How to Turn a Student Journalism Project into a National Story

Many journalism students hope to break some news with their class projects and get attention beyond the university. This hope recently became a reality for 11 students after The Washington Post and msnbc.com decided to publish parts of their investigation into transportation safety.

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The students were participants in News21, a university-based newsroom incubator program led by 12 journalism schools around the country. As part of their joint investigation with the Center for Public Integrity, students analyzed extensive data from the National Transportation Safety Board and federal regulatory agencies.

One of their 23 stories landed on the front page of The Washington Post. NBC also did a story about the project and msnbc.com published five stories on its home page.

More and more, universities are becoming content generators for major news organizations. But how does a student project get good play on major news sites?

I talked with Kristin Gilger, associate dean of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, to find out how News21 coordinators prepared students for an investigation of this magnitude and how they convinced two major news organizations to publish the work.

Seek outside help to find the right story.

When preparing for the News21 program, Gilger talked with the Center for Public Integrity’s Executive Director Bill Buzenberg about how the two organizations could work together. Gilger and Buzenberg brainstormed topics for students to cover and ultimately decided on a CPI staffer’s idea to investigate transportation safety.

That topic seemed ideal for a couple of reasons. First, it was conducive to a long-term project because so much data was available. Second, it provided students with an opportunity to delve into a topic that a lot of media outlets have reported on, but few have investigated in a comprehensive way.

“We knew we wanted something that was national in scope and that had a lot of data support because with a 10-week summer program, you don’t have time to develop your own data,” Gilger said in a phone interview. “And we were looking for a subject that people would care about.”

Along with offering up the idea for the project, CPI had Staff Writer Nick Schwellenbach and Deputy Data Editor Michael Pell help students analyze the data they found.

Set up a way for students to learn the necessary background as quickly as possible.

For four months, the News21 leaders held weekly conference calls with the students involved in the summer program. Gilger led the calls with Christopher Callahan, dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, and Leonard Downie Jr., the Weil family professor of journalism at ASU and former executive editor of The Washington Post.

Students discussed and pitched story ideas during the calls and did group interviews with a variety of key subjects, including NTSB officials and Keith Epstein, who did a series of investigative articles on unheeded NTSB recommendations in the early ’90s. (He’s now executive editor of The Huffington Post Investigative Fund.) Students were also invited to participate online in Downie’s accountability journalism seminar at the Cronkite School last spring.

Ryan Phillips, whose News21 story was featured on the front page of the Post, said the weekly calls gave him the insight and confidence he needed to start reporting. They also helped him formulate his story ideas and become better acquainted with the other students in the program.

“None of us had much experience in covering transportation, much less something as specific as transportation safety,” said Phillips, who is getting his master’s in journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. “It was basically a crash course in learning about transportation agencies and the different ways that these agencies are structured.”

Recruit professors to completely edit the work before sending it to news orgs.

Gilger went through several rounds of edits on the students’ stories with the help of Downie and Callahan, who was a former Washington correspondent for the Associated Press.

Gilger knew there would be a lot of data involved, so she solicited help from Steve Doig, Knight chair in journalism at the Cronkite School and a former member of The Miami Herald’s investigative team specializing in computer-assisted reporting.

After the final round of edits, the News21 editors turned the project over to msnbc.com and the Post. Bill Dedman, msnbc.com investigative reporter, selected the stories that he thought would have the widest appeal for the site’s audience.

He stressed the importance of having faculty with journalism backgrounds edit the content before he saw it.

“Without that, it would be easy in such a situation to throw up your hands; it would be easier to run nothing,” Dedman said via e-mail. “Practically, it would have taken too much time for each of the news organizations to fact-check and edit each of the stories ourselves.”

For students, the editing experience was invaluable. Robin Schwartz, who wrote and reported three stories on highway transportation for the project, said her News21 editors knew the right questions to ask and how to spot holes in stories.

“She literally went line by line with me,” Schwartz said of Gilger. “The most important part is that she seemed just as excited about the information as I was. It is really validating when someone else thinks what you are doing is important.”

Find a link to the newsroom you want to pitch your story to.

Sometimes, Gilger said, mainstream news outlets are reluctant to publish students’ stories because they don’t believe it measures up to the work of professionals. So having a link between the J-school and the news organization is key to establishing trust and credibility.

In News21′s case, the link was Downie, who pitched the students’ work to the Post. Washington Post Business Editor Gregory Schneider, who helped edit the News21 Project, stressed the value of Downie’s seal of approval.

“Any time the Post works with an outside organization — such as ProPublica or the Center for Public Integrity — we have to have a close relationship and intimate knowledge of the reputation and work habits of our partners,” Schneider said via e-mail. “In the News21 case, Len’s involvement assured us that the project was being conducted with the highest standards.”

Schwartz, who’s working toward a master’s in journalism at the University of Texas, pointed out that if a J-school can pitch a story to a news org early on, it’s easier to understand what the news organization is looking for. The liaison can relay that information to the students involved in the project.

“It helps when the school talks to a specific news agency and comes back to the students with some guidance about what the news org is looking for and what they expect,” Schwartz said. “That way students are able to work toward a tangible goal.”

Give news orgs flexibility when it comes to publishing content.

Within reason, News21 allowed the news organizations to tweak the content to meet their standards. Msnbc.com’s Dedman, for instance, chose which stories he wanted to run. In a couple of cases he took sidebar material and combined it with a related story or shifted the position of a section in a story.

The Post’s Schneider said length was the main issue with the stories; they were two to three times longer than the Post could accommodate. Schneider and Transportation Editor Michael Bolden enlisted the help of two other editors to shorten the stories. They also corresponded with Gilger whenever they had questions about the students’ work. Several reporters who cover transportation issues also read through the stories and offered minor suggestions.

Schneider, who met with Department of Transportation officials to explain the Post’s role in the project, said he “came away thinking it might have been easier if a reporter from the Post had participated with the project on the front end.”

The challenge, of course, is that a news organization may not want to commit in advance to running a story. But reaching an agreement early could benefit both the professional journalists and the students.

For instance, several of the agencies did not return students’ calls, Gilger said, and only agreed to talk when they discovered that the stories were going to be published by the Post and msnbc.com.

In facing these challenges, Gilger said she realizes that there’s a long way to go before student journalists get the credibility she believes they deserve. Still, there are signs of improvement.

“I think news organizations traditionally have been reluctant to take outside copy,” Gilger said. “But I also think news organizations are starting to realize that universities can be valuable places for really meaningful content.”

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