. We have a writing program that leans to creative and nature writing. I told this student that working at our newspaper will push her to basic inverted pyramid writing which is a style that is helpful outside of journalism. News writing, with its emphasis on clarity and economy of words, is an excellent style for writing memos and other business correspondence. I suspect many students who write for a college newspaper never end up in a journalism career, but the writing skills they pick up at a students newspaper will likely serve them all their career.
Janae Hagen, NDSU Spectrum:
Well... I'll start with the benefits first! Working at The Spectrum exposed me to everything that a "mainstream" newspaper would, but I had a little more protection being a student. Nonetheless, just because we are a student newspaper didn't mean we didn't face criticism. Learning how to professionally handle people who vehemently disagreed with something that was published is something I'll definitely use in my career because one will always encounter people who see things very differently from one another. Also, working at a student newspaper allowed me to explore stories that a mainstream newspaper wouldn't publish (for example, my vegan adventure).
Finally, it taught me management skills. I put to use all of the ethical dilemmas I learned in classes and applied them to managing my writers (managing a dozen different writers who come from different areas of study and each are in a handful of organizations posed quite the challenge when assigning stories).
On the downside...quite frankly, it was incredibly difficult/stressful/ [at some points] wholly unfun trying to finagle a miracle on deadline when writers didn't turn in stories. It was a huge challenge to make a student view a student newspaper as professional. Also, balancing on average 18-20 credits + three or four organizations + the news editor job was tricky, very tricky.... Oddly, I find myself missing it a little bit now!
Danielle Teigen, NDSU Spectrum:
I am the new Spectrum advisor and I'm pretty excited about it. I think this year's staff is particularly open to guidance, so hopefully I'll have something helpful to offer them.
To answer your question, I think the biggest benefit is the real-world experience student-journalists receive while still going to school. It's such a great learning environment to apply the different skills learned through classes -- the newspaper office is almost a living classroom, where students are learning on a day-to-day basis about the rigors and
joys of being a journalist and the final grade is whether people read the newspaper they are producing. Working at a student newspaper is the closest simulation of a real-world newsroom that student-journalists could find. I also think the connections student-journalists make with the various sources is another benefit, especially those involved with news.
Often, relationships are formed between student-journalists and administrators throughout the course of a publishing year, and those connections are some of the most beneficial a student can make while going to school. In my opinion, learning how to manage time is another benefit of working at a student newspaper. Because student-journalists still need to take classes while they produce the newspaper, they are often the most over-worked but have the most managed schedule in the entire student population, simply because they need to learn to balance school and newspaper responsibilities.
I think a drawback is the amount of time it takes to produce a quality publication. It can be overwhelming when a person considers that student-journalists are just that-students and journalists. I think creating a publication to be proud of requires an extreme amount of discipline, dedication and effort, and those extreme requirements can cause students additional stress, on top of the common frustrations of being a college student. From my experience, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks, and I wouldn't trade my time at the Spectrum for anything.
Katrina Tinman, NDSU Spectrum:
I found there were so many benefits of working on The Spectrum as it afforded the chance to meet new people, interact with them and socialize. The Spectrum is a student run organization and therefore allows a real world experience for the job of journalist in a print media, though the drawback is potentially the college experience is not necessarily considered as practical as a true, real world experience working at a "real" newspaper like the Alexandria Echo Press. The Spectrum, however, paid for a writer's or editor's time; an internship is most times unpaid so someone has to be sometimes rich to work an internship...either rich or working that many jobs otherwise to still pay the regular bills of life. Personally, I don't believe a college newspaper should be disrespected to be called unreal as its staff members are, though young and just entering the field and learning, still working and doing the jobs and functions of the real paper.
Amy Wieser Wilson, NDSU Spectrum:
The main benefit for me was real-world-style job experience, which led to a few strong bullets on my resume and a job just out of college. Other benefits would be some networking opportunities and the education that it brought outside of the classroom, especially during the Spectrum critiques. It also brought some good "lessons learned" when I screwed up!
The main drawback was the time involved. I really wasn't involved with any other activities or extracurriculars in college because the Spectrum was so time-consuming. Plus, it didn't pay enough that it could be my sole job, so I was working an outside job, doing class full-time and working at the Spectrum. The fall of my senior year I worked a combined 75-80 hours a week at my job and the Spectrum on top of taking a full credit load. It didn't leave much time for just being a college student and participating in all the opportunities college offers to explore new areas and meet new people.
Angel Ray, NDSU Spectrum:
I think there are many benefits for working for the paper. It's on campus first off - I loved this since I lived 2 blocks from campus - so I saved money on gas. The paper was a very great experience - it was REAL world experience- you weren't just learning you were actually working with local, regional - and in my case National accounts. It was flexible because I made my own hours when I was done with class or came in before classes. It actually paid you money! This was huge for me because I really wanted to have a job, get experience and make money! AND you made friends too!
The downfall was that I was so close to campus that which made me always available in any "emergencies". I also became a workaholic since I worked on campus. I would come into the office before class then come back after class work and go back to class and do it over again - I sometimes worked 50 hours a week - and on weekends - since deadlines are on Sundays and Fridays. Sometimes it was a bummer to come in and place ads on Sunday nights or Friday afternoons when you are trying to enjoy your weekend - I ended up only missing 1 deadline in my 2.5 years working there because of the death of my grandmother.
Pam Enz Gibb, NDSU Spectrum:
I would include getting to know my fellow staff members and campus better, the overall experience of working on real deadlines to produce a paper twice a week, and learning many aspects of the paper business -- layout, writing, working with printers, photography, working with staff members, reporting to a board. Many of those helped provide background as I moved into the work world outside of college. I would say that many aspects of working on the paper would be beneficial no matter what one was planning to do after college.
Josie Blaine, NDSU Spectrum:
Well, let's begin with the bad news first.
A journalist always has newsprint on their hands. Invest in a pocket pack of wipes. The journalist is always on the lookout for a story or a quote, and their friends and dormmates know it, and either avoid it or play to it. The college Brenda K. Starr doesn't get to go home early on a blizzard day, as all other students are deserting campus. There's work to be done.
When the fresh stacks of papers come in, they smell so good, and your name looks so crisp, it's an addiction. You will want this to happen again, and have more paper with your name on it! When you get your paycheck, you mentally calculate how many more inches you will write next deadline to pay your car insurance, electric bill, or buy new boots.
Being the campus newshound builds confidence. You will rarely fear making a phone call, or walking up to a stranger to introduce yourself, or into a crowded room, because this was your life.
Your professors may forget what you look like, and they may or may not forgive you for that, depending on the content of the campus newspaper. You'll find out on your report card.
Kristin Chamberlain, NDSU Spectrum:
1. Working at a student newspaper gave me a better understanding of media processes - I had no idea how much work it was going to be.
2. It gave me an appreciation for the nuances of written language and of good editing.
3. It gave me responsibility, I was held accountable for what I produced in a way that I did not experience in any of my other college jobs.
4. I learned the importance of advertising.
5. I learned that people can get mad at stuff you write even if they don't read it. In addition, I learned that you can't please everyone.
Trisha Magnus, NDSU Spectrum:
I think the Spectrum had an enormous impact on my life and career. I may not be working in the field of journalism now but I use the communications skills I gained while at the Spectrum every day. It might be in a letter I have to send out to an employee, a proposal to my boss, creating and editing annual enrollment materials, and even just being able to work effectively with my coworkers.
As someone who struggled with confidence, the Spectrum pushed me out of my comfort zone in a healthy manner. I truly believe that it also helped me be a better decision maker and see both sides of an issue. Trying to write without bias is difficult and forces you to look at both sides and think of appropriate questions and sources. In my human resources career, this has helped a great deal with employee conflicts, problem solving, creative solutions, and many other ways. One of the biggest things it did for me was to show me that I can do things when I put my mind to it and how to get things done under a deadline or constantly changing circumstances.
All in all, the Spectrum was pivotal in not only my career but personal life.
Cameron Haaland, NDSU Spectrum:
Students who want to learn real journalism need to spend time at a college paper. Newspapers are where the real journalism is. No medium can give such breadth and depth of coverage, and anyone who doesn't get at least some of their news from a newspaper, I would argue, are selling themselves short. And getting back to the whole experience thing, the student paper provides the preparation for an internship, which provides the preparation for a real job. There are few fields of study where people can actually practice their craft, and get good at it, even before graduation. The student paper affords that opportunity.
One big drawback might be the hours. There are times when I was at the paper early in the morning, and late at night. But those drawbacks carry over into the real world, especially for copy editors. Another drawback is that we sometimes are at the mercy of technology when it goes wrong. Computers crash, work may get lost, but that's probably a hazard of just about any workplace that uses a computer.
As far as another drawback, I know the future of newspapers doesn't look rosy, by any means. But I think they'll be around in some form for a long, long time. Students shouldn't let all the pessimism sway their decision. Those who truly love the business, like me, will stick with it. It's not always easy, but adversity helps define us, doesn't it?
Brad Clemenson, NDSU Spectrum:
I think there are a lot of benefits that come with working at the student newspaper. As is always the case, students need to do something to differentiate themselves from everyone else graduating in their field. This is more important than ever, given the tight job market and all the experienced professionals out there who also are looking for work.
Writing--there are opportunities to cover a lot of bases... news, entertainment, features, sports, opinion, etc. Students can (and should) test out the different sections to get a taste of everything to see what they like best and to show their versatility. Many things taught in class are put into real situations... learning how to conduct an interview, dealing with subjects who may be friendly or hostile toward you, knowing how to take constructive criticism--during the editing phase and after publication --it's all helpful. Having clips and a portfolio of work is essential for a job interview. Someone with absolutely no experience is going to have a very hard time getting a job.
Also, you may find that you're not the best writer, but maybe you're a great copy editor, photographer, ad designer or salesperson. There are so many jobs at the paper, you can test out different roles and find what you do best.
Deadlines--it's not like a class, where you need to get something done, but might be able to turn in the work late. The photos, stories, ads and everything need to be finished and to the printer by a deadline to meet the delivery schedule. You don't get a grade, but you do get a paycheck. If your work is not done, you're probably not going to get paid and you may be fired.
Working with a team--learning to work with other people is one of the best features of the job. Work habits and management skills are put to the test. For anyone who is a section editor, editor in chief, ad manager, etc., the management part of it is an eye opener. You get to see how much work goes into a newspaper and how much coordination is required on the part of many people... and what happens when someone you're counting on fails... how that affects the entire team. In some cases, certain people are not cut out to be managers, while others are born leaders. Figuring out how you fit into the food chain is easier for some people than others.
Building professional relationships--professional contacts, both on campus and in the community, are very helpful. Everyone from the subjects of the stories, the advertisers, the printer and the administrators on campus can become a great source for job leads and recommendations. Knowing a few people in the field can be a big advantage when it's time to get a job or an internship.
There also are a few drawbacks.
A lot of people may not take you very seriously, because it's a student publication. The best way to deal with that is to treat it as though it's not a student publication. Don't use that as a crutch to excuse lazy reporting or mistakes. If you don't take it seriously, no one will take you seriously.
When I was a student, there was a lot of apathy about the newspaper among the student body. Many of them didn't understand or care how much work went into each issue. It can be frustrating to put a lot of energy into something that is tossed into the garbage the next day.
Overall, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.
Coiya Tompkins Lynne, NDSU Spectrum:
The benefits for sure outweigh the drawbacks! What I didn't realize when I was running the paper at the time, was that I was gaining valuable leadership and team work skills alongside an effort to hone my journalism skills. It also REALLY helped position me well to attain much-desired internships and real-world work experience prior to graduating.
The great thing about a student paper is that it provides a nice training ground to make some mistakes and learn from them (with minimal risk). You also learn valuable people relations skills, particularly if you're one of the editors who has to give direction, coach other writers and lead people who may have always been peers/friends. Learning how to delegate a work load as well as collaborate with other people with different roles (photographers, designers, writers, editors) also helps to set you up for success in the real world.
It also prepares you to be competitive when applying for future internships and special projects. What I would tell anyone considering a career in journalism or communications is that working for the student newspaper is almost a must-have. Editors and producers looking for new blood want individuals who take initiative. If you're applying for a job with no experience you're going to be hard pressed to even get an interview.
It can be an all-consuming role, particularly if you're the editor. When I was in the chief position, I basically lived at the Spectrum. Sadly, I even spent the night a couple of times! I was really passionate about honing my craft and I'll admit I often took it too seriously. I would expect every writer, editor, photographer, to share the same passion for the craft that I did. Truthfully though, not everyone wanted to put in the time I did (nor should I have expected them to; part of the learning I shared earlier). I also missed too many classes because I was focused on ensuring the product was perfectly produced or took on too many stories or didn't delegate enough (another valuable leadership skill I took for granted when I was bogged down in the minutia of hands-on learning)!
From About.com (By Tony Rogers):
You've probably heard your journalism professors say it. If you've spend any time surfing this site you've heard me saying it: Write for your student newspaper. But why? After all, writing for a student newspaper adds to your already busy workload. You have classes, maybe a job, and other things to deal with - why pile on more stuff to do?
I knew you'd ask this question. So here are five good reasons why you should write for your student newspaper.
1. Work Experience
When you finish college and are looking for that first entry-level journalism job, prior work experience will be what editors are looking for. Student newspapers are the place to get that experience.
The other thing editors look for are great clips, published sample of your articles. You need to build a clip portfolio. So where do you get clips? Student newspapers.
3. Get a Feel For The Job
There's nothing worse than spending years getting a college degree in a particular field, only to discover when you get your first job in that field that - oops - you hate it. Working on a student newspaper gives you a feel for what professional journalism is really like. You'll learn what it's like to write real stories, on real deadlines, getting a real byline.
In the end you may decide you love journalism or hate it. But better to find out now, while you're still in college.
4. Find Your Niche
Going to college, especially a big state school, can be a dehumanizing experience. You probably knew most everyone in high school, and now suddenly you're just one of thousands of anonymous students on a big college campus.
Working on a student newspaper provides you a niche, a place to call your own, an identity.
5. It's a Blast!
Forget all the career stuff for a moment. Working on a student newspaper is just plain fun. You're working, yes, but you're also hanging out with like-minded people and making new friends. And there may even be the occasional party after all the work is done. Anyone who's ever worked on a student newspaper will tell you they had a great time.
For the 25 or so years that I've taught in three university mass comm programs, I've always played up the value of working for the student newspaper. This is mostly based on my own experience as editor of my university's undergraduate newspaper. It was absolutely obvious to me that the graduates who were getting the best jobs were those who had worked on Moorhead State's (now Minnesota State University Moorhead) weekly, the Advocate. This included jobs not only in journalism, but also in advertising and public relations.
Why was this? Perhaps I can summarize:
1. Real experience working for an actual newspaper. Student newspapers can't be done for practice: they need to come out every time, on time, on real paper, just like any commercial publication. Why? Well, beyond meeting expectations of your readers, you have responsibility to your advertisers, who are real businesses paying actual money to advertise in your publication. And those payments flow to the printers who produce your product, the staff who keep the place open, and even the repair guys who fix your equipment. Think you can go to Student Senate when you lose several thousand dollars for a skipped issue? Ha!
2. Training to produce a professional product on a tight deadline. You might be able to wangle an extension from a professor, but see the response you'll get from an editor. A newspaper must come out regardless of your excuses.
3. Ability to prepare content accurately, compellingly, and quickly. No opportunity to wait for the muse to strike or "Survivor" to end. You produce something now--and it has to be something that students want to read. No professor can prepare you for real-life criticism like overhearing a student say, "well that was a load of crap!" about the feature you wrote last week.
4. Courage to talk to people you've never met, who may not like you, and often will complain about your work. No college class can prepare you like the student newspaper to walk into a room, introduce yourself to strangers, ask good questions, take accurate notes, and respond to both praise and criticism of the published piece.
5. It's fun! You make friends that will later become colleagues! You get to see your name in print! You walk around the student union seeing people read something YOU wrote, or a photo YOU took. No students on university campuses have more influence than those who work for the student newspaper. Your work can make a difference. It can change the lives of students on campus. Where else can you hope to do this at age 18 or 19 or 21? One of the great satisfactions in life is knowing that you have made a positive difference to those around you.
Drawbacks? Yes, it takes long hours to produce a product as complex as a newspaper. You can't do it yourself, but as an editor you also don't have much control over the occasional irresponsibility of your staff. Pay is low--although not as low as the unpaid internship more and more commercial media think they have the right to offer. You might make enemies--but you'll also gain respect. And you can always make up sleep after you graduate. Maybe.
(Photo by Melody Neer, NDSU photojournalism student, 2008.)
Check out area student newspapers:
Spectrum, North Dakota State University, Fargo.
Advocate, Minnesota State University Moorhead.
Concordian, Concordia College, Moorhead.
Dakota Student, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.