College online journalism: thinking outside the page

By Jason Morrison

This article was written for Newswriting and Reporting class at Ohio Wesleyan University.

Pete Lawrence selects another article, copies it, and pastes it in place. He's set up his Macintosh to make most of the work automatic, though repetitive. For many articles, the only thing he needs to type is the name of the reporter. But putting a newspaper online takes time, despite shortcuts.

Though he graduated this spring and now works as web content manager at Digital Storage, Inc. near Columbus, every Wednesday night he's webmaster of The Transcript Online, Ohio Wesleyan University's student newspaper on the Web.

"The hardest thing about doing this job is just coming home and doing it after staring at a computer all day," Pete says. He's dressed comfortably now, in jeans and a sweatshirt, but his tired eyes and thickened five o'clock shadow are evidence he began early that morning.


Jessica Brandt, a junior at Kent State University, is editor at the Digital Kent Stater. She spends two hours each day, four days a week, inserting and formatting the news. Chatting over Instant Messenger, she's quick to admit the site needs work-right now, the print Kent Stater's articles are just "dumped" online, but she plans to spend much of her break redesigning the site.

"The problem we have is that there is no staff," she says. "I mean, if I didn't have to spend all my time at work first fighting with Transporter to not crash the Macs and then setting up the front page, then I could do so much more."


Emily Christensen, a junior at Wichita State University, is online editor at The Sunflower. She says she spends 30 to 60 hours a week working on the site, which is published three times each week. Like Jessica, she would like to have more staff.

"I also have that inferiority complex that I think is common among people who work on the Web site for a traditional media," Emily says. "While I think what I'm doing is terribly important, the print side gets priority in every aspect, including the budget."


Webmasters, digital editors and online editors are doing similar work in schools all over the country. What attracts them to publish their school newspapers online?

The field is certainly growing. According to Media Metrix, a company that collects Internet ratings statistics, CNN.com Web pages received 4,203,000 unique visitors in October alone. MSNBC.com received 7,151,000 and the America Online News Channel a staggering 13,967,000. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' 1998-2008 employment projections, the five fastest-growing occupations are computer-related.

But does student experience translate into real job opportunities, and is that the only reason for student papers to go online? Eric Meyer, online publisher of AJR-NewsLink and assistant professor of journalism at the University of Illinois, answers the first question.

"Those who decide to go into the field have been very successful," Eric says. "Their average starting salary from last year was in excess of $43,000. A fairly sizeable number of them went to major news organizations based in New York, Washington or other leading cities."

A message posted on u-news, a mailing list devoted to online journalism, prompted several success stories. Angie Van De Hey, once a student of Eric's and now a sports designer at FoxSports.com, said her online experience with the Marquette University Tribune helped get her where she is today.

"My journalism degree was important in job hunting, but the work I did outside of class is what seemed to close the deal," Angie says. "I don't think the Baltimore Sun or Fox would've bothered with me if I didn't have Web design experience.

"[Eric] encouraged me at the start of my senior year to get into the field ASAP because that's where he saw jobs opening up. That was probably the turning point for me because at the time, I was really just enjoying myself. I hadn't really given much thought to using this as a launch-pad into the professional world. I still kinda had my head in the sand."

Jessica has already had some real world offers.

"Today I got a call from Cleveland Live," she says. "And I really wanted to do it, but I'd have to not take classes and I'd be so behind it's not even funny. I am really behind in my classes it's tough to juggle the print aspect of my major while learning the online part too."

Walt Nett, Online News Editor at The Bakersfield Californian, says he thinks student online experience is an asset.

"In fact, it's something of an advantage these days," he says. "But things have changed a lot since 1994. Back then, HTML was new and a little scary to those of us who hadn't touched it before. So in Tucson, we initially went for non-journalists who knew the Web and HTML, and decided that it would be easier for us to give them some on-the-job training in news.

"It worked, but there was a lot of culture shock for our early designers. Things have changed. With the tons of Web design tools out there, the best mix in a new hire is to look for people who have a grasp of the Web, but are also well grounded in news principles."

For many professionals, including almost all of those who graduated before the 1990s, student online experience wasn't an option-it wasn't invented yet. Walt falls into this category, and though he thinks online experience is important, he's found working in production and as night editor in college has helped prepare him for online work.

Others say working on your school paper's Web site isn't a sure bet. D. Ian Hopper is the technology editor at CNN.com, a well-known site many journalism students would love to work for. He says that online experience isn't everything.

"It's a factor, but at this league (national Web site with about 350 million page views a month), we need a lot more than that," he says. "Daily print experience, I've found, is the best way to get to this level. Online journalism may be different from print, but it still requires solid writing and editing skills. Newspapers are still the best place to find that."

For others, the net is just another way to get good reporting out to readers. Rachel Moore, sports producer at Michigan Live, didn't work online while an undergraduate at Carleton University, and only became involved in online journalism while writing a paper for a degree in sports management at the University of New Brunswick. She credits her success to getting out in the field.

"I can tell you my online experience (or lack thereof) was relatively unimportant to them compared to my journalism experience," she says. "They used to hire for Internet skills first; now they hire for journalism skills, because so much of our site is not automated, and it's the ideas that are important now."

To many students, their college online experience is more than just one more step up the career path. Pete, in a Dow Jones Newspaper Fund internship at the Indianapolis Star this summer, decided against going into online journalism full-time.

"[The internship] kind of showed me more what I didn't want to do than what I did want to do," Pete says. "I liked the freshness of the site. News is changing every day so there's new stuff to put up there and they update it all day long. You're not just sitting around waiting for something to happen."

Pete pauses, looking at the screen. He selects another story, copies and pastes it into place. He's using BBEdit, a "bare bones" text-editing program, to format the articles in HTML. This article has a photo as well, so Pete copies the caption and inserts the generic code he's written for a horizontal image. After the paper is printed each week, Pete downloads the entire newspaper on to his computer and has to copy and paste each story, headline, byline, and photo individually. He continues.

"But once you get into the news part of it, it gets a little tricky because people at the news organization aren't real receptive to this yet. That was pretty much the feeling everywhere-they pretty much decided, 'Wow everyone else has a Web site I guess we'll get a Web site.' They needed a Web team so they pulled an online department and they're up on the third floor in this little office and they do their thing and we do the newspaper. There's kind of a struggle for and online department to be recognized by the print people as something valid because a lot of them don't see it that way.

"I didn't really like the struggle of having to fight that this is something valuable."

Pete has reason to believe it's valuable. Since he redesigned the The Transcript Online more than a year ago, he's received email about the site from alumni, and in a recent Transcript survey of 244 students 58 percent said they would read the Transcript Online after graduation or while off-campus. The same survey, however, demonstrates part of what makes these students' jobs so frustrating-less than half of those surveyed knew the paper was online beforehand and only 15 percent had ever visited the site.

Jessica says the Stater is in a similar position.

"I got one letter from last year's editor, saying how he hopes I can do with the site what he always wished to do, and another from the editor of two years ago who said the same thing," she says. "I got a letter from some alumni who was quick to point out a goddamn spelling mistake, and then some other crap. No one reads the Digital Stater."

But that may change in the near future. Jessica has big plans for the site-she wants to do things the print Stater could never do.

"I want the site to be not just a dump site for the print Stater, but an actual site with content, that people will visit over and over again," she types, excited to discuss her plans. Instant Messenger's incoming message sound echoes her rapid-fire keystrokes.

"I want interactive features like a chat room, message board and weekly polls. I want online-only content like columns and stories that didn't make it to the print paper due to space, and pictures that didn't make it. I want static pages like local entertainment guides.

"Unfortunately, I know little about design. Now I wear two hats, designer and editor. The first step is to learn Photoshop and get myself comfortable with design."

Teaching yourself new skills seems to be a common theme in student online work. Emily says she's taught herself BBEdit, PhotoShop, DreamWeaver, Fireworks and other software.

"I spend quite a lot of time learning how to use software and researching how to make the production process easier," she says. "I put in longer hours than most of the print staff, because I produce the Web site mostly by myself. I'm also paid less than most of the print editors, who are paid for writing in addition to their salaries. But I also have a lot more autonomy than people working in print. While I work under my editor, I have a lot more leeway in design and content than if I were working print production."

Not all schools have classes that cover online news, and those classes are often few and far between. Ohio Wesleyan has only added an Internet-related journalism class since Pete's graduation, and it deals with research, not publishing. Eric says his classes, 'Information Design' and 'Online Publishing,' fill within the first couple days, though he tries to sneak in a few more students than the maximum-online publishing often has the largest enrollment of any elective in the school.

And though Jessica has gotten into similar classes at Kent, her major does not make it easy.

"I am taking a class called 'Design for Cybermedia' and a workshop called 'Internet Media' or something," she says. "There are many other classes I could take, but I don't have time for them in my schedule. It is hard to take journalism classes and technology classes together. It needs to be a separate concentration-I am a magazine concentration.

"Everyone is so busy trying to graduate as print majors that no one has time to delve into the cybermedia aspect. It is very hard to balance both."

For Pete, the balance has tipped toward the online world.

"One of the questions they asked in the interview for this job was, 'If you're a journalism major, why didn't you want to go out and be Woodward and pick up a beat and just start writing news stories all the time?' That's not the life I want to lead. I don't want to get paged at 3 a.m. and go interview people burning in a fire.

"[Working for Digital Storage] is a little different form traditional journalism but the things I'm doing now are kind of related. My main focus on the job is writing and editing and maintaining the content. People say, 'That should be on the Internet for our customers to see,' and I end up coordinating it, putting it together and actually putting it on there somehow."

Scrolling down the page, Pete notices a caption that needs to be changed. Errors occasionally make it in to the Web site, but usually he's the first to catch them. It's nearing 10 p.m. and he's getting tired-he doesn't feel much like a college student anymore. He hopes a current Ohio Wesleyan student takes over for him soon.

"I'm hoping someone will do it because I think it's pretty important. I think The Transcript is reaching more people through the web site."

Jessica, on the other hand, wouldn't want to give up the helm of the Digital Stater any time soon.

"There is so much we could do with this site. But I just have to take it very slowly, so that I don't get it all up and then vanish like the last two editors did.

"Online journalism is very appealing to me. It is do fresh and new, I can bring my own ideas into it. There are still no standards. I will set the standards."

Copyright 2000 Jason Morrison