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Office Space: On Media and Mentoring
Office Space: On Media and Mentoring

Lessons learned from building a nontraditional—and collegial—campus news operation

By Cass Cliatt


Jim Frazier for CASE



The job of a news editor conjures up images of a brusque, no-nonsense person who spares no feelings in pursuit of reporting the facts—think TV's Lou Grant or Clark Kent's Daily Planet editor Perry White. Collegiality usually doesn't enter into the picture, but it's an essential attribute when you hold the same job on a college campus—particularly when you're building a nontraditional news operation.

At Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, I'm adapting an approach to campus news that expands an institution's central news resources at no financial cost. The model relies on recruiting and training people already working in campus departments and academic units to report and write researched news stories that media outlets and news aggregators will want to share on their websites. I developed the concept while overseeing the news division at my previous institution, Princeton University in New Jersey, but I hadn't realized how unconventional it is until I briefly mentioned it during my presentation at the CASE media relations professionals conference earlier this year. Many surprised attendees approached me afterward. Did you really succeed with such an approach?

I can say the outcome was an undeniable success. Websites such as Yahoo! News increasingly republished Princeton's news stories. Online aggregators such as Reddit and Digg adapted and shared them. High school guidance counselors, foundation newsletters, trade magazines, textbook companies, federal agencies, and international news organizations requested permission to reprint our articles in their publications. Our efforts to widely distribute our news content among the university's target constituencies worked. But the path to achieving these positive results was a challenging one. My first foray into marshaling cross-campus news resources in this manner taught me the importance of embracing collegiality.

Evolution required

Like many higher education institutions, Princeton's central news division had been encouraging campus departments and academic units for decades to submit their press releases and event information, which news staff members would rewrite as necessary. My predecessor had established solid relationships with campus colleagues whose job titles contained the words writer or communications by inviting them to weekly news division meetings and annual brainstorming sessions to share story ideas. In March 2010, when I became director of university news and editorial services, I recruited several of these cross-campus colleagues to contribute directly to the news operation.

When I arrived at Princeton in 2005, 16 full-time reporters covered the university as part of their beat. By the time I began managing the campus's news division, that number was three. Soon afterward, a University of Illinois study examining national news coverage of U.S. higher education institutions from 1945 to 2005 found that research universities had gone from being newsmakers to news commentators, with 85 percent of stories merely citing faculty experts on current events.

My plan was to be part of the leading edge of a move by institutions to disseminate their own brand of well-researched journalism. However, my news staff needed to devote more time to developing multimedia content to enhance the presentation of our news stories. We lacked the capacity to cover everything taking place on campus. The time had come to partner with our cross-campus colleagues, some of whom promoted events, specialized in policy briefs, and wrote research abstracts. My goal: cultivate about a dozen colleagues into a team of news writers in one year. It took about a year and a half, but considering the challenges I encountered, I should have allotted two to three. But I'm a better manager today because of the following lessons I learned.

Editing means different things to different people. Many higher education communicators, myself included, have journalism backgrounds. We're used to receiving direct and sometimes extensive editing, taking questions about editorial decisions, and accepting guidance for substantial revisions.

I discovered there is a different level of ownership for written work in higher education. Even writers familiar with the peer-review process of an academic journal were jarred by some of the corrections and revision requests. Some people took these changes as criticism. One writer said my staff's editing demonstrated a "pattern of disrespect." Her displeasure surprised me—she hadn't mentioned any problems previously—and we had to coax her into continuing to contribute.

Be an educator and mentor. I made the mistake of treating the work of writers who didn't work for me as though it had come from my staff of former journalists. You simply can't email a story brimming with red editing marks to an uninitiated news writer without explaining the reasons for the changes.

We work in an educational environment, and the way we collaborate with colleagues should reflect that reality. The best outcomes resulted from talking people through the writing and editing process. Although it was time-consuming, mentoring and developing writers who could produce journalistic stories about other areas of the institution was worth the investment.

Informed people are more likely to buy in. Our cross-campus colleagues were creating original content for the news division; we were sharing it with wider audiences and bringing more attention to their departments and academic units. These writers were gaining marketable skills. Many scored feature story bylines on Princeton's home page. I saw the approach as a collaborative and mutually beneficial arrangement. Some writers didn't. Our division's transition from "We will accept and rewrite your press releases" to "We will show you how to contribute directly to the news operation" was interpreted by some as "Your department is no longer a priority for us."

When I launched this model, my staff and I visited the writers we had enlisted to better explain what they would be doing and how the program would work, including a detailed description of the editing and review process. What I didn't do was provide the context for why we wanted them to contribute. I didn't make it clear that media coverage of Princeton (and higher education in general) was diminishing due to dramatic changes in the media landscape. Without a proper understanding of the stakes, some writers weren't as invested in the effort.

Show appreciation early and often. While my team and I were committed to helping other campus units tell their stories and build their reputations, some writers felt that they were helping us do our jobs by doing extra work that was outside their comfort zone and beyond the scope of their primary duties—for free. Once I understood their perception, I spent more time talking to these colleagues about how they were feeling, praising their progress, and showing gratitude for their efforts. It was a valuable reminder of the power of saying thank you.

In my rush to innovate, I forgot the value of engaging my colleagues as stakeholders in our shared endeavor. After I realized this, our partnerships improved. Many later thanked me for helping them add to their skill set and gain exposure for their departments and programs.

Princeton was my first experience working in higher education, and I learned that speed is not a necessary component for success. At Franklin & Marshall I'm starting slow and small in adapting this news bureau approach. Since my arrival in early 2012, my staff and I have been working primarily with one cross-campus colleague. I plan to build one new relationship at a time. As institutions continue to search for ways to supplement their central news resources, I remain committed to the idea that working with talented writers from across campus can be one answer.

About the Author Cass Cliatt Cass Cliatt

Cass Cliatt is the vice president for communications at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania.

 

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