How college newspapers can cope with stories that go viral

One is a story about racial segregation within the Greek system at an iconic southern university. The other reads like a cheesy movie script except it was 100 percent true: college students renting part of an off-campus house discover a man living in a secret room in the basement.

The first story, which detailed how several sororities tried to pledge a black woman but were stopped by their alumnae and advisers, played out on the pages of The Crimson White at the University of Alabama. It garnered immediate attention from the national media, shut down the website from a traffic overload and forced staff members to hunker down in the newsroom and deal with the aftermath. At least one prominent journalist has suggested the paper deserves Pulitzer consideration for its work, and the story was featured in Poynter’s Excellence Project.

The Lantern at Ohio State University broke the second story and produced the accompanying video about the secret roommate. As OSU’s student media director, I fielded re-publication and broadcast permission requests from outlets in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, England, Norway and elsewhere.

Two stories. Two viral hits. Many different experiences for the college students involved in reporting and editing them. I spoke to those journalists about what it’s like behind the scenes of a viral hit and to glean some lessons they continue to learn.

‘Something bigger than we could have imagined’

Matt Ford, a senior journalism major and The Crimson White’s magazine editor, co-authored “The Final Barrier: 50 years later segregation still exists.” He said that while the paper’s staff expected local media to follow the story — and had received a tip that a national newspaper was pursuing it as well — the reaction still surprised them.

“We did not anticipate how big it would become,” Ford said in a phone interview. That changed quickly when friends starting texting him about the piece popping up on BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post and elsewhere.

Co-author Abbey Crain said she was prepared for reader comments and negative reactions, but not the national spotlight. “The day after CNN came and wanted to talk to us,” and while that piece did not air, more interview requests followed, said Crain, also a senior journalism major and the paper’s culture editor.

Mazie Bryant, The Crimson White’s editor-in-chief, said she was so focused on getting the story through the editing process that she didn’t really think about the aftermath. Bryant, a senior journalism major, was on the phone with a lawyer the night before publication, making sure nothing could be considered libelous, especially since anonymous sources were used.

“We just wanted to be sure the story was perfect from an editorial standpoint,” Bryant said in a phone interview. “By the next day, the story was turning into something bigger than we could have imagined.”

Ohio State students had to wait a bit longer for reaction to “Students discover stranger living in basement.” The video, produced by Chelsea Spears, a junior journalism major and the Lantern’s assistant multimedia editor, was made live as a standalone piece around 3 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 12. The print story ran Friday morning followed hours later by an email blast featuring the video as the lead piece in the weekly webcast.

The following Monday, USA Today and Fox requested some of the photos and video. “That’s when it hit me,” Spears said in an interview. “It was a shock, slightly terrifying.”

The most views one of her video pieces had previously received was around 3,300. That package was about a Harry Potter-themed fitness class being offered on campus.

“I’m happy to get more than 150 views. Normally, we don’t get anywhere close to 200,000,” Spears said. “It’s terrifying to know you’re being watched by that many people, but also very rewarding.”

Spears in a scene from the video with some of the surprise roommate’s belongings.

Kristen Mitchell, a senior journalism major at Ohio State and The Lantern’s editor-in-chief, said she knew the story had viral potential because it was “weird but relatable.”

But as Mitchell kept tabs on the YouTube hits, the enormity sunk in. “First it was 3,000, then 15, 30, 50 and 75. A story either has ‘it’ or doesn’t, in general, and this one has ‘it,’ ” she said. (The video piece has been viewed more than 200,000 times on YouTube and the print version has accounted for more than 10 percent of the website’s traffic since the school year began; the next closest story is at 2.4 percent.)

The Crimson White’s website crashed after “The Final Barrier” took off, then was sluggish for hours because of the traffic influx. The site averaged more than 14,500 daily visits last month. The day the story broke there were 64,783 — an 869 percent increase over the same day the previous year – and the site needed 10 times its usual bandwidth to keep up.

Viral fame/infamy come with a price

Holly-Katharine Johnson, a professor of English and new media at Mercer County Community College in West Windsor, N.J., has studied college media content that goes viral. She divides the stories into three basic categories: disaster coverage, positive stories based on exemplary reporting or unique circumstances, and negative pieces that often blindside the student journalists involved.

Disaster virals include coverage of weather events like a tornado or a campus shooting. In those cases, students tended to be more prepared for the possibilities of increased attention and opportunities from national media swooping in, Johnson said in a phone interview.

Negative virals, such as a commentary that receives attention far beyond the normal audience, often surprised and devastated the students involved. Those pieces tended to focus on subjects that routinely invoke partisan responses, like religion and women’s issues, although a column about tattoos in one college paper also brought audience outrage and backlash.

Negative virals often caused students involved to drop out of journalism, essentially silencing their voices, Johnson said. “These are not voices we want to lose,” Johnson said, adding that a few years ago college media outlets might get a few angry phone calls or letters about a particular story, not thousands of online comments, tweets or even threats.

“The era of making mistakes in college and moving on to a career in journalism is gone now,” she said.

You need a thick skin

Online comments, many from people outside the campus community, can be bracing, but some stories can reverberate offline as well.

Both Ford and Bryant are members of Greek organizations. Neither would talk specifically about any negative backlash they received because of that, but the story included an editor’s note informing readers that Bryant and the paper’s managing editor, also a Greek life member, did not participate in reporting it.

“I don’t think there are conflicting ideals” between the sorority and The Crimson White, Bryant said.

Ford said he learned not to allow personal ties to sources to affect the journalism. He said reaction within his fraternity and on campus have been overwhelmingly positive.

Bryant agreed, adding that she has learned the importance of separating her two worlds: journalism and everything else.

Crain, who had mostly done fashion and music stories before the sorority segregation piece, said she perhaps “underestimated myself.”

“This taught me I could do a real, investigative, hard journalism story,” she said. “And you have to have a thick skin. I’m kind of a baby when it comes to personal critiques.”

At Ohio State, some of the YouTube comments on Spears’ story are critical of everything from her voice to her reporting skills, even though “thumbs up” votes outnumber “thumbs down” 154-19.

“It’s my third year doing this and you need a thick skin,” Spears said. “The recognition came in waves,” starting with personal friends and then growing far beyond that circle. Reading the YouTube comments made her second-guess some of the reporting skills but she asked local professionals for feedback and some national reporters offered unsolicited insights that were helpful.

“All the negative comments came from behind a computer screen, they’re impersonal,” Spears said. “But you can’t have an off week as an excuse. You never know who is going to see your journalism packages. You must be on top of your game all the time.”

Spears also said that having the print reporter there while she shooting helped both stories. “It showcased how the different platforms can push the story further,” she said.

Mitchell, who edited the print story but did not see the video before it aired, agreed. “More communication never hurt. We take pride in what we do here, but it is a learning process. People thought that was a professionally produced piece, but Chelsea is a junior in college. It’s still news and she did an amazing job.”

Johnson’s research found that in general, if the viral content is a positive story based on in-depth reporting, even when it’s controversial, there were future opportunities for the journalists.

The students used it to “propel themselves forward to get jobs and saw this as really helpful,” she said.

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