CMM Fellows: What’s Your Journalism Junk Food?

From the moment student journalists first enter a newsroom or introductory reporting class, they are told to feast on and learn as much as possible from A-list national news sources like The New York Times, The Washington Post and 60 Minutes. Yet, that doesn’t mean they can resist clicking on, scrolling through and checking out less esteemed, less known or less serious press entrees as well.

With that in mind, I recently reached out to the spring 2015 CMM Fellows — an elite crew of top editors and reporters at student media across the U.S. and in Europe — with a simple question: What is your journalism or media junk food?

Specifically, I was curious what websites, blogs, shows, magazines, columns, podcasts, apps, video series, satirical outlets or Tumblr pages they turn to more than they might want others to know and which may or may not scream top-notch journalism.

1My two quick follow-ups to flesh out their responses: 1) What do you especially like about the guilty pleasure you picked? 2) What lessons might student media possibly learn from it?

In respect to content, style, platform and posting frequency, the student selections run the gamut — from Grantland and Gawker to Smart Girls at the Party and I F***ing Love Science.

Here is a rundown of their responses.

Sami Edge, editor-in-chief, The Emerald, University of Oregon

1I’m embarrassed by my BuzzFeed addiction. But I really don’t think it’s my fault. Typically, I get reeled into the site by the allure of irresistible listicles and quiz titles that pop up in my Facebook feed. Once I’ve clicked the link I’m trapped for at least 20 minutes, egged further and further into the oblivion that is digital entertainment by the mazes of quizzes and articles that tempt me at the bottom of each post. How could I possibly resist knowing which Disney prince is destined to be my soulmate or what my hippie name would be? (It’s Prince Eric and Breeze, for the record.)

There’s no escaping BuzzFeed — the headlines are just too click-worthy and the content too personally applicable. Since I’ve accepted that there’s no real way to fight its allure, I’ve come to embrace my “Buzz-Feasts” as my daily dose of pop culture. I don’t regularly browse the Internet. I don’t have cable. And I’m particularly pathetic on Twitter. So I rely on the site to tip me off on the latest digital and cultural trends.

As a college media editor, I don’t aim to produce BuzzFeed style content, but I do think there’s a lesson to be learned from its model of relevance, brevity and speed. Delivering headlines that are simultaneously punchy and accurate and exploring applicable and appealing alternative story forms are two ways student media can take a hint from BuzzFeed on how to stay relevant with an attention-averse student audience.

Emma LeGault, special projects editor, The Kansan, Univ. of Kansas

1Some of the headlines and content I see from the Gawker Facebook feed seem a bit gossipy and sometimes over the line, but I find myself clicking through its links more often than I’d like to admit. I love being a journalist and honing my skills working on hard-hitting assignments, but sometimes I want to just be a college student reading about Fred Armisen’s nasty reputation as a womanizer or a girl in France who was almost named Nutella.

Gawker pieces feel like I’m reading a snarky email from a friend. Its headlines, social media and story content are pretty much how college students talk naturally, so it’s more inviting and sometimes more refreshing to read than the stuffier national news organizations. Its strength lies in how it communicates with its readers — and student media should take a page from its book.

A conversation we have at The Kansan all the time is how we can best engage our peers with our content. We have to remind ourselves that we shouldn’t be writing to please our journalism professors. We have to talk to our readers the way they want to be spoken to. We have to remind ourselves that we shouldn’t be and don’t need to be The Washington Post. We have a saying for this: Our content, headlines and social media need to be “fun and flirty,” not stuffy and professional (at least, not all the time, depending on the subject).

Erica Corder, editor-in-chief, The Collegiate Times, Virginia Tech

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I have grown to greatly appreciate Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update segment since becoming a student journalist. Weekend Update — for the potential few who may not know of it — is of course the part of SNL in which two “anchors” deliver the news with a satirical twist. Presidents, politicians and people from Florida are often the punchlines of jokes during the segment. What I particularly like about Weekend Update is the way they point out the problems and inconsistencies of current issues. They poke holes in real stories, even though the nature of the program is satirical, and by doing so they shed a skeptical light — albeit sometimes cynical — on the news of the past week.

Consider the following Seth Meyers joke: “President Obama this week denied that he knew about the inspector general’s report detailing the IRS’s increased scrutiny of conservative groups. So nothing to worry about, America. There’s just a bunch of stuff happening that the president doesn’t know about.”

Not only does Weekend Update keep me laughing, it keeps me thinking, which is why I tune in every week.

While student journalists can’t always be so blatant and aren’t necessarily looking for laughs, I think the best takeaway from watching Weekend Update — or The Daily Show with Jon Stewart — is that we need to be critical. Ask the hard questions. Reveal the inconsistencies in the story. Figure out what doesn’t make sense and make it make sense. The Weekend Update “anchors” do this consistently, and perhaps it’s their consistently critical questioning that keeps their audience, myself included, coming back every Saturday night.

Natalie Daher, editor-in-chief, The Pitt News, University of Pittsburgh

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Hillary 2016 makes headlines almost daily, but have you seen her princess character? The Amy Poehler-inspired Smart Girls at the Party Tumblr account is my healthy junk food. It’s funny, refreshing and right there with that needed boost of positivity on a late-deadline night. It reminds me to just keep swimming and offers other imperative information. And it’s brimming with fierce women — and their books — doing powerful and innovative things. I recommend it to anyone who’s breathing and has a sense of humor.

Student journalists — especially those in the social media, design and cartooning arenas — need fast food content that’s punchy and relatable. “Letting your hair down” gives your news outlet a voice and ensures you remember your target audience — the college gals and guys slumping in class beside you. Even the Gray Lady is livening up her Twitter presence, so you can, too.

You want your newspaper to feel less like an ominous data drone and more like a student-run enterprise trying to make a difference. As students, we can also cash in on the creative leeway Smart Girls at the Party owns to produce content worthy of sharing with a friend. In the meantime, visit Smart Girls, and avoid knocking pitches like this.

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Cormac Duffy, editor, University Observer, University College Dublin

1I have a weakness for getting lost in the comment sections of online newspapers. Seeing readers argue back and forth over news stories is very compelling, even when I disagree with the majority of contributions or think the conversation has little to contribute — which is almost always the case. Particularly guilty pleasures are those on thejournal.ie, an Irish news site, and The Guardian’s “Comment is Free,” largely because they both have devoted cultures of commenters with vehement and often unpleasant opinions.

In theory, comments section are noble public forums where the people get a chance to have their voices heard. In reality, it tends to be that those who care enough to get involved in discussions seem to always have strong agendas and would rather not engage with any inconvenient facts in the article in question if it doesn’t suit their interests. And so we end up with name-calling, insults, trolling and pointless rows. I wish I could say I am drawn to them as examples of how media outlets engage with their audience or can find themselves under pressure to take particular views, but I really think I just like the drama and feeling indignant.

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Michelle Fredrickson, editor-in-chief, The Daily Evergreen, Wash. St.

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I do love The New York Times and Washington Post, but I have to admit they aren’t the only places I go for information. As a science communication student, I am, by definition, interested in science and happenings in the scientific community. I am able to learn about both through the popular online source I F***ing Love Science.

It’s not the most professional news source — I mean, it has an expletive in the name. But IFLS produces fascinating content that is delightfully well-researched. It’s also nice to see that the main focus is getting the science right, a standard I wish all news outlets lived up to. Fact-checking is always incredibly important, and it’s easier to mess things up with science than with almost anything else.

The process of translating science into something non-scientists can understand often results in getting the facts wrong. I attend a land-grant university, so there isn’t exactly a shortage of researchers to interview — and nearly every one I’ve spoken with grumbles about being misrepresented in the media. This is an example of why fact-checking matters so much.

I keep going back to IFLS because they fact-check well and the articles they post make sense to everyone. For a geek like me, there’s nothing better for a guilty pleasure.

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Ric Sanchez, editor-in-chief, Montana Kaimin, University of Montana

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I don’t want to call my choice junk food. Junk food implies the intake is malnutritious, and I consider Last Week Tonight with John Oliver a journalistic health supplement, like vitamins or vegetables. Oliver, like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert before him, says outright his show isn’t journalism. I agree. But, unlike Stewart and Colbert, Oliver comes the closest to blurring the line between comedy and reporting.

 I couldn’t recall the last time a satirical news outlet broke real news, but Oliver’s report on the discrepancies in Miss America’s scholarship claims sparked actual national headlines. As Oliver said during the segment “$45 million? That is an unbelievable amount of money. As in: I literally didn’t believe that. It’s the kind of number that can get stuck in your head and rattle around there for days, driving you crazy. Making you wish, for instance, you could find out more.”

That kind of BS detector is invaluable, and the reporting that followed — including requesting tax forms for every state-level Miss America competition and crunching numbers — is what keeps me coming back to his show. Additionally, Last Week Tonight has a great web presence. From segments posted quickly to YouTube to a growing number of online-only exclusives, Oliver’s show has dominated the viral market in a way my newsroom full of hip #Millennials still can’t quite duplicate.

Liz Young, editor-in-chief, The Lantern, Ohio State University

1My media junk food is This American Life and, recently, Serial. While neither classifies as junk in any sense of the word, both are podcasts I binge on when I have the time. I have loved following the storyline of Serial, hearing Sarah Koenig’s reporting at work, comparing it to what I think I would have done and learning from what she did. It was like binge-watching a riveting show, but actually learning from it because it’s a real life story.

This American Life is a show I’ve always loved to listen to in large doses. While I don’t have time to listen every week, about once a month or so I try to catch up on as many episodes as I can. I like it because it makes me think about weaving stories together instead of looking at them individually — and it also makes me look harder for story ideas in my everyday life.

I think there is a lot that can be learned from these shows, including how to keep a crowd of readers (or listeners in this case) captivated and coming back, how to be transparent with reporting and how to see story ideas in the most average of places. They also teach the lesson that it’s OK to have fun with reporting and do it for your own interests, too, as long as your ethics are still in place and you’re serving your audience well.

Jordyn Reiland, editor-in-chief, The Daily Iowan, University of Iowa

1If I had to choose something, it would probably be some of the podcasts I listen to on a daily basis — the Alton Brown podcast and the Grantland NFL podcast. I also occasionally read The Onion and watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but not consistently enough to call myself a devoted fan. I’ve never been into surfing gossip blogs, satire websites or BuzzFeed, so these podcasts are more of a brain break from what I’m usually focused on: local news in Iowa City and on the University of Iowa campus.

I’ve always been a big fan of the Food Network, and Alton Brown has an interesting take on being a chef. Grantland is still considered good journalism, but their presentation is a little different so it’s refreshing to listen to their podcast without worrying too much about the content itself.

I think student media in general, myself included, have a hard time finding a balance between being “too serious” and reminding ourselves we are a student media organization. First and foremost, our jobs are to seek the truth and report it, but remembering that we are students can be just as important. I find it almost more difficult to find stories that both appeal to students and are still considered newsy, and so I think these kinds of “brain breaks” are important to put things into perspective.

Joey Stipek, assignment editor, OU Nightly, University of Oklahoma

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I know I will catch grief for citing this website, but I really, really, really enjoy Deadspin. I know Deadspin editorializes about sports and sports-related news, the very thing which goes against all the lessons I have been taught by professors in a journalism ethics and values sense. But the prose and caustic wit displayed by the staff writers has hooked me and keeps me visiting the website every day. 

In addition, while most journalists joke about not looking at the comments on their own outlet’s website, I’m endlessly entertained by the commentary offered by Deadspin readers.

A majority of successful blogs borrow elements from Gawker Media, including its writing style — which is conversational, loose and engaging. For example, I think the long-form feature on Ultimate Fighting Championship Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones is one of the most engrossing pieces I have read — and it’s about a sport I am completely disinterested in.

If students media were able to make the writing on their blog sections specifically come across as more Gawker-style conversational, they would entice readers to more regularly visit — and comment.

Nicole Brown, former editor-in-chief, Washington Square News, NYU

1My journalism guilty pleasure is Vox.com. It is especially helpful when there is something in the news I haven’t been following from the start because it puts stories into context very clearly. The videos, charts and card stacks are great ways to present and explain the news. While Vox may not have the prestige of The New York Time or Washington Post, it covers hard news in an intelligent, yet simple style, as well as offer a range of other types of stories.

Student journalists could use the styles Vox employs to supplement their articles. By making a short video or breaking a story down into key parts, students could read and understand the news faster. Student media should also look to Vox, and other sites like it, to find inspiration for how to expand their web content. This is something I have discussed with other editors at Washington Square News, and we are always working to make our website more dynamic. Vox is an example of a website that uses all aspects of new media, and student journalists can learn a lot from it.

Riley Brands, editor-in-chief, The Daily Texan, University of Texas

1My guilty pleasure is absolutely theSkimm, a snarky daily news briefing that pops up in my inbox early every weekday morning. It’s witty and makes me laugh when I’m still wiping the sleep out of my eyes. It’s not particularly substantial, but it offers a healthy mix of the biggest news from the previous day (with a forward-looking spin), as well as a number of quirkier items that add to its charm.

I think it is the latter that offers the greatest lessons for student journalists. I may be crucified for saying this, but I think we have a tendency to take ourselves a little too seriously. I’m the last person to suggest ditching hard-hitting reporting for vapid fluff. But wherever possible, try to make your readers smile or laugh.

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Courtney Jacquin, editor-in-chief, The DePaulia, DePaul University

1I don’t think it’s that guilty of a pleasure, but one of my favorite blogs to visit is Grantland. Sure it’s under the ESPN name, but the tone of the blog is a lot lighter and less serious than other major media outlets. I’m not even that big of a sports fan, but I still will read and enjoy just about everything on Grantland. From basketball to television, everything Grantland publishes I enjoy.

As college students, we’re forever fighting to be respected as “real” media, so we always try to stay serious in our tone. I think we can learn to mix in some lighter coverage — especially for our online content — to make us more relatable. After all, we are writing for a college audience, we can have a little fun.

Stephen Koenigsfeld, editor-in-chief, Iowa State Daily, Iowa State

1My media guilty pleasure would have to be the Cute Emergency Twitter account. I’m all for following The New York Times and the MLB Twitter account, but nothing breaks the pain of breaking news like a little puppy. I’m a sucker for cute animals, especially puppies and dogs.

Full disclosure: My puppy, Tank, was once featured on the account. It’s not terribly informational and it won’t help you ace a current events quiz, but dang are those animals cute.

Steffi S. Lee, editor-in-chief, The Simpsonian, Simpson College

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My journalism junk food is Cosmopolitan — in print and online. ​​I think what keeps me coming back is how engaging its articles can be. It’s a way to read about fun topics like beauty, career advice, life tips and health in a conversational form. Cosmopolitan covers it all.

Student journalists and student media can learn a lot from Cosmopolitan in respect to audience engagement, content, style and set-up. All Cosmo editors have Twitter handles worth following, in part because the personalities on display in their articles also appear in their tweets. It’s important to let your readers know who you are because that’s your voice helping to tell the story.

In terms of audience engagement, Cosmopolitan is intensely focused on grabbing the attention of its audience. Your social media interaction should reflect your readership and viewership’s personality. In this situation, it’s about information that will make your day. The website is also easy to navigate and always updated with new content.

The conversational style is what I believe matters most. Cosmopolitan wants its readers to find stories that resonate with them, so they run listicles, feature pieces and even hard news — formatting everything in a style in which even medical terminology is made easy to understand. Sometimes student media get wrapped up in trying to sound super-official, but getting the point across is what readers want.

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