6 Things I Learned About Journalism & College Media from Jenny Surane at The Daily Tar Heel
Over the past few weeks, CMM has featured a special series of posts from current and recent student journalists all centered on a single significant question: How do we get students to care more about college media?
This is the conclusion of the series — focused on the individual who inspired it, Jenny Surane. Read the full post below for details — including what I learned from Surane during a recent podcast chat.
Jenny Surane recently wrapped up a year-long stint as editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel student newspaper at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The million-dollar media company boasts more than 250 staffers and over the past two semesters delivered a bevy of breaking news reports, special editions, impassioned editorials and large-scale investigations.
But did student readers notice?
In a farewell column of sorts — written first as a class assignment and later published on the news outlet Quartz — Surane shared her qualms about what she sees as a growing disconnect between student journalists and their student audience.
In her words, “[I]t’s humbling to realize that the newspaper I spend so many hours working on isn’t really beloved by my peers in the same way. … My peers are interested in reading news, but they have no loyalties whatsoever about where it comes from. … Even some of my closest friends refused to pick up the newspaper I spent dozens of hours on each week.”
Surane, a fresh UNC graduate, has also been one of college media’s most influential recent thought leaders. To flesh out the perspectives she offered in the Quartz piece, I tracked her down last month in Austin, Texas, near the tail end of a post-commencement cross country roadtrip.
During our chat, Surane spoke candidly about a number of challenges she experienced firsthand while first in command at a major student media outlet. Among them: the “hamster wheel” of nightly news production, the pushback against opinion-editorial writing, the rise in real-time reporting competition from unlikely sources and the lingering debate centered on what to do about print.
As she told me, in respect to the latter, “That’s the million-dollar question. … I worry the job I spent so many hours training for this year didn’t really teach me how to plug into that niche of millennial readership.”
Here are some of the most interesting takeaways from our interview. To listen in on the full conversation, click here or anywhere on the image below.
The Hamster Wheel
Surane found it exceptionally tough as top editor to push for digital innovation while print — still the moneymaking part of the DTH media empire — demanded so much of her daily attention.
Surane: “You can’t stop focusing on print for one day to focus on digital and improving it because you have to make your money. You have to have a good print product. The minute that you start to slip, your advertisers will leave and then you have nothing. You have no brand to rely on. You can hire people to think about digital, but ultimately if the head of the organization knows that most of your money is coming from print that’s where your priorities are going to be. … It’s this hamster wheel that you can’t get off. I don’t know how you break that cycle. … It’s hard sometimes when you have this huge enterprise to simply say, ‘Well, you know, we’re going to try something totally different, guys.’ Because there’s a lot of red tape to do that and you have to put that paper out every day.”
Stock and Flow
Among the many articles, books and TED talks touching on the future of news which Surane has recently consumed, a Snarkmarket post by Robin Sloan headlined “Stock and Flow” especially captured her attention. According to Sloan, each term in the title represents a different integral component of a new media brand.
Surane: “Your digital offerings are your flows, that capital that keeps moving. Then you have your print offerings, which is your stock, the good stuff. It’s the big in-depth investigations that look beautiful in print. We did a couple of those this year. I think we spent way too much time thinking about stock and probably not enough time thinking about flow. But both are really important to making sure your organization is successful. So I guess in the future I think what I see is people who can integrate those two beautifully [will be successful]. If your flow could incorporate parts of your stock and vice versa that would be great. And maybe that’s the key to making money.”
Our Writers Are Also Our Readers
Surane said the key to building audience buzz is creating content staffers are excited to promote — personally and professionally. This past year, DTH staffers were most abuzz about a series of monthly special sections that involved unparalleled cross-newsroom collaboration.
Surane: “Our Projects and Investigations team would come in and have a special section on sex on campus, a special section on food on campus, a special section on race on campus. We had a really good design team that would build beautiful front pages and nice double trucks with huge graphics. Then, the next day, because [staffers] would be so excited … they would want to tweet out the beautiful front page and tweet out their stories. And those were days we would get the most traffic online. … This is something that’s unique to college media: Our writers are also our readers. Our writers are friend with our readers. Our writers are in the student groups that we cover. When our writers are sharing things on their Facebook and their Twitter, their friends see that and want to support their friends. And they’ll click or they’ll pick up a paper or they’ll pass it out in the cafeteria or whatever. Those were days that people were talking about the Daily Tar Heel, and it started with the people who work on it.”
For other interesting takeaways, check out the full post on Poynter.
Check out other parts of this CMM special series
Part 1: ‘A Makeshift Umbrella During a Rainy Day’ by Matt Lemas, University of Southern California
Part 2: ‘That Hip, Instagram-Worthy Quality’ by Danielle Klein, University of Toronto
Part 3: ‘Initiating a Complete Culture Shift’ by Katie Kutsko, University of Kansas
Part 4: ‘For Me, Adaptability is Key’ by Ali Swenson, Loyola Marymount University
Part 5: ‘The Job I’m Training for Will Always Exist’ by Kyle Walker, University of Tulsa
Part 6: ‘An Edge in the Algorithms’ by Alex Bitter, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Part 7: ‘News the Way Our Readers Want to Consume It’ by Sami Edge, University of Oregon
Part 8: ‘Go Out and Play Scientist’ by Nizia Alam, University of Texas at Tyler
Part 9: ‘The Generation Changing the News’ by Emma Discher, Tulane University
Part 10: ‘Why We Report What We Do’ by Gary Grumbach, Elon University
Part 11: ‘Do the Best You Can With What You Have’ by Louis Oprisa, City College of New York
Part 12: ‘Focusing on Quality Rather Than Quantity’ by Alicia Keene, Texas Tech University
Part 13: ‘The Ways We Organically Attract Readers’ by Sean Feverston, Otterbein University
Part 14: ‘Involving the Community in the Process’ by Nicole Brown, New York University
Part 15: ‘Trying to Be People’s First Stop for News’ by Olivia Krauth, University of Louisville
Part 16: ‘The Lessons I Learned About Audience’ by Claire Dodson, University of Tennessee
Part 17: ‘Face the Uncertain Future of Journalism Head-On’ by Angela Christaldi, Saint Joseph’s University
Part 18: ‘The Secret in the Sauce’ by Joey Stipek, University of Oklahoma
Part 19: ‘Dedicated to Reporting Social Justice Happenings’ by Petra Zarah Jarrar, The New School