The Beast That is a Student Publication

We are reading Chapter 3, “How to Consult With Reporters,” in Clark and Fry’s “Coaching Writers.” I like their strategies for conferring with writers and have used many of those strategies with good results. They worked well for me as a newspaper editor and they work well for me now as a teacher.

But college journalists face a challenge that I and other teachers and professional editors don’t: the unique beast that is a student-run publication. At a professional magazine or newspaper, the chain of command, a manager’s authority and the roles workers fulfill are constant. The boss is always the boss. But on a student magazine or newspaper, the roles shift. If you are in a managerial role, you possess that authority over fellow students only in the world of the publication. You might be their boss on the publication, but you might be their classmate, teammate, best friend or even worst enemy outside of the publication. It is difficult to cement a proper relationship when your roles change like that.

This, then, is a two-part question: 1) What struggles have you faced that are peculiar to working on a student publication, and how have you dealt with them?  2) Are Clark and Fry’s strategies for conferring with writers realistic or applicable on a student publication? Which are the most likely to succeed? Which are least likely? Which ones would you like to try, or have your editor try?

J70 students, please post your response by 6 p.m. Monday, Sept. 1, so we all have time to read and respond to each other’s comments before class Tuesday.

To anyone else who finds us, we’d enjoy hearing from you about your college publication experiences and any advice you might have.

I am confident we will all be tactful and respectful in our responses.

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17 responses to “The Beast That is a Student Publication

  1. One tough situation I have faced while working on a student publication involved competition between friends. When there was only one position available but two qualified candidates (A and B) seeking the position, problems escalated quickly. Candidate B, who was not chosen for the position, expressed his/her belief that the reason he/she was not chosen was because of the personal friendship between Candidate A and the higher-up. In the situation I witnessed, a talk between B and the higher-up resolved the issue at least enough to continue working together peacefully, but tensions remained.

    In hindsight, I think it was the higher-up’s responsibility to define the position and what qualities he/she was looking for in a candidate beforehand. When you work with a group as much as students on student publications do, you naturally get to know each other and often become good friends. The higher-up should have told both A and B before the issue arose what he/she was looking for and reassured them both that his/her selection would be strictly professional. This could have helped both A and B focus on proving their merits for the position rather than worrying about the higher-up playing favorites. What do you think?

    I think Clark and Fry’s suggestions are realistic for the most part. I especially like the idea of sitting down with the writer and helping them determine the focus of the article rather than just telling them or changing their work. Asking questions like “what is the focus of your story? Why?” and “what is the best way to express that?” could guide the student writer’s thought process but still give them the freedom they desire. I would try this tactic myself and/or suggest that another editor try it with their writers.

  2. Ah, student-run publications; the bane of aspiring writers /and/ editors everywhere. Yes, editors have it just as bad, if not worse than their subordinates. Why? Sometimes you have writers who just don’t care, and nothing will change that. This may occur to a lesser extent on the collegiate level, but it’s certainly prominent in high school.

    I was on my high school’s paper for two years, one as an editor. I tried my best to confer with the people in my department, but in the end, three out of the four writers usually just said “Can’t you just fix it? I have stuff to do…”

    After a year of editing on a caring fashion, writing for the Times-Delphic was a culture shock, to say the least. A wrote a story, turned it in, and never saw until it was published. Naturally, this led to some conflicts. The worst problem I ever had was when an editor completely omitted my closing paragraph and used one of their own creation. Unfortunately, that four sentence section had /six/ grammatical errors. I wanted to go through every copy of the TD I had delivered that morning and scratch out the byline!

    The biggest issue with student run publications is–well, that’s the issue; it is student run. Writers and editors both fail to realize that each other are students and therefore cannot commit all of their time to said publication. (Though, as a writer, I still think the “crimes” committed by the editors are worse…)

    I agree with Tara in that much of what Clark and Fry’s strategies are valid. However, for a student publication (based on my experience on the TD staff), the long-distance/phone would work best. I was never in the newsroom with editors; It wasn’t really encouraged—you’d just get in the way. That being the case, just giving me a short phone call to consult on edits would be the most functional advice to give an editor. It doesn’t take that long, and it gives the writer a sense of involvement.

  3. Working alongside your best friend who is above you in the chain of command is tough, from personal experience. But as long as both people recognize that chain of command while working together and not let it affect them outside the publication, then I don’t think it’s a problem.

    But I think the problem occurs in the professional workplace as well. As a copy editor just now going into my second year at a newspaper, I find myself having to deal with reporters, designers, etc. that are older than me and have a lot more experience. And many times, with how our copy desk works, I am left in charge with no other editors above me around. Maintaining the respect is imperative for everyone around in order to get things done right, done well and done before deadline.

    And it’s even more important when, say, your boss continues to make the same mistake over and over when editing a story or posting a story online and you have to tell him about it.

    I think that kind of respect and interaction comes from first building a good rapport and open relationship with your co-workers, classmates, etc. Never underestimate the value of everyone grabbing a beer (or soda, pizza, whatever) together outside of work. It goes a long way when you’ve been stuck eating (and sleeping if you’re lucky) in Meredith while working two weeks straight.

  4. Although I have not worked on a student publication at the collegiate level, I did work on one in high school. At that time I was the Editor-in-Chief with a good friend of mine. It was difficult to be the authority figure knowing that some of the writers were older than me or the same age. From the start, Jason and I made it clear that personal relationships could not and would not blur the lines of good journalistic style and taste. We both tried be objective and unbiased when giving suggestions and made ourselves available at all times. To me, the best thing we did were to keep lines of communication open and honest.

    I agree with Tara in that, just as I had to define the role, position or boundary, it is up to the higher-up to do just the same such that there is no confusion in the newsroom.

    Clark and Fry made very good points that I believe would work well in the newsroom. From this humanistic approach that we all should try to employ, I firmly believe that it’s within all of us to implement the suggestions presented in chapter three (3) to either ease tensions or just let writers know that as an editor, we care and want their success. They made a point however that I think works well with the student publication: the simple premise that even a passing, “How’s it going?” can turn into a conversation about a lead not working or not knowing where to trim information to get the news not the fluff. For a student publication, communicating in a way that would be normal outside of the newsroom just seems to make everyone at ease and in the long run it benefits not only the paper with also strengthens that relationship between writer and editor and hopefully, does not compromise a friendship.

  5. One struggle that I have faced while writing for a student publication was when I had my article completely re-worked without my knowledge or input. I handed in my article and a couple of weeks later saw a story with my title in the publication. The title was about the only thing that resembled my story. I don’t know if this is peculiar to working on a student publication, but it is the only issue that I have had concerning student publications.

    I think that Clark and Fry’s strategies for conferring with writers are realistic to all publications. Any editor can put these strategies into place and have a better (more open) relationship with their writers. I think that the most effective strategies for a student publication would be simple listening and asking questions. It does not matter if the two are teammates or classmates; two brains are better than one. When two people bounce around ideas or questions they have a better chance of coming up with a great story. I wish that my editor would have tried these two strategies because I feel that if I would have had someone to consult I could have made my story great.

    I think that a short conversation or conference between reporter and editor can go a long way. It can help create an open and trusting relationship, which in turn creates a good environment. It will also help improve both the editor and the writer in the jobs that they do.

  6. My personal experience with student publications are minimal—writing one article. What I found from that experience was a real lack of communication between writer and editor. My story came back to me with fairly helpful comments, but I picked it up from an envelope and returned it to the envelope. Yes, envelope. Not editor. Sadly, I think this is a result of too much to do and too little time to do it. A student has the unique situation in which she must meet several demands for time throughout a week. Classes, homework, a job, work for the student-run magazine or newspaper, and in my case, kids and a husband that occasionally like to eat and have a clean-ish house. Put all these things together and it becomes easy to rely on email or envelopes to eliminate any further time commitment.

    Now, that being said, it sounds like a bunch of crap excuses for not doing a proper job. It is. But, I think, sometimes in the real world, just as in the student world, people get busy and there just isn’t time for the face-to-face that should happen. For an editor to shine and earn the respect of writers, she must not let the hustle and bustle of her job get in the way of actually doing her job of guiding writers to produce the best possible article to suit the publications readers.

    An editor can go through her whole career (school or otherwise) wielding her red pen, changing words as she pleases and produce what is required of her position, but she may as well just write everything herself if that’s they way she plans to do it. She will only make her life easier and save red pens if she invests time in her writers to cultivate a relationship of trust. The more she helps her writers, the more she helps herself. Sometimes, however, writers will just have to understand that changes must be made without warning in rushed situations. Once they have built a strong relationship with their editor, that will be an easier red mark to deal with.

  7. In my experience writing for student publications, I’ve found that editors are sometimes hesitant to give much feedback to their peers. I once worked with an editor who was a grade below me. Every time we met, he said my story was “okay” and that I should keep working with what I had. It was as if he didn’t think he had the credibility to tell me what he didn’t like. Really, I would have preferred constructive feedback—the “okay” version is what ended up being printed.

    I understand it can be uncomfortable for students to edit their peers. But Clark and Fry bring up some strategies that can be applied to make the situation less awkward. An editor can start by asking the writer how she feels about the story so far. That way she has the opportunity to bring up challenges/problems herself, and the editor can save some red ink. From there, the editor can continue asking questions in a conversational tone: What’s your story about? What’s your best quote? Have you found a focus? The writer may narrow the focus or improve the structure just by talking through it.

    Later, when the writer turns in the corrected draft, the editor can reinforce the peer relationship by making the writer feel like a truly talented person for being able to make the story better.

    These techniques seem perfect for a student publication because the writer receives constructive feedback and the editor isn’t left sounding/feeling like a know-it-all.

  8. Brigitte M. Haugen

    1. Having been a writer for a student publication, I don’t know if I faced any “peculiar” struggles. I thought they were quite ordinary in fact, and that the “struggle” or “problem” was my entirely my fault. My morale as a writer is currently in a narrow crevice because of it, and I am still having trouble getting out. So far I have dealt with this “writing rut” in two ways: I have been inspired to take on the role of an editor myself, with the initial thought sparked by “Coaching Writers”; and I have realized that it was not entirely my fault. I know, of course, that my fears of interviewing and writing are what initially held me back, but my editor did little or nothing to address this… which brings me to my next point.
    2. In attempting to see my situation from the editor’s point-of-view, I am not sure if Clark and Fry’s strategies were a very realistic possibility. As college students, we are here to learn and grow in our chosen field of study. As college students, we take as many opportunities as possible to heighten our learning with experience, in whatever form that may be. “Every man for himself.” I’d like to think I knew where my editor was coming from with the amount of “experience” s/he was taking on at the time, both in and out of the college bubble. I wish it hadn’t been that way, but I can see the situation more clearly now.
    a. I’d like to think all of these strategies are possible with a little practice, but in college, it can be hard. I can’t say which strategies would be more or less likely to succeed being as I am not an editor at this time. But I myself would like to try (all of them!) asking how the writer feels about his or her own work, and listening to the writer and seeing the story as they see it. For editors currently in college, I think the strategy of “work quickly” should be less of a concern. We have more time now than we will later on in life.

  9. I have always had trouble accepting the authority of student editors. When I am edited by teachers, it’s easy to take their criticism and comments to heart because they obviously have more experience and know exactly how to let me fix my own mistakes. Student editors, on the other hand, seem in my eyes to be on the same playing field as me. They’re my age, or even a year younger, and we probably share a few classes. In this kind of environment, what gives them the authority to have the final word on my writing? They are also only students. I understand, of course, that it’s a learning experience on both sides, but it just seems harder for me to deal with.

    I believe that the coaching method most important for a student publication is the one where the writer consults with the editors several times before the deadline. In my opinion, student editors shouldn’t focus so much on authority as they should on cooperation. An editor should be someone for writers to bounce ideas around with, to brainstorm with and to go to for friendly advice without any power play coming into the picture. An editor shouldn’t try to talk down to writers who are in the same scholastic boat as them, for this is where student publications fail. With frequent consultations, the writer and the editor can together work out problem areas and other concerns side-by-side and keep a healthy relationship.

    I ‘d like to try the method of editing without reading a story. This would allow the writer to polish the story before the editor sees it, and it helps the editor avoid turning the story into their own. I can fall into comma-chasing mode very easily, and this sounds like a great solution.

  10. I’m sorry this is late!

    In my experience, one situation more common on student publications is a lack of consistency. On my yearbook staff, we had varying degrees of experience editing, so I know staff writers got frustrated when edits would be reversed and then reinstated because an editor couldn’t keep up with style agreements or editors disagreed about grammar or mechanics. Another issue is that sometimes, once a story got to a certain point, it was too late to refocus. Perhaps the writer lacked the skill or vision to write the story they were assigned. The deadline was approaching, so instead of the editor returning the story and asking for repairs (ie functioning as a brick wall, as Clark and Fry call it), the unfocused story would be printed regardless.

    Clark and Fry’s suggestions definitely seem applicable to me, and I feel like the questions they suggest will help me as a writer and editor. I laughed, but I liked the eye contact advice. It goes back to listening and having a writer trust you are listening. Making a writer comfortable coming to you with concerns is a valuable skill to develop now. Keeping the goal of effective storytelling in mind is something I strive for as an editor and writer.

    Margaret, I also like the idea of editing without reading. It’s an easy way to give the writer the control they want, and as the editor, you don’t get sidetracked by poor mechanics or errors the writer can catch as they revise.

  11. Great conversation we have going here! Thanks for your reflections. I look forward to more.

    Thank you to Angie “Pedro” DiSalvo, who wrote the second post above. She’s the first non-classmate to participate (although she IS a J70 survivor — er, graduate). Angie graduated in May 2007 and works on the sports copy desk at the Colorado Springs Gazette.

    Some observations gleaned from your posts:

    1. One-on-one, in-person, face-to-face contact is essential for successful editor-writer relations. It is too easy to “communicate” via e-mail, IMs, txts, even the dreaded “envelope drop” that Heather wrote about. (That sounded more like a technique used to traffic in something illicit!) Often we’re pressed for time, so we resort to these techniques. But more often, I think, we’re nervous about talking one-on-one. We lack confidence, as writers and as editors, and it’s just easier — at least in the short run — to tell someone her story’s flaws and shortcomings electronically. The danger of such impersonal communicating is that it’s easy to brush off a writer or an editor as lazy, incompetent, insensitive, arrogant, stupid, etc. But when you get to know people, it’s harder to dismiss them. You begin to understand the real struggles they face with the story.

    2. Readers of student magazines and newspapers often forget that they are produced by students who are learning. For our JMC students on student pubs, their successes and failures are published for all to see. Where else on campus is there such a public display of students as “works- in-progress”? A chemistry major doesn’t have her failed experiment publicized for all to see!

    3. Students only have 24 hours a day, but they live as if they have 50. So many of you are involved in so many things — classes, volunteering, internships, jobs, extracurriculars. In the real-world, you have an eight-hour (OK, maybe 10, even 12!) block of time every day to produce your publication. In school, everybody’s schedules are splintered. Many times students have worked all night on publications because it’s the only time they can all meet. Brigitte, I disagree with your statement: “We have more time now than we will later on in life.” I don’t think I was ever as overworked and stressed as I was in college. The only other equivalent time in my life was graduate school — and by then I had a husband, full-time job and two kids. When all you have to do is go to work 40 hours/week, you feel like you’re on vacation compared to the college pace!

    4. We’ve been talking about “coaching writers.” But much of coaching is about helping a writer through the reporting, not just the writing. Who are good sources? Where can you find information? What public records might be available? How should you approach an interview with a reluctant source? Most good editors have at least some reporting experience under their belts.

    5. Coaching and editing go much better if the focus is on the article, not on the writer.

    6. Kyair and Tara touched on something important: Lay out expectations EARLY and CLEARLY. The time invested early in the process pays off as you get closer to deadline. Shortcuts taken early in the process multiply exponentially as deadline looms. Expectations should be made explicit long before the first draft is turned in. Take care (and time) at the assignment stage. And even before that, make sure your writers understand your publication’s audience and your publication’s mission/philosophy.

    7. Too many of us have had experiences like Molly’s and Brigitte’s. I know I have. But I have to confess that once I became an editor, it was easy to forget what that was like. Call it “editor’s amnesia.” But when you’re staring at a deadline in a couple of hours and at a stack of stories that still don’t pass muster, it’s easy to start behaving like a madman with the copy. The key as an editor is to invest the time and attention early in the reporting and in the writing (and in the reporters/writers) so you don’t find yourself painted into that corner.

  12. I agree with Margaret that I often times have a hard time accepting a student editors opinion on my piece. I understand and appreciate that they have worked hard to be in the position that they are. If they were bad writers or didn’t have a keen eye for editing they wouldn’t have that position. However, when I don’t know anything about the student editor, besides the fact that they work for this certain publication, it’s difficult to be entirely accepting of their criticism.

    I also agree that Clark and Fry’s suggestions are applicable for a student publication. Like I said before, when I don’t know anything about the person I am working with I am much more distant. I am guilty of dropping emails, texting and if I do call, praying for the answering machine. However, when I do interact with people face-to-face, bonds are formed so much quicker and I am much more efficient.

    As I said in my other post, if I were an editor I would try and understand how the writer feels about his/her piece before digging into it with a red pen. By understanding what the writer meant to do with it, an editor can edit the story in a way that keeps the writers voice alive. I think talking about the story and asking questions is the most important strategy and the most likely to succeed.

  13. Contrary to what most people have posted, I haven’t experienced any particular negative experience working with editors. On my highschool newspaper, the editors were easy to work with and offered suggestions like a good editor should. Even with my experience on Drake Mag, I have dealt with helpful people who were willing to meet one-on-one and discuss my piece before permanently sending it off to who-knows-where.

    Even though I haven’t had enough experience to make a complete judgment on student editors, I agree with Elizabeth and Margaret about the difficulty in accepting a student’s opinion. Without knowing their credibility, I sometimes assume that I know better and dismiss their suggestions. However, like I said, I haven’t enough experience to make that total judgment, but I know that I have thought it before.

    I think Clark and Fry’s suggestions are definitely appropiate for student-run publications. It isn’t too difficult or rude for an editor to press the writer about the focus of the story and immediately asking questions like, “What happened?” Like the book states, these usually don’t take much time, and it can end up saving a lot of time in the end for the final piece. Like Tara said, these simple questions can help guide the writer towards the focus of the story yet still provide them with the freedom and flexibility to express their story they intended.

  14. First off, I would like to apologize for the delay. Honestly, I tried my best to ignore my inbox all weekend… and it was glorious.

    By far the most complicated thing about student publications, especially at a school the size of Drake or my high school, is that the writers and editors usually do have significant relationships with each other outside of the newsroom, be they friendships or feuds. I can think of several times when I have been passed over for a story, or selected to write a story, not because of my reporting abilities, but because of the personal relationship I had with the editor in charge.

    The best way to elevate any complications in the newsroom that may arise from previously established relationships is to be proactive. As Kyair said, it is important to define the role that the editors and reporters have from the beginning, and to stick to those guidelines.

    Although most student run publications are not organized in such a way that editors can be in communication with reporters though out a story’s creation, I felt Clark and Fry’s were spot on when they said editors should provide some specific advice and criticism, and anything is better than nothing. It can be as simple as a two sentence email response to the writer, outlining any style points they should keep in mind for the next piece or a short note of praise.

  15. I totally get this post. I had to leave a comment.

    Now, when you say a student newspaper or magazine, do you also mean website?

    I’m a J-student and as part of my course we run a regional news website: http://www.newswire.co.nz (yes in far away New Zealand). The editor is Jim Tucker.

    My self and a couple of others have taken on peer tutoring roles. It involves image cropping, formatting, uploading and layout etc, just running the site, managing online accounts, those things which don’t come as naturally to some people (our class of 25 ranges from 17-57 years old).

    We were lucky enough to have Dave Lee over for a couple of months to help us set it up and those in the class with experience in web content were quickly drafted into the ‘web editor’ team.

    And we have encountered a few minor issues.

    Mainly, it is really time consuming for the web editors.

    Focusing on our own leads and stories, plus the curriculum, plus managing large amounts of copy and images from the 25 strong class. Above and beyond.

    We are under pressure to help people with things because we have the experience, and we want the site to stay looking fresh etc.

    Now that’s cool with me, I really enjoy sharing what I know, but I am after all just a student like everyone else, and need time for my own work.

    Sometimes I think my peers are happy just to get the web editors to do things they should really learn themselves.

    We think the solution to that is to get more class time to teach our classmates how to do all of these things, I think i’m teaching SEO tomorrow. I’m kind of nervous. We have worked out some payment from the school for our teaching, so that’s great.

    Interesting thread 🙂

  16. Yikes, Luke. You are doing what in the real world a staff of full-time professionals would do!

    I, too, have seen the disproportionate burden placed on Web folks. Too often, providing content for the Web is an afterthought for writers. Then there’s a big scramble on deadline.

    Managing content for the Web is a mystery for a lot of people. Because they don’t understand what’s involved, they don’t know how much work it can be.

    I absolutely agree that the solution is to teach your classmates to do it, or at least some of it. That’s hard to do with continual deadlines, but in the long-run will serve you all. You’ll have more time, and your classmates will have better skills.

    Keep fighting the good fight! I’m looking forward to checking out your site. And it was great to hear from a friend on the other side of the planet!

  17. I’ve always felt the biggest problem with student publications is that some people just don’t know what they’re doing! I’ve frequently had peers edit my work (both as peer editing and as my Editor) who will make mistakes in their “edit,” fix something that isn’t wrong or give me bad advice. This is very frustrating and a very hard situation to handle as a student. In addition, I’ve frequently dealt with people who are very non confrontational about their editing or their help. Before as a sectional editor, I had my managing editor go into my work and change things that she felt weren’t just right. And this wasn’t on deadline either!

    On the other hand, I have also had good experiences with this “coaching” thing. At my high school newspaper, the adviser was a wonderfully helpful editor. She did all of the things that Clark and Fry suggest. She would always sit me down in a one on one situation and ask me where I felt I was in my writing. She would truthfully answer my questions and provided a LOT of guidance. She NEVER corrected grammatical mistakes; that was the copy editor’s job. I definitely learned from her and whenever given a piece to peer edit, try and do so in the same way. It is hard for a lot of students to give/take criticism, which is understandable. Over time, I think people learn how to do both better.

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