columns, Education

8 Ways Student Journalism Is Different During a Pandemic

BY SHELLEY HENDRICKS, Northern Star Adviser, NINA Board Secretary

At the beginning of the pandemic, much was said about the merits of working from home. Some people could even be heard saying they’d gladly never go back to the office.

I was not one of those people.

I can’t wait until I can be in a busy newsroom again. College media advising is all about relationships and mentoring. And students — now in the depth of the pandemic — need those more than ever. 

Life as a college student has its challenges during normal times. Life during a pandemic is anything but normal. And journalism? We all know how hard that is. So what do you have when you mix college life, COVID-19 and CJLS (chronic journalism-lifestyle stress)? 

  • No money, mo problems: If it’s not difficult enough to operate in one financially troubled industry (newspapers), you get to operate in two troubled industries (newspapers and higher ed). Both industries were hit hard before the pandemic. Now newspapers have to contend with a shrinking advertising pool. Higher ed, already in trouble from dwindling state funding, has lost revenue as most students learn from home.
  • All the work, minus the fun: Since the pandemic, however, the staff  has been working from home and diligently turning out photos, columns, editorials, stories without the camaraderie and cold pizza.
  • Currently not in the office: The ubiquitous email response is made worse by not being able to walk to someone’s office to follow up.
  • Growing readership: First-year students haven’t had to step over print editions on their way to class. We’ve found ways to get really creative with social media to find those readers.
  • Recruiting: We count on summer orientation fairs to recruit new staffers to offset the staffers we lose to graduation. Because those fairs were cancelled, we are finding new ways to reach prospective journalists.
  • Mental health: Universities are engineered to support students in formal and informal ways. Without a roommate to vent to or a counseling center a block away, students have a harder time coping with life challenges.
  • Digital-only means digital-first: Many people assume college students could care less about the print product. Usually this assumption is made about news consumers. However, as creators, my students really enjoy the print product with all the satisfaction of putting together a beautiful photo spread or Page 1. The time it takes to produce pages often has stolen attention from the website. We’ve finally (been forced) to put our digital product first.
  • Train to retain: People who find student journalism have a range of experience and skills. Some have worked at their high school or community college publications for years; others are producing their first piece. As adviser, I did much of my training in “stealth mode.” I like to strike up conversations about news, a photo someone just took, how an interview went — you know, the conversations that happen in any newsroom. I’ve had to rely more heavily on structured mentoring such as critiques, training sessions and weekly meetings.