December 6, 2020

The plan was to hit the big convenience store where Interstates 35 and 70 cross in Salina, Kansas, a requisite stop on the 12-hour drive from Denver back home to Oklahoma.

To be sure, there is nothing sexy about this Pilot Travel Center in the heart of the Great Plains. It was dreary and cold when I pulled into that busy parking lot full of humorless travelers, but I practically leapt out of the car with a smile on my face.

A break.

A break!

I got to use my legs again to march into the store. My eyeballs took in all the gimmicky packages of junk food instead of wheat fields and asphalt. I washed my hands for a while, cupping the running water just to feel something other than a steering wheel. It seemed like my icy 32-ounce Diet Pepsi was the most refreshing thing I’d ever tasted.

All that, from a truck stop.

It reminds me of this upcoming holiday break: It may not look like much, but even a little break can go a long way toward restoring you. And it’s all the more sweet when you anticipate it.

2020, with its many parallels to a truck stop bathroom break, is almost over.

There are some breaks that aren’t very glamorous, and this may be one.

As the final miles of this semester flash by, I hope you’re letting yourself get a little excited about what’s next. This pandemic experience has reminded me that humans have the capacity to find joy in small wonders. I hope you will allow yourself that this season.

The vaccine beat

The big story in spring 2021 promises to be the rollout of vaccines and who will get them first. Are your students prepared to cover that?

Some considerations as the story evolves:

  • Who gets vaccines, and in what order? How does your community decide?
  • Where will the vaccines be administered — doctor’s offices, pharmacies, university health facilities? Get in touch now — and keep in touch — with medical personnel at your university health center. Talk to them weekly about what they are hearing. Offer to help spread information that they need to get out to the public.
  • Your students need to have a good handle now on the medical distribution systems in place in your city and county. Make sure you’ve walked them through an organizational chart of the county health bodies. Reach out now to anyone who might be involved, and stay in touch.
  • Here’s a good example from The Washington Post of stories you can start now. For those of you always looking for story ideas to pass along to your students or student newsroom, my colleague Al Tompkins’ Covering COVID-19 daily newsletter is a gold mine of information with very specific ideas for localization.
  • Along those lines, Tompkins is convening a webinar Dec. 14 with some heavy hitters. “Reporting on the COVID-19 Vaccines” will prepare journalists to cover the deployment of COVID-19 vaccines in their communities. “This webinar, featuring the president of the American Medical Association, will help local journalists understand the science, logistics and potential concerns of a COVID-19 vaccine.” Tompkins’ webinars move fast and overdeliver, so consider having your students attend.

Trans style guide

GLAAD reminded journalists about best practices when covering transgender stories and sources following Elliot Page’s announcement last week with this tip sheet. The organization also has a more comprehensive resource guide here.

More to the story

I spent half an hour this week listening to the reporting of students at WNYU, the student radio station at NYU. They explored the situation at Washington Square News, where earlier this semester students quit en masse after just a few weeks under their new adviser, College Media Association President Kenna Griffin. There are some interesting details that haven’t been previously reported. I thought their story brought home the deep importance and ability of student media to report on their own campuses, and I was impressed that their parting shot wasn’t at Griffin or the students, but their university’s ongoing lack of transparency.

Story idea: Evictions

Many college towns run on a rental economy, so it would be wise to consider a next-semester story that looks at what’s happening in your town. Talk to renters and landlords about the issues they are facing.

My colleague Al Tompkins put together some helpful links and tips in a recent newsletter, citing that 8 million households could face evictions in the next few weeks.

Familiarize your audience with the renters’ rights in your state, and spell out options for students who might drop out or opt not to return to campus in the spring. Many of them have leases that run through May or June, or even July and August. A primer on what landlords are legally able to do would be helpful, too. Students might not realize they can be sued for rent and judgments against them could impact their credit for years. Talk to a local attorney who specializes in real estate law. What about the dorms? What are the penalties for breaking off a housing contract? There’s lots to explain for students here.

Race Against Time

Here’s another upcoming webinar that looks really interesting.

From the event description: “(Jerry) Mitchell’s memoir ‘Race Against Time’ … recounts the investigation that reopened four notorious cold cases of the Civil Rights Movement. Mitchell’s work as an investigative reporter helped to send four Klansmen to prison decades after these crimes took place. His lecture at The King’s College coincides with the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, giving black men the right to vote.

“Mitchell worked as an investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, for more than three decades. In 2019, he founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. He has won more than 30 national awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship, the George Polk Award, and Columbia University’s John Chancellor Award.”

Register for the event here.

Tool for college newsrooms

This might come in handy if you’re a student media organization in one of these 17 states:

The Associated Press and Report for America launched a new statehouse program in 2020, hiring journalists to boost the AP’s coverage in 17 states.

This coverage is available to college media at no cost. The journalists cover beats including climate change, public health policy, COVID-19 response, infrastructure and voting security within their states. A data journalist helps individual newsrooms deliver policy-focused datasets. (Note that current subscribers to AP College services already have access to this content in their states.)

Participating states: Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas and Utah. Details here.

Yes, I’m asking

One of my life mantras is, “If you don’t ask, you’ll never know.” Or is it, “Never hurts to ask!”? In any case, it’s demonstrative of my nosy nature and fits perfectly with my chosen profession. So here’s my ask: Will you make a $10 donation to Poynter as a reader of Alma Matters? This unique URL will collect donations from my readers, which will allow my bosses to assign an actual cash value to my annual work — so let’s see if we can raise more than $100!

I’m kidding, of course. Your donation will help me continue to bring that kind of wit and joy into your life … and also hopefully some resources and ideas you’re way too busy to scrounge up by yourself. For example, have your students analyze this piece of journalism. Was the misrepresentation justifiable for this story?
I know you have a lot of valuable organizations also asking you to give, so I appreciate you even considering it.

College headlines

Interesting journalism to share with your students

One last thing

Don’t forget to send me your students’ great work before the end of the year — it can be individual stories, group projects, multimedia … I want to share it all! You can just email me at ballen@poytner.org.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
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Barbara Allen is the director of college programming for Poynter. Prior to that, she served as managing editor of Poynter.org. She spent two decades in…
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