Note: This “post” has been in three installments. On Wednesday were the obvious, Thursday the less obvious and today features the often forgotten. Please comment liberally.
The Often Overlooked
Every college paper should have one person who reads The Chronicle of Higher Education religiously. That person should also follow Chronicle blogs and other higher ed-related blogs and websites every day. (Watch for upcoming post on “Blogs every student journalist should read.”)
Those stories are national in scope, sure. But often they lead to story ideas. Either something can be localized or spurs the editor on to a different idea. Universities are in the higher education business. You cover the university. Higher education is your business, too.
For instance, adding The Ticker from the Chronicle to your RSS feed will deliver interesting HE tidbits right to your iGoogle page.
Here is an example. A recent article on the Chronicle website says that as the number of students taking the SAT rises, scores are dropping. That would be a good news-feature idea. How are SAT scores on your campus? What about numbers of applications for admissions? Might be the perfect complement to the standard enrollment piece when census figures are announced.
Closer to home here in Missouri, you should also either attend or closely follow all meetings of the Coordinating Board for Higher Education. Bookmark its website. If you are a student editor and you don’t know what is happening in your state’s department of higher education, you aren’t doing your job. Make the state organizations one of the beats for a top editor. It isn’t a daily or weekly — but regular — thing. Keep it in your crosshairs.
When I was a college editor, these were the stories that set us apart. And that isn’t me saying that. It’s Pacemaker judges.
Campus food service
Every Halloween the trees are filled with underwear. Every spring, the toilets explode.
OK. That’s Animal House. But, as a journalism educator, there is one thing that I could count on every year. Me: “What should we look into?” Student: “The food here sucks.”
No shit, Sherlock. That doesn’t make it a story. The food on most campuses sucks. It is produced for the masses under a contract that is put out for bid. Look deeper.
There are real stories here. Want a few?
- Features on the people who are up before you go to bed some nights. Many campuses have early shifts to prepare for breakfast. What do food service workers do? What goes into making campus dining on a huge scale go off without a hitch (or with as few “hitches” as possible)?
- What is your campus food service health inspection record? Don’t think “gotcha” journalism here. It is a legit question. Find out.
- How much does the university pay the food service provider? Request copies of the contract. What are some of the more interesting provisions? At Missouri Southern, for instance, if an organization serves food on campus it must be provided by the campus contractor. (Unless it is donated)
There are three good stories right there. Not all positive, but not negative. Just legitimate news. And whatever you write, the food will probably still suck. But you can’t put campus food service on double secret probation.
This one is a favorite of mine.
For those who think the adviser influences content on a college newspaper, ask my former editor, Brennan Stebbins, where this story is. I pushed a foundation series for a good long while. The school’s foundation didn’t do anything wrong, it just got a new director while we were there and that gave it some timeliness.
That said, here is why it is important. The university’s foundation is the fund-raising arm of the university. It is a non-profit, separate entity but it serves the university. And some foundation/university endowments are HUGE. Is yours?
How much money does your school raise each year? Want to find out? Request their IRS form 990s. It is public record. Just go in and ask for it. While you are there, ask for the the 990s from the last 3-5 years. See what you find.
If you are the shy type, look at Guidestar. That website lets you register for free and search for these documents and then download them as PDFs.
Bonus points: Your alumni association is probably a non-profit, too. Probably has 990s that can tell you interesting things.
The local daily is probably to busy and stretched too thin to cover this stuff. By doing so, you carve out a niche for your paper and increase the significance of your brand. And, in a selfish sense, you earn yourself some real-world clips for that inevitable job search.