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.