Story ideas for college journalists in this time of crisis

As many student journalists head back to school (whatever that means these days, given the array of online, “hy-flex,” “modified tutorial,” “digital mix,” “blended learning,” “Kodan armada,” and “F2F” options available), news outlets and reporting students find themselves looking for stories that don’t start and end with, “Here’s the butcher’s bill from COVID 19 today!”

In one of the books, I referenced a freelance writer named Jenna Glatzer who noted that once you open your mind’s eye to the world around you, everything can be a story. If you can make that happen, she says, you’ll constantly be seeing stories everywhere.

To that end, here is a list of things that have hit my mind’s eye over the past month or so that might help spark ideas for you.

LIVING QUARTERS ON CAMPUS: When I was talking to an administrator a year or two ago, I asked a question about “the dorms,” only to find we don’t have them anymore. “We have residence halls,” she sniffed, somehow offended by my vernacular.

Call them whatever you want, but these places have a few concerns that probably need to be addressed:

  • Size does matter: In trying to buy a house this year, I found out that the federal folks actually have certain rules for what has to be in place for something to be considered a bedroom. They need least one way out, other than the door, a certain amount of square footage and an installed heating element of some kind (radiator, forced air etc.) to name a few. The size thing was fascinating to me, but my realtor explained that a lot of folks in bigger cities where land is at a premium were trying to cram twin beds into walk-in closets and claim them as bedrooms to up their prices.
    In a time of limited space and a need for social distancing, it would be interesting to dig into how much space dorm rooms (or whatever you want to call them) provide to students. How many square feet do you get and does that provide you with the space necessary to maintain social distancing? The same questions will likely relate to bathroom facilities, laundry rooms and other similar communal use facilities.
  • RA/CA contracts: The residential advisers, community advisers or whatever else you call the people who are paid to tell you “Hey, it’s quiet hours…” are an integral part of the res life experience. That said, when they signed their agreements last years, chances are they weren’t expecting a pandemic.
    Are these folks in short supply now, and if so, what is your university doing to fill the gaps? What is your university doing to protect people who have to go from room to room like a pot-detecting Johnny Appleseed, contacting dozens of people on a daily basis? Can these people opt out and even if they can, can they afford to do so? (Many RA/CA gigs come with free housing, which takes care of a big expense.) What training have administrators provided to these people in terms of dealing with pandemic-related concerns? A lot of health and safety concerns now fall on some pretty inexperienced and untrained shoulders…
  • Custodial chaos: A big part of keeping living quarters safe is keeping those living quarters clean. Custodial staffs are often like spare tires: You never think much of them until something blows up and now you’re desperate. (And to follow that logic, they can be lifesavers if they exist and are ready to perform their duties when called upon.)
    A lot of cuts come from places people won’t notice immediately and that, unfortunately, tends to be in the area of maintenance. That means stuff gets cleaned less often, trash gets picked up less frequently, grassy areas grow a bit longer between mowings and so forth. Now, that we need stuff to be cleaner than a cat with OCD, how ready and stocked is our custodial crew?


LANDLORDS AND LEASES: If your college town is anything like the ones I’ve frequented, landlords are just about as popular as an 8 a.m. nuclear physics class. Get three or more students together and tell a “I have the WORST landlord” story, and you’ll quickly see a game of “If you think THAT’S bad…” evolve.

In the land of landlords, you have multiple story possibilities that go beyond the tales of raccoons inhabiting the roof, toilets that smell worse after flushing and the “mystery sound” that keeps coming from the door with the padlock on it.

  • Lease agreements: Are students in your area still required to pay up on their leases if your school goes entirely virtual due to the pandemic? Most students glaze over when they read their rental agreements, so it’s probably worth grabbing a few to see what rights and what opportunities students have. The leases might have “act of God” clauses in them or they might be as binding as a student loan. Give them a look.
  • Apartment showings: I was amazed when students told me one year how early landlords were showing their apartments. When I was still renting, many years ago, we usually got the rental blitz around January for an August-to-August lease. These days, students around here are getting the hard sell in late September or early October. With the pandemic going on, it might be worth finding out what rules are in play to keep your landlords from showing your apartments or what rules they have to follow to do it. Are masks required? Do they have to sanitize the place every so often? How many people are allowed in at any given time? If contact tracing becomes a more serious effort around here, not knowing the 37 people who just sneezed in your home might be an issue.
  • Body count: With high rents meeting low incomes, students tend to rent places that will allow them to stack bodies in there like cord wood. I have heard of students renting three-bedroom apartments and having eight roommates. Oh, and the place only has one bathroom… Eeesh. With rules about how many people can be in any one place, are housing authorities trying to limit the number of people renting any given space? Are landlords now in trouble thanks to contracts they signed back in 2019 when they could treat each living space they owned like a clown car?



Professors and faculty media advisers on one of my favorite listservs asked how people planned to cover sports, given that many fall sports have been cancelled or have shifted seasons. The standard answers were good ones, with a focus on personality profiles for players and coaches as well as some “where are they now?” features for famous athletic alumni. Here are some other thoughts:

  • That win against Northeastern South-Central Western Barber College isn’t going to pay for itself: If you attend a school in the “Power 5” football conferences, you likely notice that your school’s out-of-conference schedule tends to include a number of games against schools you’ve never heard of. Our Lady of Perpetual Agony, the Les Nesmen School of Internet Broadcasting and the University of the Antarctic are showing up to play UCLA, Michigan and Texas. Why? Money, of course.
    We talked about the concept of “guarantee games” a couple times before on the blog. The idea is simple: The big schools want easy wins and are willing to pay for them. Thus, they bring in a school with a financially bereft athletic program, pay those folks some big money and get to tee off on people who don’t know which way their helmet goes on. The poorer school is guaranteed a certain amount of money and the bigger school is (virtually) guaranteed a win.
    What’s happening to those games and that money now that many programs are shutting down for the year? Is the contract pushed out a year or does everyone lose out?
  • Fit as a Fiddle? Maybe Fit as a Tuba: The most recent meme I saw about the coronavirus noted that you have one of three ways you’ll end up coming out of the pandemic: A hunk, a chunk or a drunk. The concept is clear: People either took this time to obsessively work out, obsessively eat while watching every season of everything on Netflix or drink their sorrows away.
    While these options can affect the average citizen, they can be more problematic for college athletes who are used to burning calories like their body has an arson fetish. One of the key factors in the storied “Freshman 15” is that students go from playing two or three or four sports to playing none, while maintaining their traditional eating schedule. How are college athletes dealing with the issues associated with trying to remain in “game shape” without organized activities or access to training facilities?
  • The mind game: A student last year did an independent study with me where she launched a blog that looked at the mental health aspects of college athletes. The blog didn’t do everything she wanted, as the COVID crisis managed to cripple all sorts of good ideas she had. That said, this is an idea that could lead to some great stories. How are athletes dealing with the loss of their seasons? What are they doing to fill their time? What about athletes recovering from injury who need additional help but might not be able to get it, thanks to the closing of athletic facilities? Are schools making mental health advocates available to student athletes to help them deal with these issues? A quick look at writings done regarding student athletes and mental health can provide a big swath of potential opportunities.
  • Money. It’s a hit: If athletic programs are taking a financial hit, it’s likely that student athletes are going to be sharing in that pain. Many schools provide athletes with full or partial scholarships with the implicit agreement that the athletes play sports at the school and the school then pays for tuition (and more in some cases). When sports got cancelled, what happened to those scholarships? What are the rules pertaining to those agreements? Does anyone actually have a copy of the scholarship agreement you can dig through to see what is in there? As with most things, if you want a story in sports, it’s a good idea to follow the money.
  • Maintaining the fields: This was just a weird thought I had, as I was flipping through the TV guide and caught the end of “Forrest Gump” for the 1,201,231st time: Who cuts the grass at the football field? That started blooming into more of a maintenance question, like, “If we’re cutting all sorts of programs and trimming all sorts of budgets, who is out there making sure you don’t have a family of possums squatting in the visitor’s locker room?” Not every idea is a Pulitzer-worthy concept. Some ideas are just weird enough to ask about.


And finally…


I’ve often joked that paranoia is my best friend, particularly when it comes to fact-checking and attributions in my writing. The idea that something is out there or you’re about to get screwed can seem to be overly cautious lunacy. However, what I have found is that I’m often right to be concerned about certain things, based in large part on my sense of “I can’t explain it, but this just doesn’t seem right.”

Here’s what I mean: We just sold our house and it took a minor miracle for this to happen. The person who was buying it seemed to be in fine shape until about 36 hours before we were to close the deal. At this point, when all of our stuff was already loaded on a moving truck, mind you, the mortgage company suddenly found that the “rural loan” she had applied for upped its requirements and needed more information.

Over a two-week period, as we lived out of suitcases, she applied for a back-up loan, which was fine until the day before closing, where they needed more pictures of our house and some additional content. Thanks to my folks, who gave a ton of help and a place to crash for two weeks, and my real estate agent, who basically did the mortgage agent’s job for him, this got done on Friday.

In talking about this with my agent, she mentioned that this wasn’t the only loan she had that was having trouble going through. Another closing had gotten cancelled that day on her, due to a lender getting cold feet. In talking with fellow agents, she said they told her similar stories about lenders backing out, or requiring additional last-minute stuff. It felt like a sports team trying to hold onto a lead by running clock.

“It’s the lenders,” she told me. “They’re getting skittish about financing. Something is going on. They know something that they’re not telling any of the rest of us.”

That stuck with me, because that’s where good stories tend to come from: An observed, and yet inexplicable, trend within a given area coupled with people who give lame excuses as to WHY that trend is occurring or brush you off when you ask about it. (I bet most of the people didn’t know the Titanic was in trouble immediately, but when the rats all started running in one direction, the smart folks followed them.)

With that in mind, it’s a good time to brush up on your paranoia and keep your head on a swivel. Keep an eye out for things like random people in plastic suits spraying stuff or professors who keep saying, “We’ll have to discuss that issue after X date.” Look for changes as to how your school handles food or cleans something or allows something else. The sense of heightened awareness just might get you a great scoop.

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