Planning a (Multimedia) Debt Package: Collegiate Times Editor Discusses Her Award-Winning ‘Dealing With Debt’

In May, Mallory Noe-Payne will leave college free of debt— an achievement she describes honestly as “sort of by chance and lucky for me.”  Many, many students face different circumstances.  Student loan debt in the U.S. exceeds $1 trillion, an almost inconceivably high number that continues to rise each fall, spring, and summer.  As Noe-Payne writes, “Students have become the largest consumers of credit, owing more money for their education than people owe for credit card bills and mortgages.”

While Noe-Payne– a senior at Virginia Tech University– is not part of the faces of debt in this country, she is the creator of it.  “Faces of Debt” is one part of a larger multimedia package she created for The Collegiate Times, VT’s student newspaper. The project, “Dealing with Debt,” shares the stories of students grappling with or avoiding debt and outlines the involvement of high schools, colleges, and the government in the process.

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What Noe-Payne found during her reporting was a startling disconnect between how much debt is mentioned in the media and how little it is actually understood and discussed by students and their families.

Her final report– featuring a series of stories, a video report, an interactive map, and an infographic maze called “The Path to Student Debt”– connected with readers and journalists.  In 2012, the Associated Collegiate Press (ACP) named “Faces of Debt” a “Multimedia Story of the Year” winner.

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In the Q&A below, Noe-Payne, currently the CT’s news editor, speaks about her award-winning work and the debt disconnect she discovered while putting it together.

 

What motivated you to create this report?

About this time last year student debt hit the $1 trillion mark and . . . surpassed any other type of debt in this country.  I just started reading up about it.  It astounded me that it wasn’t talked about at schools.  Students weren’t talking to each other about it. . . . Some students don’t even talk to their parents realistically about it.  Professors weren’t talking about it.  School officials weren’t talking about it.  It’s super important and super relevant, but not really discussed very much.

 

What keeps students and others from discussing debt?

Finances are always considered a sort of private matter.  People won’t talk openly about how much money they make.  It’s the same sort of thing [with student debt].  I think there’s also a stigma associated with it.  You don’t want to say you have to take out loans to be in college.  In high school, you are sort of fed this lie that if you work hard enough and try hard enough and apply for all the right scholarships you can do it without taking out loans.  So if you do have to take out loans, maybe there’s this idea that I didn’t try hard enough or work enough jobs outside of school or I wasn’t smart enough to get the right scholarships.

 

What is your advice for students who want to follow in your footsteps and create a similarly powerful multimedia package?

The biggest thing is having the follow-through.  We all have ideas that pop into our heads and inspire us.  But if you don’t continue to put in the follow-through to write and research it or think about a graphic with it then it’s never really going to come together as a complete package.

It’s also about being practical about the things that inspire you.  Sometimes you have to tone down your ideas a little bit in order to make them digestible.  [For example] we put the website [for “Faces of Debt”] together in a few days, because we didn’t want the momentum to wear off.   When you’re a student journalist, not a full-time journalist, you often don’t have two weeks to work solely on one thing.  You have to work faster and keep the momentum up and have the follow through to get a project done.  [In addition], the best product results from collaboration. . . . I think bouncing ideas off your friends and opening your work up to others, for feedback and critiques, is extremely important.

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What inspired the Q&A format for your interview with the high school guidance counselor?

That was inspired by radio.  I’m a really big public radio fan.  All of my internships have been in public radio and it’s a format they use a lot with their stories– bringing on a reporter and having them speak as the expert on a subject they’ve done a lot of research on.  I think it’s a very digestible format for when you’re explaining technical things.

 

On a personal level, how did you first become interested in journalism?

When I was younger, I traveled a lot throughout the United States.  I got a camera from my parents.  I photographed while I traveled and got really into photography.  In high school, I pursued the idea of being a photojournalist.  I did an internship with my local newspaper.  When I came to college, I was still stuck on that idea but I began to feel limited by one medium.  I have this really idealistic idea of creating journalism that explains things and allows people to be better-informed participants in government and society. . . . Of course who knows what will happen when I graduate.

But you will be debt-free.  That’s the one thing you know, right?

I will be debt-free, for now.  But if I decide to go to law school….

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