Inevitable new school year story ideas that suck, but don’t have to

Sometimes those rookie ideas are worth a deeper look, Mr. Kotter.

Sometimes those rookie ideas are worth a deeper look, Mr. Kotter.

Every year, in my beginning reporting classes, I would survey the students about what stories they would like to see covered in the campus newspaper.

It was the usual roundup of stuff that pissed them off.

Parking. Food service sucks. Campus police are dicks. Athletes get to enroll early.

The first two are almost universal and in that order. The third is not far behind, but usually related to the parking gripe. That last one was a new one, with a bullet.

This is some boring stuff. A news outlet isn’t someplace to air your bitches about things you don’t like. But each of these topics has story possibilities. Think back to your first survey class in journalism. What are the news values? If you consider proximity, timeliness, impact, prominence, novelty, conflict and emotion, these topics might be worth considering.

Don’t just write a parking story about how it sucks that you can’t park close to your building. Find out why. How many spaces does the university actually have? How many vehicles are registered and issued permits? Why do faculty and staff get to park in the most convenient areas? How many tickets are written each year? Can students appeal citations and what is the process/average rate of appeal success?

Listen, campus food service usually sucks. It isn’t the fault of the poor workers or even the director most of the time. It is because at public schools it is a contracted service that is put out for bid. They are trying to do the best they can for as cheaply as they can. So how can you look into food service quality without sounding like your complaining about your mom’s dry meatloaf?

This is actually a fun one. Get your hands on the city health department inspection records and report on the results. This isn’t a “gotcha” story, either. Most of them will be fine and even excellent. But it is still good to look at. Request the in-force contracts. You will find some interesting conditions. Most companies will not allow organizations to cater outside of the campus provider unless the food is donated, for example. What are the conditions of the vending contracts with soft drink companies?  Do a day-in-the-life thing with food service. Follow them from early morning prep to end-of-the-night shutdown.

Campus police and parking jockeys are easy targets. They act tough, write tickets and bust you for the one can of Bud Light that your English Lit professor drove you to. But there are stories there.

You are likely already getting incident reports from the campus police. Look for trends. If there a lot of car burglaries in a certain lot, they might have a blind spot that needs fixing. Many campuses offer police service that is very student-friendly. At Missouri Southern State University, officers will escort students to the residence halls from the library, for instance, if they are alone or feel unsafe. That is good information for students to have.

What about those athletes that enroll early?

This used to annoy me as an undergraduate. But I get it now. And it is worth a story. Athletes have just so long to get through their academic programs before their eligibility and financial assistance expire. They also have institutionally imposed schedules for practices, games and other obligations. They need to juggle things around to make it all fit.

The bottom line here is that there are lame topics that have great possibilities. If it is boring, you aren’t looking at it long enough or deep enough.

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