Michigan State University graduate students are combining academic research and original journalism to report for local newsrooms

Last year, The Lansing State Journal published a thoroughly reported story on the history of marijuana legalization in Michigan. 

However, the story was not written by a journalist. The byline on the piece belonged to a doctoral candidate in the history department at Michigan State University. The student was the first participant in a pilot project to place graduate students in local newsrooms. 

“What we offer news organizations is a model that gives them access to a pool of expertise and talent on specific subjects that if they can tap into that, they can potentially have some way of creating and generating deeply researched and reported stories on issues that are vital to their communities without having that beat reporter around,” said Michigan State University history professor Michael Stamm.

This week in Solution Set we’re going to dig into the partnership between the Lansing State Journal and Michigan State to understand the thinking behind the project and learn how news organizations can utilize the expertise that’s already in their community. 

Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one neat thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources. 


 

Here’s the TLDR:


TLDR

• The Challenge: Given a changing academic job market, Michigan State University wanted to provide opportunities for graduate students outside of higher education. The Lansing State Journal was looking for ways to fill gaps in expertise in its newsroom. 

• The Strategy: MSU and the LSJ partnered to provide opportunities for grad students in the newsroom. It started with an internship for one history Ph.D. student, but expanded to include science students as well.  

• The Numbers: The initial pilot was originally funded by the MSU History Department, but the team received a grant from a broader university program to expand the project. 

• The Lessons: More newsrooms should tap into the knowledge that exists in their community. It can take some time to teach people the conventions of journalism, but it’s “not rocket science.”

The Future: The folks at MSU and the LSJ are now looking for additional funding to continue the project.

Want to know more?: Scroll down to learn more about other ways newsrooms and academics are working together. 


The Challenge

Like every newsroom, the Gannett-owned Lansing State Journal has had to deal with cutbacks.

The newsroom covers Michigan’s capital and the surrounding region. 

State Journal storytelling coach Matt Miller knew the paper did not have the resources to bring on additional reporters, so he began thinking about other ways the outlet could add expertise and subject area knowledge to the newsroom.  

His thoughts turned to the institution just down the road from the State Journal — Michigan State University, which is located in nearby East Lansing.

“Our newsroom has gotten smaller. Folks have less time to develop the specific kind of expertise that allows them to see stories where we might not otherwise see them,” Miller said. “It struck me that the university has all sorts of people who can do that, but they don’t necessarily have an incentive to write for us or a practice of writing for us.” 

Over at Michigan State, professor Michael Stamm, who studies the history of journalism, was looking for ways to help students find opportunities outside academia. 

The academic job market is challenging, and an increasing number of graduate students are looking to utilize their knowledge and degrees in ways other than becoming professors. 

“There’s been an increasingly contracting job market, even before the Great Recession, and since then it’s just been abysmal,” Stamm said. “But those of us involved in graduate education for historians have also realized that students themselves over the course of their life cycle in a Ph.D. program often make a decision that they don’t want to be a professor. They want to be a historian, and they want to do something that does good for the public, but they don’t want to do it as a faculty member.”

Stamm and Miller regularly chat, and they kept coming back to these challenges in their conversations before they settled on an idea: Could Michigan State graduate students contribute to the State Journal? 


The Strategy

The program launched in 2017, with one history Ph.D. student working part-time at the State Journal newsroom to report a couple of feature stories. (The position was paid and initially funded by the History Department. I’ll get into this in The Numbers.) 

The first student to participate was Ryan Huey, a doctoral candidate writing his dissertation on the White Panther Party, a group of Michigan-based counterculture leaders who formed the group in the late 1960s in solidarity with the Black Panther party. 

Huey worked closely with Miller to take areas of interest from his research and other interests and turn them from academically minded ideas into public-minded articles that could appear in a newspaper. 

Over the course of several months, Huey conducted original reporting as well as incorporated academic sources and interviews from his own research. He published two feature stories in 2018: A history of legalized marijuana in Michigan, featuring the story of John Sinclair who was arrested for possessing two joints in 1967. His supporters put on a concert to advocate for his release in December 1971 featuring a 3 a.m. performance by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Sinclair was released days later. 

John Lennon and Yoko Ono perform at the John Sinclair Freedom Rally (Source: Michiganensian.)

He also wrote about how the sugar beet industry brought some of the first Latinx immigrants to the Lansing area. 

Around the same time, Miller was contacted by Julie Rojewski, the program manager of MSU BEST, which stands for Michigan State University Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training. The federally funded program’s goal is to provide experiences outside of the lab to STEM students. 

A number of students were interested in scientific communications, so Rojewski invited Miller to speak with the students about science journalism. 

This was around the time Miller and Stamm were working on the first pilot, and together with Rojewski they decided to expand the program to include the BEST students. (Who, by the way, are called BESTies, which I love.)

They received outside funding to support the expansion, and the approach for the science students was a bit different. The program expanded to other local outlets, including WKAR, Lansing’s public radio station, and The Detroit Free Press, which is also owned by Gannett.)

The participating students included historians, chemistry students, and other STEM concentrations as well. They then pitched stories to the editors they were working with on issues related to science, health, and the environment. 

There was an initial orientation, but much of the learning happened on a one-on-one basis with the students and Miller along with other editors. 

“The students who got the most out of it took advantage of Matt’s offer to be in the LSJ newsroom and listen to them talk,” Rojewski said. “He walked them through the journalistic ethics and standards, and individually trained them on how to reach out to a source, take notes, record, and navigate all of that.” 


The Numbers

The project pilot was initially funded by the history department. Michigan State’s graduate student teaching assistants are unionized, so Huey, the first participant, used the work at the State Journal as his job instead of teaching a class. 

When the program expanded to include the BESTies, they were unable to unlock $10,000 in additional funding from a Michigan State program. 

“That’s what allowed us some time and space, money, and infrastructure to launch it,” Rojewski said.

The science students were paid a $1,500 stipend for their work — $15/hour for about 100 hours of work. 

In addition to the two stories Huey wrote, the four participating science students contributed stories on topics such as a brain computer interface developed at the University of Michigan and how to treat hypertension

The stories were all well received. Huey’s marijuana story attracted more than 20,000 visitors. And many of the other stories received upwards of 50,000 pageviews. Some State Journal stories were also picked up by USA Today. 

“For academics, these are pieces that have been read by more people than will ever read the scholarship that anyone involved in this program will write. Scholarly journals, if they get into four digits you’re lucky,” Stamm. 

Beyond the metrics, many of the stories resonated with particular communities. 

Huey’s story on the beet industry wasn’t as well read, but it “elicited a much stronger response,” Miller said. 

“Latino folks in the community wrote to say, ‘Thanks for telling our story.’ Some of these stories are not the kinds of stories that are easy to tell or that are likely to be told. It was good to have someone who had the skills and context actually setting out to tell it.” 


The Lessons

• This isn’t rocket science: Miller and the other journalists involved in the project worked with the participating students to learn to think about how to best write for a general interest audience. 

“News writing isn’t rocket science,” Miller said. “You can take a fairly smart person and educate them in the conventions of news writing pretty quickly. What took a lot longer…is that they’re used to speaking in a language that serves a few purposes: It has a precision for people who are educated in the same ways that they are, but also it marks them as people who know what they’re talking about, who have done the reading, and who have dotted their I’s and crossed their T’s.”

He continued: “A lot of what we did was talk about how do you push all of that to the background so a really accessible story can emerge. I used to say…sometimes it’s OK to just know things and not put in the story that we know them.” 

The historians and the scientists posed different challenges, Miller said. The history students wanted to cite all their sources and add in exhaustive background and contextual information that weighed down the narrative. It took some practice for the scientists to write about complex topics in a way that was clear and relevant to a general audience. 

“How do you nest those ideas in stories about human beings that are going to make it easier for folks to connect with them and see their significance?” Miller said.

The process required some hands-on editing, but Miller said it was worth the investment of time and resources to get the stories published and to allow the students come to understand how to write with a journalistic voice.

“You can’t count on people reading all 5,000 or 10,000 words you want to write,” he said. “You have to assume that you have an audience that is distracted, has lots of other things they’re doing with their day and their reading time. You have to think about how do I not let every little detail be the enemy of people getting to the end of my story or to the next thing that will make them want to read more in my story.” 

• Pay the students: The students who participated in the program was paid for their time and work. 

“Students shouldn’t do it for free,” Rojewski said. “Journalists should be paid for their work.” 

They worked to make sure that all the participants were compensated fairly for their work. Still, Stamm wanted to avoid turning the program into a gig economy “Uber for subject expertise journalism.” 

“What we offer news organizations is a model that gives them access to a pool of expertise and talent on specific subjects that if they can tap into that, they can potentially have some way of creating and generating deeply researched and reported stories on issues that are vital to their communities without having that beat reporter around,” Stamm said. “If news organizations can figure out a model where the compensation is fair, I think this can be a mutually beneficial thing.”

As newsrooms look to their communities to help fill the gaps in their news coverage, it’s important that the arrangements are equitable for everyone involved.  

Utilize expertise in your community: In the 2015-16 academic year, there were 7,021 post secondary educational institutions in the United States, according to the National Center for Education Statistics

That’s a lot of schools, which in turn have a ton of really smart people working for them. There’s a significant opportunity for local news organizations to tap into the expertise that’s already within reach.  

Newsrooms should look beyond colleges, too — there are all sorts of resources and local experts that they certainly could learn from and elevate their voices. 

One of the students’ biggest takeaways as part of this initiative was how much readers valued stories that were rooted in their own community.

“You need to root it in the community of readers so that they feel connected to it,” Rojewski said. “Sometime that meant finding local sources who could talk to them.” 

For example, one of the students wrote an article about research into hypertension, and Miller helped them find a local woman who was being treated for high blood pressure. “That story could be told anywhere, but making it local increases impact,” she said. 

Combining subject area expertise and local knowledge is a powerful way to serve communities. 

“We look at this as being something that helps with local coverage,” Stamm said. “We really want to help local news organizations. We happen to be in a college town next to a mid-sized city, but it’s a model that works in any locality. It’s simply a matter of finding people in newsrooms that are interested and able to do this. We’ve had a lot of enthusiasm from the student perspective. It’s really an experiment in reinvigorating local coverage. 


The Future

The second cohort of participants has wrapped up, and now Stamm, Rojewski, and Miller are looking for new sources of funding to continue the program. 

They’ve reached out to funders in both the journalism and academic spaces to see if there would be continued interest. They’ve also thought about more creative ways to fund the work, for instance by including line-items for communications or journalism in other grants. 

They’ve also looked to outlets in Michigan beyond the Lansing area and Gannett. While thinking about how this “can fit into the regular freelance budget of a mid-sized paper, Stamm said. 

Discussions are ongoing on all fronts. One of the students is also working on a program assessment to evaluate the impact of the program. 

And while many of the students who took part in the program are interested in journalism, none of them have since pursued it professionally. They are continuing to work through their Ph.D. programs. 

Even if the students don’t go into journalism, all involved still feel there’s value for them to share their insights with the community. 

“It’s a low-cost high-impact kind of public communication,” Stamm said. “We’re trying to find some way of getting funding to sustain the project in some way. Depending on what the funding is, we can do different things with it.”


Want to know more?

• The Lenfest Institute is funding a project to support increased collaboration between historians and journalists in the Philadelphia area. My colleague Kyra Miller reported on the program recently. (I actually first met Stamm, Rojewski, and Miller after they read Kyra’s story.) 

• The Conversation is a nonprofit news site that promotes the work of academics to news organizations. Learn more about the organization here from Nieman Lab. (I also wrote last year about how the site uses archival content.) 

• The Philadelphia Inquirer in September hosted an event that brought together 250 health professionals to learn how to share their expertise and experiences with the broader community through journalism and storytelling. Learn more about the conference, which was supported by the Lenfest Institute as well, here


Anything to add?

How’s your newsroom bringing in experts from the community? I’d love to learn more about how you’re thinking about this. 

I also want to let you know about a new funding opportunity from the Solutions Journalism Network. Here’s SJN’s Alec Saelens with more detail: 

The Solutions Journalism Network is launching a new pilot project to help local newsrooms do high-quality solutions journalism stories and series, and use this journalism to raise revenue.

SJN will onboard approximately 10 newsroom partners based across the US. Applicants should be local news organizations facing financial difficulties and serving communities that are marginalized in some way. Selected newsrooms will also form a community of practice and must be dedicated to share and learn from each others’ experiences.

The local newsroom revenue project manager, Alec Saelens, will work with SJN’s regional managers to deliver solutions journalism training. Alec will also work with experts to help newsrooms identify revenue and product development opportunities, and provide in-person as well as remote coaching as needed.

Selected newsrooms will receive small grants (up to a total of $10,000) to produce solutions journalism and experiment with business growth strategies built around that journalism.

For more information visit the project page here.

The project will onboard newsroom partners during two simple application phases:

The first round of applications will close on November 30th 2019.
The second round of applications will be open early 2020 (dates to be confirmed).

This sounds like a great opportunity, and I hope you apply.

See you next Thursday! 


Creative Commons photo of Michigan State University mascot Sparty by Bryan Fuller/MGoBlog

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