Monthly Archives: September 2008

Freelancers save the day

While I complain about having no one on staff — which is still a problem — we’ve been getting by with some really good freelance writers.

I think our freelance system this semester is working well. This time around, we have two freelance editors who alternate nights. It’s the first time we’ve ever tried this system. Before, we just had one freelance editor, who not only edited stories but had to respond to hundreds of e-mails from reporting students.

When I applied for my job, I wanted to revitalize the freelance program, which had really dropped off, so I suggested the two-editor plan. We recruited two amazing editors who had worked at the paper in the past as reporters — Jen Bingaman and Lia Ganosellis.

Now, freelancers come in to the newsroom to edit their stories, when they didn’t before. In the past few semesters, freelance editors had been receiving stories by e-mail and just editing them. That didn’t give the writers feedback (which is essential to the editing process) or bring new blood into the newsroom.

Plus, freelancers allow our staff writers to work on more in-depth, meaty features. The reporting students often are great at doing smaller breaking news stories, events or other hard news.

Digidave, aka Dave Cohn, wrote about this for Tomorrow’s News, Tomorrow’s Journalists, a young journalist blog ring.

Some of what he said isn’t relevant to the Alligator — our budget isn’t plunging, and we don’t have to cut staff — but I thought this was:

“The newspaper needs to become more of a news co-op. The staff is no longer ‘on staff’ – but they are part of the community and are on call often enough that they get paid regularly – allowing them to keep on doing what they love doing.”

We don’t have a big staff right now, but having an army of freelancers in the community allows us to keep on doing what we need to do: put out the news.

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So much to do, so little time

I realized as my exams are coming up this week: it’s a third of the way through the semester.

(Insert the expletive of your choice here.)

Starting out, a semester seemed like so long to accomplish what I and the other editors wanted for the paper.

Now, looking back on the first four weeks, I’m starting to feel panicked.

I’ve just figured out payroll and how to get people paid — even our business manager noted that my payroll Excel spreadsheet looked better this pay period. I’m working on a new budget that meets our needs. We’re still trying to get a CMS. I’m still frantically trying to get people to take their press pass photos and give me two forms of ID for paperwork. Copy editors still need to get their names listed on the masthead — if any of you read this, I promise I’m sending out the e-mail tonight.

I don’t really realize how little time we have with the Alligator until I see it all slipping by. Suddenly, it’s hitting me that I need to start checking things off my to-do list on a regular basis if I want this semester to have lasting impact.

Here’s that list:

  • Have a full staff of reporters.
  • Have a workable budget.
  • Submit stories, photos and special projects for awards.
  • Get ALL the paperwork in.
  • Figure out why the papers have been so small lately.
  • Do a headline workshop with copy editors.
  • Ask section editors about their goals for the rest of the semester.
  • Start the “Best of the Week” wall and recognition for writers with the highest inch counts.

I’m learning to appreciate the accomplishments along the way, too — like reading great in-depth stories that choke me up during editing, watching freelance reporting students improve by leaps and bounds or painting the aggressively rust-colored editor’s office a calming blue.

I’ve got my calendar and to-dos in hand, but I’m enjoying every second of my work.

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Keeping the ‘student’ in student-run paper

The Alligator doesn’t have a news adviser on staff, and I think it’s for the best.

The Daily Tar Heel, UNC Chapel Hill’s student paper, just hired a non-student adviser, Erica Perel. She was a staffer for the Charlotte Observer.

In an opinion piece in the Daily Tar Heel about the hiring, Perel was quoted as saying:

“It’s a tough line to straddle … I want to offer constructive criticism, but I also don’t want to scare people away from a story if I’m too critical. That’s going to be something to navigate.”

It worries me that there don’t seem to be firm guidelines in place about how much editorial oversight the adviser would have.

In the Alligator’s case, Mike Foley, the reporting professor at the UF J-school, does critique our papers each week. Jessie and I meet with him, and he tells us his take on our coverage of the week’s news.

However, he does it without pay and with no strings attached. He’s told us we’re under no obligation to take his advice. He also told us during our first meeting that he won’t make our editorial decisions for us.

I see the benefits of an adviser. The Daily Tar Heel position appears to be more of a writing coach than an unofficial editor. I can also understand how having an adviser would bring valuable experience into a young newsroom unfamiliar with making big news decisions.

But after you hire “adults” to oversee your paper — well, how can you really call yourself a “student” paper anymore?

In my resume, I can say “managing editor” knowing that I did both those things — managed and edited the paper. When the paper goes out each morning, I see it as having my editorial stamp of approval. If we had an adviser, I would always feel like I had someone looking over my shoulder.

I make my own managerial and editorial decisions at the Alligator, and as much as it scares me to make the weightier ones, at least I can take full responsibility for them.

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Budgeting the paper: Not about inches

I’m curious about how many other managing editors have to deal with the budgets of their college papers — because I do, and it’s my least favorite part of the job.

I do payroll for the newsroom every week as part of my managing editorial duties. Between pulling briefs from the wire and editing stories, I ask people for paperwork and discuss why paychecks have come up short.

Here’s how our budget system works: During the summer, the managing editor for print comes up with a budget for the entire newsroom, which the next semester’s staff has to work with. So you have someone making a budget that they might never have to work with — but future editors will.

I can’t see a good way to get around this. The budget is confidential, and the fiscal year starts near the beginning of the semester, which doesn’t give the new managing editor enough time to come up with a new budget. I’ve already run into a couple things in the budget that I can’t work with. Fortunately, our general manager is incredibly helpful and willing to work with our needs.

I could be worrying about much scarier budget issues. Thankfully, I don’t have to cut staff in response to falling revenues or worry about having enough people to cover the news.

I do wish I didn’t have to worry about plugging numbers into Excel spreadsheets every week, and it’s probably a job I won’t ever have to do again in the “real world” of journalism. But maybe dealing with the Alligator budget will give me new and practical insight into journalism — an industry increasingly boxed in by dollar-sign restrictions.

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Keeping a full-time staff of full-time students

In our first two weeks of publishing this semester, we had three reporters quit.

And that’s out of a newsroom reporting staff of nine — we lost a third of our reporters.

The people who quit were good reporters, but they decided they didn’t have time for the rigorous Alligator schedule, which often includes writing multiple stories each day.

How do you keep students — who are already bogged down with social and class commitments — to stay in high-stress, time-consuming jobs at a student paper? Here are a few things that I and the other editors learned from the experience.

1) Be brutally honest. You need to tell people up front how much time the job will take. During our open house, we had one student come in who wanted to report. He was a good candidate, and after asking him some questions, our editor dropped the bomb: “This is a 40-hour-a-week job. Can you handle that?” He responded: “Yeah, I can.” He’s been freelancing for about a week now, and he’s doing a good job.

We switched to this tactic after the reporter exodus last week. All of the editors learned that you can’t give people an a best-case scenario estimate like, “You’ll write at least four stories a week.” They will translate that as “only four stories a week.” We’re giving realistic estimates of what people can expect when they work for the Alligator and what they have to sacrifice. It might scare some people off at the beginning, but the people who stick it out through the scary forecast generally tough it out to the end.

2) Hire the eager people. It’s great to recruit talented journalists to come to your paper, but sometimes it’s safer to deal with the people who clearly have a desire to be there. People who seek out the paper want to prove themselves to editors. They won’t complain about writing a story every day because they realize they need to do those assignments to get a foot in the door.

One of our new copy editors, Tiffany, twittered after taking the copy-editing test about how much she wanted the job. Obviously, she had to be a decent copy editor as well as eager. But after she passed the test, her positive attitude and readiness to learn got her hired.

Another of our new reporters has been freelancing for a year and a half, bringing editors stories that he came up with by going to meetings on his own initiative. He proved his dependability without being on staff.

3) Let your staff know you care about their time commitments. Although we expect the Alligator to be a priority for anyone on staff, we don’t want to see GPAs fall and relationships outside the office crumble. Jessie DaSilva, our editor in chief, asked everyone in the newsroom to give her a copy of their class schedules and other commitments. If someone has a huge midterm, we don’t want him or her writing a 40-inch news feature the night before.

Even though I’m management, I’m a student, too. I understand the need for a break every now and then. Jessie and I try to communicate to the Alligator staff that although it’s difficult to have a life outside the Alligator, it’s possible. I try to give examples of students who have kept GPAs up and social life intact while working at the Alligator (yes, they do exist). Keeping the lines of communication open between management and staff can prevent employees from feeling isolated or overwhelmed.

4) Hire people who get it. If people don’t want to put their hearts and souls into journalism now, they never will. Many journalism students don’t understand that the commitments they face at a student paper are much like the demands of an entry-level journalism job like the cops beat. Hire people who understand that in order to work in journalism, they have to be doing journalism in some form every day of their lives. College isn’t pre-journalism time. It should be the start of a journalism student’s career, not just preparation for it.

Jessie says it best:

“Working hard and striving for excellence seem to be common sense to me, so I guess I just don’t understand how other students could settle for anything less. You can’t let hard work and a lack of sleep deter you from your passion.”

You can’t hire people who let those things deter them, either.

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Managing, editing and communicating at a college newspaper

I started working at the Independent Florida Alligator in January 2007 mainly because I didn’t want to get rusty during a semester with no journalism classes. I took the job I thought would allow me to spend the least time at work: copy editing once a week.

I laugh now when I think about wanting to spend less time in the newsroom. A year and a half and thousands of hours in the newsroom later, I’m managing editor for print of the Alligator.

When I explain my position to people, I say that I’m human resources, accounting, management and editorial rolled into one. I usually work about 50 hours a week. I’m also taking four classes.

All that said: I love my job.

I got the idea for this blog from a blog post I wrote about a month ago. I said that the managers of college newspapers faced decisions and failures to communicate that would baffle people who manage full-size newspapers.

In response to my post, Bryan Murley over at Innovation in College Media made the following point:

“I know of few campus activities that put inexperienced people in such high-level decision-making positions basically on their own (the football team has a coaching staff, the theatre department has directors, etc., but the newspaper staff – most of the time – has an ‘adviser,’ who doesn’t make editorial decisions).”

It’s scary doing my job because I know that the decisions that I make, along with the other top editors, affect our staff, the subjects of our stories and our entire readership. So I’m learning on the job about how to make those choices.

I plan to use this blog to express my joys, frustrations and exhaustion induced by managing one of the largest student-run papers in the country. Don’t expect any salacious newsroom gossip or detailed accounts of arguments with staff — I’m the soul of discretion.

But I do hope that any manager at college papers across the country can use this as a sort of manual. I want people to learn from my mistakes and experiences so that college news organizations can mature. Like a professor once told me: If your bakery (i.e. newsroom) can put out bread (i.e. a  newspaper) daily, that’s fine. If you can run a bakery, that’s better.

If you blog about college media, please leave a link in the comments — I’d love to hear about other experiences and start a conversation.

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