Archive for September, 2019

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What is a generally excellent publication?

September 2, 2019

When I was teaching I taught my newspaper staffs, news writing classes, and mass communications survey classes that the goal of a news publication should be to be generally excellent. Some publications will have star reporters, photographers, or designers that would add to the identity of a publication, but what the reader/consumer deserves is a publication that does a good job across the publication in storytelling. The challenge comes when you try to define what generally excellent means.

It is a topic still on my mind as I regularly monitor online publication sites of California community college publications and produce a newsletter focused on community college journalism education and maintain a Facebook site that reposts stories from student publications.

There are many definitions of what makes a generally excellent publication.

  • Is it the way it looks (design)? Is it the scope of stories it covers, and what does that mean? For instance, does it cover a wide range of topics or does it focus on its geographic community? Should it repackage news from larger organizations so readers who don’t read other newspapers get at least some international, national, and regional news? Or should it focus on hyperlocal news?
  • Is it how well written and edited those stories are?
  • Is it all text, or does it provide a visually convenient way for its readers to find and understand complex stories?
  • Is it investigative or does it focus on covering events? Does having a major catastrophe happen locally give some publications an edge?
  • How about its editorial leadership?
  • Does its frequency make a difference? After all, some student publications come out as often as weekly (daily for some universities) while other have cut print versions to few and far between, if at all, relying on a digital distribution. (As an instructor, I found it difficult to motivate students to think about the demands of an online publication when they did not have a print version demanding a specific timeline. For instance, an event story can go online the same or next day, but if the print version of the publication was a week away then students took much longer to complete event stories.
  • Does the number of news stories it covers matter? And how about its balance of content. Beginning student journalists are more fond of writing opinion stories that require little or no extra information gathering on their part or “news” stories that repackage news from other sources, neither of which requires them to actually get out and talk to sources.
  • What role does consistency play? Any staff can put full effort into one or two issues, but maintaining consistency of excellence is much more difficult, especially with staffs rotating in and out every five or four or five months.

The Journalism Association of Community College for nearly seven decades has honored outstanding student publications with a general excellence award. Probably in the early 1990s it started adopting a definition of general excellence along the lines of the Associated Collegiate Press association and looks at five categories of excellence:

  1. Coverage and Content
  2. Writing and Editing
  3. Range of Opinion Content
  4. Layout and Design, and
  5. Use of Photography, Art and Graphics

Over more recent years JACC has lowered the threshold of how many issues a school year a publication needs to publish to qualify and has effectively jettisoned any distinction between broadsheet and tabloid publications. It still “discriminates” between print publications and online publications and holds a separate contest for online publications and print publications and offers a separate contest for online publications using similar criteria as that listed above. And online general excellence is considered when adding up sweepstakes awards.

It has wisely abandoned a horse race view of general excellence whereby awards were limited in number and there was a distinction between first, second, third, etc. place and decided to set a standard and award all those who met the standard, knowing if the standard was low enough that everyone easily met it then it was time to tighten the standard to encourage growth.

And while it has opened up its individual and writing and photography contests up to online entries –despite online audiences having different habits than print audience– it has not yet taken on the next step of evaluating news organizations as integrated units.

I used to teach my students that news publications served (or ought to serve) multiple roles to their audiences, too.

I argued that news publications serve a political or watchdog role, an economic role, a sentry role portending future trends, the traditional historical or record-keeping role, an entertainment role, a social role, and a marketplace of ideas and leadership role, among others. (For example, one could argue that the role of a print newspaper is to provide fish wrapping material. My mother used to use the newspaper as a source for grocery coupons, but I would include that in my definition that encompasses the economic role.)

Also big with me was the scope of sources students used in writing their stories. Part of my grading criteria included whether students actually talked to multiple sources for each story, or did they rely on what I referred to as “bogus” or “indirect” sources, sources where they merely quoted other publications. I guess you could call them primary vs. secondary sources, but that allows for their “primary” sources to be people, such as their friends or family, who had no direct knowledge of the story.

I was so focused on use of sources that major part of my weekly critiques of student work included counting up the number of sources used in each story in the publication. Knowing that some articles, such as opinion pieces, often did not include direct sources, I then emphasized the average of sources per story throughout the publication. If it fell below 2.0 then we either had too many non-source stories (balance) or we weren’t reaching out to enough stories. And I also noted that since we considered students to be the largest portion of our audience and most stories impacted them, then there should be student sources in most stories.

As I mentioned above, I run a newsletter and maintain a Facebook site that routinely looks at online versions of news written by California community colleges. One of the disturbing trends I see is the number of repackaged stories and opinion stories included in those publications. Outside of sports stories, there are relatively few original news stories. (And when it gets to sports opinion and arts opinion, students seem to focus on professional sports and non-local arts stories.) Many of those display and disturbingly small number of direct sources.

Allowing student staffs to write repackaged stories does have value in giving them curation experience, and those stories MAY be of more interest to student readers. (An early editor who influenced my journalism education told me once that there were two types of stories readers should be exposed to: the ones they want to read and the ones they OUGHT to read.) But I wonder if we are training our students in the journalism tradition when we fail to push them into the uncomfortable role of actually talking to sources.

And I wonder if a publication that overly relies on opinion stories and non-original/second-hand stories is truly generally excellent.

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