Original Reporting Shouldn’t Be Left Behind When College Newspapers Go Digital

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The article, on a journalism website, was on a topic I’ve seen a lot of lately: a college newspaper had ditched print in order to focus exclusively on digital news. Not only that, the staff of this student news operation was expanding its focus to cover not just the campus but even some local and national news.

Not surprisingly, the article practically gushed about the idea of these students leaving behind so-called “legacy” journalism to fully embrace online news. This is of a piece with the groupthink that pervades sites that cover the news business. Print journalism is old and thus bad. Digital is shiny and new, and thus good.

But as I perused this student news website, it occurred to me that while the articles were reasonably well written, many had little or no original reporting. Original quotes from sources the students had interviewed themselves were few and far between. Many stories simply rehashed material found on the Internet.

I’ve written before about why I think college newspapers should keep on printing. True, digital news is ascendant. But there are still some 1,300 newspapers being printed nationwide, and those papers, for the foreseeable future, will need staffers who possess the skills necessary to produce a print product. Students on college news operations that have ditched print are being deprived of the opportunity to learn such skills.

However, that’s an issue on which well-meaning people can disagree. If the staff of a college newspaper find that with declining ad revenue they can simply no longer afford printing costs, then I can understand a decision to shut down the presses.

But there should be no disagreement on something that’s even more fundamental, the idea that print and online journalism are based on two elements – reporting and writing. Nor should there be any argument about which of those two is ultimately more important: reporting.

Reporting, the gathering of quotes and information from live sources, records and yes, the Internet, is at the very heart of what good journalism is all about. Clear, lucid writing is important, but if a reporter hasn’t done any reporting he has nothing to write about. Thorough, substantive reporting is the basis of all great journalism. The best reporters, and yes, writers, in the news business all know this.

Indeed, if you were to ask 100 editors whether they’d rather hire a great reporter or a great writer, I’d wager all 100 would pick the great reporter. After all, a seasoned editor can polish up a well-reported but sloppily written news story. But an editor can’t compensate for a story that’s thinly reported, one that doesn’t have enough quotes, background material or analysis.

So when I see a student news website that skimps on reporting, I’m concerned on two fronts. First, those students are getting a very distorted picture of what the news business is all about. Second, they are clearly not getting the training they need in basic reporting skills.

This is more important than it might seem at first glance. I’ve been a college journalism professor for nearly 20 years, and I get plenty of students in my classes who are fairly talented writers. Indeed, that’s why many of them took a journalism course in the first place.

For students like these, mastering the newswriting format is a piece of cake. But for many, learning to do a basic interview is much more challenging. A generation of young people who grew up staring into computer screens often find it difficult to approach a person on campus or on the street and ask them questions. But those are the skills such students need to learn.

If a student news operation abandons print but replaces it with a vigorous website filled with original and hard-hitting reporting, I’ll be the first to applaud.

But if the phrase “focusing exclusively on digital” comes to mean students sitting around a newsroom rewriting stuff from the web, that’s bad news for everyone.


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