Part Two of Nicholas Persac Interview: Daily Reveille Editor Talks Hurricanes, the Cops Beat, and “Sex Hot Spots”

When we last left Nicholas Persac, he was in the eye of a hurricane. At the close of part one of our *epic* interview, the Daily Reveille editor in chief had just begun to tell the tale of a journalistic experience of a lifetime: covering a natural disaster in the making.

Daily Reveille editor in chief Nicholas Persac changes a camera lens during the Barnes & Nobles release of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows."

Daily Reveille editor in chief Nicholas Persac changes a camera lens during the Barnes & Nobles release of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows."

Prior to his disaster talk, Persac discussed his goals for the paper in 2009-2010 and the challenges it faces.  Below, in part two, he offers journalism and new media advice to j-students everywhere.  But first, he recounts his time as news editor during his junior year when Hurricane Gustav made landfall in Louisiana.  As he shared:

A core group of about 10 of us hunkered down in the Reveille office and stayed there providing constant updates about the storm’s devastating effects on campus. The basketball arena, not too far from our office, was being used as a triage center for patients evacuated from nursing homes.  On the day of the storm’s arrival, another reporter, JJ Alcantara, and I were standing outside in a covered stairwell to watch the pouring rain and whipping wind.  We could see tree branches flying left and right.  We had heard from a PR woman that Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal planned to come to campus to visit patients in the basketball arena during the storm, but she had no idea when that would be, and cell phone service was sketchy and landlines were down.

We had lost power and couldn’t do much until we could secure a generator, so JJ and I stood out there talking for a bit.  Sure enough, we see a caravan of four or five black SUVs with deep tented windows roll right up to the basketball arena- we knew it had to be Jindal.  JJ and I sprinted into the office, grabbed a camera and a notepad and then ran, literally, into the hurricane.  Neither of us were wearing shoes even, as we had groggily woken from air mattresses that morning and couldn’t leave the building in the thick of it all.

So, we ran maybe 200 yards as small twigs and debris flew near us in the air, splashing in puddles up to our ankles.  I remember the wind was strong enough to where we were being thrown around a bit.  We ducked into the arena after explaining to National Guardsmen, who were on security detail, that we were student journalists.  And there was Jindal, shaking hands and talking to patients.  So JJ and I got to interview Gov. Jindal and ask about the storm’s effects on the state-run shelter right in the middle of Gustav and both with bare, wet feet.

What advice do you have for j-students looking to up their media outlet’s Web game?

Most college newspapers are completely student run.  Since we’re the ones calling the shots, it’s important for editors to foster an open environment where all staff members can suggest ideas.  Some of the best things we do are ideas a random reporter sees on another Web site.  Now is the time to try it out.  We don’t have much to lose other than the time and effort of trying new things.  For instance, this semester we’re adding “…or follow him on twitter, @nicholaspersac” to the contact line of all our opinion and entertainment writers’ stories.  We’re going to require staffers to tweet often- blogs they’re reading, things they’re writing or things to do.  It’s also a great way to have opinion writers promote their own columns (by using the #keyword) to get people from around the world interested in a niche topic to come to our site that they would otherwise never find.

But for papers struggling with or looking for ways to improve their new media game, the best advice I can give is twofold.  First, don’t be afraid to teach yourself.  Take a leisure class or buy a “for dummies” type book.  The second is simply: Ask for help.  When you see something you like online, shoot the Webmaster an e-mail or pick up the phone and ask how they did it.  There is no shame in asking for help.  Also, keep in mind those computer engineering or graphic design students- just because they are not in journalism does not mean they cannot contribute to your newspaper.  You should actively recruit students from all areas of campus because each will have different specialties and knowledge to push your publication to the next level.

What is the best piece of journalism advice you have ever received or given?

Tim Konski, my editor at The News Journal in Delaware, where I interned this summer, told me: “We tell stories, and stories are about people.  Readers want to know how a story affects them.”  I’ve spent plenty of time on the cops beat this summer, and he’s quick to point out how police write press releases that often make them look like heroes for simply doing their job.

For instance, when two men were arrested for swindling about 10 senior citizens out of more than $100,000 by convincing them they needed home repairs then doing shoddy work and charging them twice, rather than writing up a brief from the press release saying “Officers arrested X and Y for Z,” he helped me write it from the more relevant angle of “Two men swindled 10 senior citizens out of $100,000 for shoddy home repairs, a growing problem in the state according to elder-abuse advocates.”

People want to know that the risk of the elderly being taken advantage of is on the rise or could come their way- not that the police busted two men.  This advice- telling stories that are about people- seems obvious, but is very easy to lose track of when you’re working on deadline.  The same advice can be applied to other angles.  As an example, at LSU our Student Union has been under construction for awhile and has faced multiple delays.  Rather than simply saying, “it’s been delayed again until X date,” we’ll report, “the contracting firm hired to renovate the Student Union has once again caused a delay, keeping students out of the building for another year.”  Even with a good feature, you have to capture the story and talk about the people.  Don’t ever lose focus about who the audience and readers are.  You’re not writing for the sources or for yourself.  You’re writing for the consumer.

What is one question we should all be asking much more often about the current state or future of journalism?

How is the work I’m doing today inspiring change tomorrow?  Everything we do as journalists should be ethical and truthful, as well as thorough.  Is the work I’m doing going to cause the world to somehow be a better place?  That’s the core of journalism- bringing change for the better by reporting the truth.  Be it in print or online, consumers will always need journalists to ask the hard questions, analyze the documents, and hold people accountable.

We report the day-in, day-out activities, but what people really want is for us to say, “wait, this isn’t right . . . why not?”  At a university level, one of our writers looked into the fact that a Web site listed our main library as a “sex hot spot” for men because of “glory holes” in the bathrooms.  When we reported the story, every local TV station hopped on it, and within days the university was replacing stalls and patching holes with metal plates.  A year later, $40,000 had been spent to fix a problem we first reported.  So, we should all ask what we can do that is “change” journalism, because that’s the reporting people will always pay for.

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