The story that will dominate the news cycle for the foreseeable future is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as every state, national and international news organization has ramped up its war coverage. I have always said student journalists are no different than any other journalists, and have taken severe umbrage at the idea that these collegiate folk were just “playing reporter,” to quote one particularly idiotic idiot I know.
That said, it doesn’t necessarily follow that college media outlets should follow suit and flood the zone with all Ukraine, all the time. Here’s why:
Audience-centricity: One of the most memorable arguments I’ve had with a student writer was one in which a columnist wanted to publish a detailed opinion about why the U.S. should annex Puerto Rico. When she first brought it up, I honestly thought I was being punked, until I realized she wasn’t old enough to remember “Little Giants:”
When I asked her why the students at UW-Oshkosh should care about this topic, she stiffened and chastised me by stating, “EVERYONE should care about this!”
OK, fine, there are a lot of things everyone SHOULD do, like eating vegetables, flossing and jogging a few miles per day. As I do none of those, I’m clearly part of a psychographic group that will require someone to give me something a lot more specific than “EVERYONE should do X.” And I don’t think I’m alone.
Case in point: A few years back our university’s foundation was in the middle of a sticky situation regarding university funds and how money was coming and going through its system. At one point, the foundation was looking to declare bankruptcy and nobody knew what that would mean for all the donations that were sitting in its coffers.
I walked into my 8 a.m. reporting class and said, “Wow! Have you all been following what’s going on with the foundation?”
Blank stares. Then one kid asked, “What is that and why would I be?”
So I asked, “How many of you in here have a scholarship?”
Every hand went up.
“Where do you think that money is kept?” I asked.
The looks changed from disinterest to horror as they suddenly figured out they had some skin in the game if this situation went from bad to worse. When I gave the students a break at the halfway point of class, they were all feverishly Googling everything they could think of having to do with the foundation.
Self-interest drives readership, and we as writers really need to take advantage of that. So, unless there is a direct way to tie a topic like the situation in Ukraine to your readers, it’s going to be a waste of time.
Niche publication and limited resources: When it comes to student publications, you are serving a niche audience: A specific campus, with an educated audience, that sits in a specific age range (mostly) and has certain heightened interests (Are classes going online with the next COVID surge? How did the basketball team do in the conference tournament? What was with all the cop cars outside of Smith Residence Hall last night?). That audience is also getting information fed to it through a fire hose right now, so to break through, you need to be really specific with how any particular story impacts your readers’ lives.
In addition, you’re covering that niche with resources that are nowhere near those available to the major international news outlets. Never once have I seen Wolf Blitzer speed up an interview with a member of the Joint Chiefs because he had to make a study session at the library for some BS group project.
In looking at these two issues, it’s clear that you’ll need to apply your resources judiciously and you’ll need to focus on things in your niche more than things outside of it.
If you have access to AP wire and you want to run a Ukraine story, that’s not a problem. However, your readers can get all the Ukraine coverage they want from hundreds of other places. They can only find out about the locks on the bathrooms in Hawthorne Dorm being broken from you.
Addition, not repetition: George Kennedy, the long-time managing editor of the Columbia Missourian, would frequently ask editors and reporters under his watch, “So, how does this add to the sum of human knowledge?” (In his more bitter moments, George would declare that we not only failed to add to the sum of human knowledge, but we actually managed to subtract from it.)
His point was that everything we put in the paper should move the needle, advance the ball or chip into the kitty of information somehow. If we were writing the exact same thing that everyone else was writing, what was the point?
This is where that understanding of your audience and your niche can come into play. If you have stories that nobody else is telling about this invasion, tell them. If you’re basically telling people what you saw on Fox News or MSNBC or CNN or whatever, why bother? This is even more true for publications that tend to operate on a non-daily schedule. If you’re publishing once a week, a fast-moving war can render your content way, way, way out of date before it hits the stands. (The same thing applies for posting to a website, if you’re not actively updating it as things continue to change.)
So now that we’ve dumped all over what you planned to do for the next two weeks at the student paper, let’s look at some things that could meet all of those needs in some interesting ways:
Local events: As is always the case, if there’s a local event that deals with this situation, cover it. That could be a local candlelight vigil calling for peace or a protest over involvement/lack of involvement/whatever. (Some campuses have a ton more activism about almost everything than others do. When I lived in Madison, the joke about the city and campus area was, “Two’s company. Three’s a protest.”)
It’s always good to find out what the purpose of this is, who’s running it and what they hope will come out of this public display of concern.
Local folk, Ukraine tie: One of the simplest ways to show local impact on a national or international story is to find local people who are actually feeling the impact. See if your area has a large swath of Ukrainian immigrants who have family or friends still over there. This could provide some good human interest coverage with people who are well-known to the community around you.
Check with the faculty and students on your campus to see if any of them are connected in some meaningful way to that area, either through relatives or through travel experiences. Maybe your school even did a study abroad in that region at some point. Find people who can tell you what it’s like pouring over content from as many sources as possible regarding this mess and hoping to find out what is happening to people who matter to them.
Expert insight: Colleges and universities have a great number of people who have studied certain topics for a long time and know a lot about them. Between the folks in international relations, global studies, poli sci and probably a half dozen other departments I’m forgetting, you probably have some folks who have a really good set of insights on what is going on over there and WHY it is going on.
Find those experts and get them to help you craft some good explainer pieces about what is happening. The layout of who is involved, why this situation got to this point and what is likely to come out of all of this can help students care more about a topic that seems either overly reductive (Putin is a dink) or way too complicated (that whole region has a lot of history, to say the least). It might also be interesting to find out what they think about how the conflict is being portrayed in the media. (In some cases, folks might note the media is taking a “side” in a situation. I don’t think there’s another side to this one, but I don’t know, so I would definitely ask if I were interviewing someone on this.
It’s also a good idea to ask them about specific local impacts. (“So, what would you say to the average university student who doesn’t think what’s going on in Ukraine has any direct impact on them?”). When the war in the Gulf began in the early 1990s, I started to realize I lacked a truly fuel-efficient vehicle and it was killing my pocket book. I also had family and friends who were being deployed to that area, giving me a direct connection to what was going on over there.
This situation is at the front end of the conflict, so I’m sure there are a ton of things that Russia, Ukraine and a bunch of other countries in that area have/do/build/export that will have an impact on folks that we have yet to see. Those experts can look three or four moves ahead on the chessboard and give your readers a few insights about what’s going to happen and why it matters to them.
Military moments: If your institution has a strong ROTC presence, or a lot of folks in the reserves, this would be a good time to check in and see what they have heard. My initial instinct was that if we were staying out of this one, there wouldn’t be much to think about. That said, Zoe came home from school and told me two of her teachers who are somehow part of the military are being shipped out to Europe over spring break for support and training because of the invasion. (I trust the source, but the specificity was really lacking.)
If people at your institution are planning to go somewhere because of this situation, it would be good to sit down with them and get some information about what’s happening. This can also be helpful to make a connection for an overseas source, if some of those folks are deployed to the region. The ability to have that audience-centric perspective right in the thick of the situation can’t hurt.
It might also be good to talk to vets who have chewed similar dirt along the way. This isn’t the first conflict of this nature and it (unfortunately) won’t be the last. Talking to people who have walked the walk about what is happening there for the average deployed military participant could provide some insights that other publications won’t have, as they’re so busy covering the minute-by-minute stuff.