Live from Louisville: A Midnight Cereal Critique

This morning, at midnight, I munched on Frosted Flakes and pored over student journalism.  I was a participant in a witching hour tête-à-tête with college newspaper staffers that for me was the highlight of convention programming.

The midnight cereal critique involved a bevy of advisers offering instant analyses of student newspapers to their staffers, completed in schizophrenic round-robin style. (The advisers stayed put and the students sat and popped some issues in front of them when a table became free.)  Some students wore costumes, including a young woman from Murray State University who wore a dress made entirely of newspapers- creative ink-stained couture whose only drawback seemed to be that the student could not actually negotiate a way to sit down.

While discussing the pubs with students, I found myself returning to three main focus areas:

List-lessness: I flipped through lots of papers filled with calendars of events, police blotters, and world news round-ups laid out with all the energy of a heroin addict, after a fix.  The dates or geographic locations served as the headers.  There were few, if any, graphics or photos breaking up the eye-gouge-inducing blocks of text.

Lists deserve some art and some creative (even snarky) headlines.  Give people a reason to read.  And with events calendars especially, exhibit some news judgment. Students can peruse every campus happening via the school website or SGA mass e-mails.  The newspaper should not be a repository of everything, but a spotlight for some things.  Certain event previews should be highlighted more than others.  And some potentially do not deserve a mention at all.

– News vs. Features: A number of smaller campus newspapers that were plopped onto my table sported a mix of sections that included both news and features.  The problem: The features looked like news to me, and I never received a satisfactory answer as to what the features section specifically represented or why it deserved a distinct separation from news.

The general gist for many papers seemed to be: The features section includes more pieces focused mainly on students or longer-form journalism.  They also tended to have more alluring photography and snazzier layouts.  But they were still news, at least in the classic sense of what we separate from A&E, commentary, and sports.

My bet is that if the student staffers could not really define the section to me, neither can their student readers on campus.  Two ways to solve that problem: Come up with a rock-solid coverage scope and stick to it.  Or mesh it in seamlessly with news, making that whole section as snazzy as features is now.

– Packaging Problems: The front pages of every paper I critiqued displayed the most design and newshound chutzpah.  The problem was in the follow-up.  Typically, the lead story getting all the graphic, layout, and header attention on page one was whimpering to a close on page two with nothing but a smidgeon of jump text.

It is a sad ending for an article that deserves more- especially because, as staffers candidly shared with me, the front page piece tended to be the only big story in the entire issue.  The solution: story packaging!

Think info graphics- a breakout Q&A with a central source quoted in the piece, a timeline of events or by the numbers breakdown.  An entire sider might be warranted.  A prominent teaser for online extras such as a photo slideshow might be the way to go.

The bottom line: Diversity of content in a newspaper is fantastic, but an issue’s lone big story should get the full RPT (reporting and presentation treatment).

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