Interview: Nicholas Persac, Editor in Chief, LSU’s Daily Reveille

Nicholas Persac’s non-journalism friends hate when he talks about The Daily Reveille, the standout student newspaper at Louisiana State University he currently oversees as editor in chief.  Why?  Because if you get him started . . . “I can just go on and on and on. It’s just something I’m so passionate about that I could talk for days.”

He is overseeing a paper and staff of more than 100 students meshing new media and rock star-quality journalism. Among the coolest initiatives: a daily photographic “Snapshot” slideshow capturing everyday campus life away from all-things-staged; a “Cut to the Chase” section on the Web dedicated solely to the ongoing saga of university budget cuts (I *love* this); and online extras such as a campus crime map and a university faculty salary database.

Below is Part 1 of a fascinating interview with the Baton Rouge native, a man who radiates journalism passion and leads a staff who he relates is “thrilled to be a part of journalism today and . . . excited to see where it will take us.”

Daily Reveille editor in chief Nicholas Persac rides a bronze tiger.  He later put the paper to bed.

Daily Reveille editor in chief Nicholas Persac rides a bronze tiger outside LSU's Tiger Stadium. He later helped put the paper to bed.

What are your goals for The Daily Reveille in the coming year?

First, we aim to do things at the core of journalism- the staples of reporting and promoting change by holding people accountable and publishing the truth. Secondly, we aim to do things from a business standpoint- the content consumers want and are interested in that may not necessarily be the journalism of Murrow and Cronkite.

In the former category, the most notable new thing we’re doing this semester is stressing the creation and reporting of databases, a personal goal of mine and for the paper. Last year, at the direction of then-editor Kyle Whitfield, we published a database of all university professors’ salaries, which are public record in Louisiana, and then reported on trends— differences in pay by department, gender and race. Because of its great success, this semester we’re aiming to publish at least five new databases— like admissions trends, data from Career Services about jobs students get, money donated to state politician’s campaigns, etc. We’re looking to focus on campus issues but will tackle a few state issues as well.

We’re teaching our reporters to use public record requests to get such data, how to arrange it, analyze it and report from it. Plus, readers want the data right there in front of them so they can come to their own conclusions or simply read our stories to see the trends. Each database will have numbers arranged in several pages of spreadsheets so people can look at them sorted differently. We’ll write at least three stories from each database, ideally more, and then update the numbers periodically.

In the business category, we’re doing a few fun and popular ideas that will not only draw viewers to our Web site but also bring in ad revenue by having them sponsored.  The first is branded segment videos our multimedia department will produce. We’ll have three, on set days each week. The first is a cooking show where a reporter finds a different cook to teach students a new dish. Ideas include dorm-room cooking, tailgate cooking, cooking on a college budget, meals from international student organizations and many more. The second is one-on-one interviews with student athletes, who are often considered campus celebrities, to talk about things other than their athletic endeavors to show they’re somewhat normal college students. The third video is a “reporter does” segment where the videographer goes to places in Baton Rouge for entertainment that students may not know exist. Ideas include museums, parks, shooting ranges or interesting tours. We’ll include all the relevant information so students can get out there and do it themselves.

The last two ideas to please consumers I’ll mention are geared at sports fans, which realistically bring us the most Web hits because we’re able to so closely cover athletics in an area of the country where sports trump academics. We’re going to have a “season tracker” for the big three— football, baseball and basketball— that’s a road map of the season where viewers can click game-by-game to find links to stories, photo slideshows, related videos and game statistics. Users can essentially learn the whole season halfway through or look back at it years from now to see how the 2009 Tigers played. We’re also going to have an “away game guides” on our Web site which will be more entertainment-geared for students traveling to other colleges for away games. We’ll include the “water cooler” info about the school— number of students, stadium capacity, etc.— as well as what to do when you get to the other city— bars friendly to Tigers, spots to see on campus, must-eat meals, etc.

So basically, our goals are to give our reporters the best education they can from the standpoint of becoming top-notch journalists and reporters while learning the importance of meeting consumer demands, both in an increasingly digital world.

What are the biggest challenges currently facing the paper?

Though we do get a small student fee, we’re facing increased printing costs and declining ad revenue. Our editorial boards have taken harsh opposition stances on other entities increasing fees in the past, so we likely won’t endorse increasing our own fee, meaning we have to find a way to make up for the rising cost by somehow boosting ad sales.

We have a great ads department handling the creation and sales, and we have brainstormed several ways to make this happen. We’re sponsoring segments of our Web site and our podcasts and videos, none of which was done in the past. Basically we have been making great content people are using, so sticking an ad on there will help the paper survive without the students paying more for it.

But most noticeably, we’re running a small advertisement on our front page. We scrapped the three-day forecast at the very bottom of our paper to sell the space. I’m OK with this move . . . [in part because] most metro and national newspapers already have front-page ads, so we’re late to adapting that trend. The space we’re selling on A1 was essentially wasted anyway. We have to be creative in how we make money, and we’re doing everything we can to bring in more ad dollars than in the past.

To all the haters out there: Why does the newspaper matter?

I think college newspapers in general are important for many reasons, but above all because we’re the ones devoting all of our time, efforts and resources to covering every inch of campus, which is something our metro paper can’t afford to do. In a time when our university is facing record-breaking budget cuts, we’re here to find out what the bottom line for students will be. When the football team changes starters, we’re the first to let you know. The list goes on, but the point is we’re giving students the news relevant to their daily lives and happenings they won’t find elsewhere.

Furthermore, people should note the importance of training the journalists who will in the very near future control mainstream media. Just like we’re holding university officials accountable right now, in a few years we students will be working for the big media outlets and holding the nation’s policy makers accountable. We’ll always need news organizations and journalists- even if we don’t have print newspapers- so giving student journalists the learning experience is critical in the same way that letting a pre-med student learn in a lab is important.

A memorable behind-the-scenes production moment.

I have two very memorible moments from my college journalism career thus far. The first comes when I was chief staff writer as a second-semester sophomore. LSU’s chancellor was being forced out of his job amid criticism from the Board of Supervisors. An anonymous caller phoned the newsroom around 9 at night telling us he heard the chancellor had resigned (rather than being fired). So I called everyone I could- all the PR folks, etc.- but no information could be confirmed. The Daily Reveille adviser, Melissa Moore, walked in and said, “Well, you should go knock on his door.”

So it’s almost 10 on a weeknight, and I find myself walking up to the Chancellor’s Residence, which is this beautiful home on the university lake. At the time, the chancellor was Sean O’Keefe- former Administrator of NASA and former Secretary of the U.S. Navy. I had interviewed the man a handful of times but wasn’t sure he’d even recognize me.

I creeped up the long walk to the front door, and I remember most of the lights being off in the house. I gave a sturdy knock on the door, and sure enough, Sean O’Keefe lumbers over and opens up. He looked confused and asked what I wanted. I looked right at him and laid it on the table: “Chancellor O’Keefe, I’ve heard you’ve resigned as chancellor of the university this evening and I need to know what you’ve decided.” He looked right back, and with a small smirk from under his thick mustache he said, “I have not resigned as the chancellor of the university, and I don’t know why someone would tell you that.” I asked another question, but he said, “I’ll talk with you more about all this in the morning,” winked, and said good night. Sure enough, he resigned first thing in the morning, and we were ready for the story all because of that wink. :-)

The second comes during Hurricane Gustav’s landfall last year…

STAY TUNED! Part 2 of the Persac Interview will be posted soon! Find out what happened to him during Hurricane Gustav and also get his advice on how to elevate your own student media outlet to a level of true new media awesomeness.

Comments
3 Responses to “Interview: Nicholas Persac, Editor in Chief, LSU’s Daily Reveille”
  1. (Bi)Partisan says:

    Congrats Nick! Bring those responsible for the budget cuts to justice! :-D I might also suggest putting one of those meal recipes in the paper once a week…so the students know they can find more on-line!

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