These college students taught digital skills to journalists in rural Missouri

A few years ago, Ethan Colbert got the chance to figure out just what he wanted to do with his career as a journalist.

Colbert, then an undergrad at the University of Missouri, Columbia's Missouri School of Journalism, worked with a program that sent him to a small town about an hour west of St. Louis for a week. He left wanting to work at a local weekly, like Washington’s Missourian. (Disclosure: I graduated from MU’s journalism school.)

And he left believing that small communities deserve good journalism, too.

So when Colbert, now editor-in-chief of his hometown newspaper, the Bowling Green (Missouri) Times, heard that MU had a program that would place five students into rural Missouri newsrooms to help them learn new digital skills, he wanted to be part of it, and not just because of what his newsroom could learn.

Colbert wanted to help another class of young journalists discover a passion for local news.

At the beginning of the year, Bowling Green was one of five newsrooms to take part in the new Potter Digital Ambassador program. That program is part of the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Walter B. Potter Sr. Fund for Innovation in Local Journalism. And it’s designed for both the students and the newspapers to benefit from, said Randy Picht, RJI’s executive director.

“It’s one thing to sit in a seminar and learn,” said Jeanne Abbott, an associate professor and managing editor of the school’s daily city newspaper, The Missourian. “It’s another to have a student beside you, showing you and your staff effective and efficient ways to make a difference.”

Before they went, the students all studied the towns, publications and their media competition (for the communities that have it.) Starting today and throughout the week, we’ll take a short look at each newsroom and what it learned from the process.

 

Inside the Bowling Green Times. (Photo by Lindsey Jenkins)

The Bowling Green Times

Lindsey Jenkins got to know the editorial staff of the Bowling Green Times pretty quickly. That’s because it’s just Colbert. 

In her study of the Times, she noticed that while it’s on most social media platforms, its presence in those spaces lacked consistency and voice. Jenkins, a senior at MU, went in with the plan of helping Colbert develop an actual strategy.

She spent the first two days watching Colbert and the four others on staff at the Times work. By the middle of the week, she presented a plan and tools, including Hootsuite, for creating a schedule for social media, best practices and examples of work they’d done that week that could have reached more people with a smarter social plan.

She created a style guide for the Times to help Colbert and other departments speak with one voice and find easy references to other tools they can use. She did an analysis of the publication’s Twitter audience to show when they’re paying attention and went over strategies for teasing out news on social media without turning into clickbait.

Before her week at the Times, the weekly saw about 223 average impressions on Twitter per day. The week she spent at the Times, that number rose to 2,300 a day.

They really just needed help getting organized, she said.

That organization made a pretty immediate impact, and it’s something Colbert and his team have continued using.

“Last night Hootsuite played a big part in our ability to cover a news story we didn’t hear over the scanner,” he said.

He saw chatter about a wreck on social media, headed out to the scene and was able to give the community instant updates.

Now, their tone and timing is also more consistent, and their engagement on Facebook has skyrocketed since, he said.

Jenkins' work highlights something the managing editor of The Houston Chronicle found in working to get the newsroom to adopt new skills — it's not enough to have tools and big goals. You have to have a strategy, however small, to bring them together. 

It might be easy to hear about a program that puts college students into newsrooms and roll your eyes at the coming lecture and guilt, but that’s not what it was, Colbert said.

“This program was about building a better publication and working with you do to that,” he said. “It wasn’t a lecture.” 

He hoped that, like for him, time with a community publication would ignite a love of local news. For Jenkins, who before didn’t have much experience with local publications, it actually deepened it. 

“I was surprised by how passionate and vocal the audience of the Bowling Green Times was, and I found the public reaction to the publication’s work to be both enlightening and encouraging.”

MU student Lindsey Jenkins (seated) with Ethan Colbert, editor of the Bowling Green Times. She is explaining her community audit, a comprehensive look at the audience, the competition and the opportunities in Bowling Green.

Coming tomorrow: This newsroom resisted adding more work with new digital skills, until they learned how it could make their work even better. 

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