(Editor’s Note: I’m a huge believer in student media and the benefits it has for student journalists as well as campus audiences. When a big story breaks on a campus, I like to chat with the students who made the story happen to get the “backstory” on the piece.
Today’s conversation is with Anna Spoerre of the Daily Egyptian at Southern Illinois University – Carbondale. She is a senior studying journalism and has worked on the staff as everything from a reporter to the editor in chief. In addition, she has served as an intern in Peoria, Illinois and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and has plans to intern at the Oregonian this summer. If you or your staff has a big story and would like to shed light on how you made it happen, contact me and we can take a look-see at it.)
Anna Spoerre returned to SIU-Carbondale after a semester abroad and walked right into a big story. The university had hired Chancellor Carlo Montemagno to start in Fall 2017, a time at which SIU-C was dealing with a budget crunch and significant cuts around the campus. Montemagno, however, didn’t come alone: He put his daughter and son-in-law, Melissa and Jeff Germain, on the university’s payroll as well.
“Since I’d been out of the country for a semester, I was still getting caught back up on the administrative beat when someone gave us a tip,” she said. “I was handed the hiring papers for the Germains, and from there began contacting my sources on campus to find out more. This is how I started hearing about the additional hirings being discussed.”
Spoerre dug through documents she had obtained through open records requests as well as those that had been leaked to her to figure out what was going on. She also did some double-checking of resumes and LinkedIn profiles. She discovered that Montemagno had a history of finding jobs for his daughter and son-in-law at each of his previous stops over the past decade. The chancellor declined to comment for Spoerre’s story, releasing a press statement through communications office instead.
One of the more difficult aspects of the story, Spoerre said, was finding a way to get people to talk about this issue in a way that she could support what she found through her research.
“One of the biggest struggles I had with this story was that I initially gathered most of the information from off the record interviews,” she said. “So, as of Monday morning before the story came out, I felt like I’d hit a roadblock when it came to getting anyone to speak on the record. To be perfectly honest, I skipped all of my classes for two days straight and just spent hours going from office to office looking for anyone who might be willing to speak with me. After about a dozen conversations and many other attempts at interviews, I finally had enough on the record to approach the administration Tuesday afternoon.”
In spite of what the story might have done to her GPA, Spoerre said she felt the sacrifices she made to get the story were worth it, given how people have reacted to it.
“The response I’ve received from the campus and surrounding community has been incredible,” she said. “I’ve yet to receive any push back from the administration. So far, everyone has either been open about praising the story or has simply stayed silent. I’ve also had reporters and editors from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Chicago Tribune give shout outs to the piece on Twitter.
“I’ve had countless people — many whom I didn’t know — come up to me on campus and thank me for the piece,” she added. “Like I said, the response has just been incredibly positive and great affirmation that what student journalists do can make a difference on a college campus.”
As for any advice for fellow student journalists looking at a “big story,” Spoerre said she wouldn’t advocate skipping a lot of class, but she thinks it is important to approach the work with unrelenting effort.
“My advice to college newspaper reporters is to always treat the job like what it is: a job,” she said. “Not an internship, not a class. It is those things too, at least initially, but what we print is real and has real effects, so reporting always has to be approached not only professionally but with honesty and integrity with the knowledge that what we write can affecting people and communities.”