Lessons from The Greyhound

Last week I finished my tenure as Editor in Chief of The Greyhound, Loyola University Maryland’s student-run newspaper. During my time there, I served as columnist, copy editor, news staff writer, Opinions Editor, Copy Chief and Managing Editor, all before taking over as Editor in Chief in April 2010.

I inherited a paper that completed the bare minimum to put out a print product every week, an aggravating fact given the extremely privileged position in which college newspapers nationwide find themselves. (They’re niche markets, for chrissakes–no advertising falling off there.) Our stories were stale; we covered lectures, and reports on campus events were boring re-tellings of what happened. Our website was stagnant and one-dimensional; it was, essentially, an article dump. We had no social media strategy, no policy on how often staff writers needed to contribute articles, no copy editing standards (no attention to fact checking as an integral piece of copy editing), and seemingly no interest in producing articles of feature length or quality.

In a year’s time, with the help of a dedicated and talented staff, we implemented significant changes at The Greyhound, including:

  1. A website redesign and relaunch, facilitated by College Media Network and College Publisher 5 content management system.*
  2. Social media presence–Facebook, Twitter–using HootSuite’s excellent dashboard interface.
  3. Ticket giveaways to concerts via our PR contacts at Rams Head Live! in Baltimore; we started off giving away two pairs of tickets to see The Roots.
  4. Full-page, color front pages, which effectively removed columns of text from the front page of our print product. (An aesthetic choice, admittedly, but one we made–despite the “tabloid” feel and association–because we didn’t think students would be more apt to pick up a large photo than columns of black and white text.)
  5. Several feature stories, in various sections of the paper, that broadened our content and coverage, and allowed us to view the print paper less as a round-up of the week’s events and instead treat it as a weekly magazine. (In other words, lectures were now online-only content, and we reserved paper space for more interesting, more in-depth coverage of other stories.) One such story, printed as an insert, was our Greyhound Guide to Baltimore.
  6. One of these feature stories, a profile on basketball player Jamal Barney, was subsequently picked as a Mark of Excellence Award winner by the Virginia Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
  7. Better management of our budget, a sore spot among Greyhound staffs of old. There was no soliciting or courting of advertisers; that ended this year, as we worked with our contacts at advertising “clearing houses” like Alloy Media to pull in advertising, in addition to our own proactive efforts to contact local businesses. (For instance, after reaching out to clothing store South Moon Under with a media kit, they began an advertising campaign with us.) Beyond that, we partnered with CampusAve to streamline classified advertising placement and to take the entire process online, which allowed advertisers to use their credit card to purchase ad space. (A first at The Greyhound.)
  8. Actual copy editing, with a Greyhound style guide outlining our house style.

I make these points not in a self-aggrandizing effort, but rather to highlight the opportunities college newspapers have to truly be laboratories of journalism. Like their professional counterparts, college newspapers oftentimes stay mired in the status quo, unwilling or unable to implement substantive, innovative change.

That has to end. The new Greyhounders coming in need to view the paper–in both its print and online forms–as an incubator for journalistic creativity and innovation…

It begins with putting a premium on your online content. Divide stories into online-only and print stories. Seek to publish at least one new article each day on the website. Hire bloggers who are feisty social media junkies to write online-only content. View the website as a means by which readers can be more involved in the campus conversation. This means encouraging people to check out the site, and then being open to commenters and engaging in dialogue with them.

Photos and videos. Rinse. Repeat. All digital cameras have a record function. Thirty-second video clips of live events go a long way in enhancing a reader’s experience; iMovie software is simple enough to understand, and it’s available in the Mac labs on campus. Photo albums–ones rife with photos, and not just three or four additional shots–should assist a reader looking to grasp a better sense of the surroundings in a particular story.

Everyone is a web editor. Everyone should be on Facebook and Twitter. Every editor should be running a section blog. Every editor–and all the writers–should take their cameras to each event they attend. The new “New New Journalism” places greater emphasis on having a conversation with readers. No longer can newspapers see their audience as people they are speaking to; social media and online commenting have broken those boundaries. Get online, and get to talking to people who read The Greyhound.

Take chances. Think of stories you want to cover, and then cover them. Working for a college newspaper gives you a unique chance to mess up and not ruin yourself professionally. That isn’t to say be unethical, plagiarize, or manufacture a story or information. But it is to say that you can try out various story ideas and see if they work. You’ll never learn otherwise.

Finally: have one editor learn WordPress, teach it to the other editors, and then make the switch. Because WordPress is open source, newsrooms have greater flexibility to create, manipulate, and transform their online operations, without the hassle of negotiating through a third-party organization. That, and WordPress is simple enough for everyone to use and infinitely more cost-efficient given College Media Network’s new pricing plan. Look for newspaper WordPress themes online, and let the gears start churning.

As pithy as this sounds, making the above changes isn’t going to easy, but it will be rewarding in the long run. Not only will you put out a better Greyhound, but you’ll cultivate skills on a level of creativity that is absolutely vital to the newsrooms of today.

And always remember: When the going gets tough, you can always keep drinking. If it’s spring, get the gin and tonic. In the fall, stick to Jack and Coke. And the winter? Hot toddy.

*While I’m on the subject of content management systems… After some slight technical upheaval with my blog here, I am back to posting. The post I promised for Monday will be uploaded tomorrow. On Friday, I’ll rant on what being a section editor at a newspaper means.