Katherine Knott remembers the moment she realized the uprisings at the University of Missouri demanded the full attention of her newsroom.
It was a Monday. She was sitting in the cramped, fluorescent-lit basement office of the university’s student-run paper when a fellow student called her attention to a story. After months of protests at the university, a prominent campus activist named Jonathan Butler announced he would not eat until his internal organs shut down or the head of the university system was removed from office.
Knott, who serves as managing editor of The Maneater, worried the demonstrations at the university might have a grim conclusion.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘We might be covering someone’s death,'” Knott said. “‘How do we handle that?'”
Instead, The Maneater soon found itself at the epicenter of a national news story. Tim Wolfe, the president for the University of Missouri System, stepped down, bowing to pressure from students and faculty. R. Bowen Loftin, the university’s chancellor, announced he would leave his post in short order. Meanwhile, students and faculty continued to demonstrate on campus, prompting a high-profile First Amendment confrontation between student photographer Tim Tai and communication professor Melissa Click.
It proved to be a transformative period for Knott and her colleagues, journalists at a weekly who were quickly forced to adapt on the fly to the ups and downs of a high-metabolism news story. The 60 or so student staffers at the newspaper, most of them freshmen and sophomores, have been forced to shake off tendencies anchoring them to the print edition and publish stories at a daily pace.
“It’s hard for people to prioritize The Maneater when you have a lot of classes, and everything like that,” Knott said. “From editors like myself to everyone. But with this situation and what’s happened over the last week and a half, no one was not prioritizing the paper.”
The day after Butler announced his hunger strike, The Maneater’s on-call editor visited the newsroom and told Elizabeth Loutfi, The Maneater’s editor in chief, that the newspaper needed to ratchet up its coverage of the developing situation. Before the day was out, the staff rallied together and produced eight stories. The next week, the staff churned out more than 60 stories, exceeding its usual output by a healthy margin.
“We’re a weekly newspaper, and we say we’re daily online, but that doesn’t always happen because we’re trying to change that culture,” Knott said. “We’ve been a daily newspaper, which has been really interesting. I’ve been incredibly impressed with the freshman writers who’ve been able to turn around stories this quickly.”
Readers have noticed the abrupt uptick in coverage. Over a one-week period this month, The Maneater garnered more than 320,000 pageviews; during the entire month of October, the site attracted slightly more than 76,000 pageviews, according to Loutfi. The newspaper’s interactive timeline of events that have convulsed the university has become The Maneater’s most popular story in history.
These stories come from journalists who have little or no immediate financial incentive to write. This semester, editors faced reductions in salaries to compensate for decreased print revenue and tepid digital advertising, Knott said. In recent years, the paper also stopped paying reporters a per-article stipend.
Despite the sudden surge from Maneater staffers, Knott acknowledges the paper’s coverage has room to grow. The paper might’ve done better if the staff allotted time at the outset of the media free-for-all to take a deep breath and plan its coverage of the entire situation, she said. And in the scramble to cover the story, some staffers have had a hard time juggling classes with their duties at The Maneater.
The question that hangs over The Maneater now is whether the newsroom will maintain its digital identity after the national story winds down. Knott is optimistic that it will, noting the story has been an eye-opening one for The Maneater.
“People haven’t realized what can happen if we’re daily online,” Knott said. “And I think this has shown them that’s it’s possible, and it’s kind of fun.”
Correction: A previous version of this story described a newsroom conversation between an editor and Katherine Knott, The Maneater’s managing editor. After the story was published, Knott told Poynter that discussion actually occurred between an on-call editor and Elizabeth Loutfi, The Maneater’s editor in chief.