Training helps overcome beginning-of-semester hump

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By Miriam Ascarelli, Kyle Huckins and Trisha Collopy

At Webster University in St. Louis, students at the school’s newspaper and Web site face a common challenge every year: getting new staffers up to speed and turning around the first content and print issue of

Image courtesy of NS Newsflash
Image courtesy of NS Newsflash

The students publish a back-to-school print edition and offer a new staff orientation in the same week.

“It’s a tough week for editors,” said Lawrence Baden, associate professor in Webster’s Communications and Journalism Department.
And Webster University isn’t alone. Student media outlets face many challenges—high turnover, limited training and limited resources. But the beginning of the year brings an extra challenge: quickly producing the year’s first newscast, newspaper or online content with staff members who might be completely green.

To help get over that hump, many journalism and communications programs have turned to staff training. Schools across the country have tried many approaches, from one-on-one mentoring, to orientation and team-building retreats to boot camps.

What they all have in common—whether students are producing print, multimedia or broadcast content—is the desire to quickly build skills and produce new content.

Training buys time

Webster, a private university with fewer than 3,000 undergraduates on its home campus, offers several of these pieces, including an editors’ retreat, a two- to three- day new staff orientation and a hands-on activity, Baden said.  The combined staff size of the Webster Journal’s online and print operations is 35 in the fall and 25 in the spring, according to Baden. That includes the ad reps and business manager.

“We do multimedia sessions. We attend the president’s convocation speech and cover it with cameras, audio and have reporters creating text stories so they’re producing content during those two days,” Baden said.

The goal is to get students thinking about how the pieces of a multimedia package come together from their very first day on staff and to plunge them quickly into a deadline environment, he said.

“What it does is it buys us basically a week,” Baden said of the staff training. “Our early papers have been a lot of better because of them taking that time.”

At Indiana University in Bloomington, where the Daily Student is published, personnel gather the couple of days prior to each semester for workshops. These include guest speakers on writing and other subjects as well as interactions with panels of sources from the community.

“Since we have turnover at the paper every semester, it’s as much for the sources as the students,” IU adviser Ruth Witmer said.

IU’s 200 or more student staffers want to understand the training process, which for new hires includes orientation, a 100-question worksheet on journalism essentials and meeting with student editors.

Setting clear expectations

John Strauss, adviser of the student newspaper at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., said students “become better writers with more practice and given some gentle feedback. In feedback, I point out the many things they did right, then point out things they could benefit from doing.”

“Setting clear expectations and explaining why we’re doing this or that is key,” Witmer said. “And involving the students in the process—having students train students, struggle through the challenges, come up with solutions to problems and own the successes—is so important.’’

Ball State, long a Hoosier rival journalistically as well as in general, does not have formal training sessions, though Strauss said he likes “the band camp approach.”

“The curriculum builds the basics of writing, and student editors are on top of the paper,” Strauss said. During the semester he will occasionally during semesters conduct sessions on lead writing or multimedia, preferring to address such subjects on an as-needed basis.

“Publishing in print four times a week and updating otherwise during each day, the students are real busy, so I’m hesitant to do too much when there are so many claims on their time already,” he added.

Angelo State in San Angelo, Texas, goes BSU’s route in keeping training informal and primarily one-on-one. Newspaper adviser Cathy Johnson said busy summers spent teaching give her little time for supervising workshops prior to fall classes at the 6,900-student university.

The Christian school perspective

Looking at private religious schools, Baylor University in Waco, Texas, has 15,000 students, and the couple dozen on the newspaper staff come a week early every fall to hone their craft.

“At Baylor, the way we do this is by teaching our students professional journalism standards, and then holding them accountable,” said Director of Student Publications Paul Carr.

Having professional-led training is a plus to most on staff.

“Baylor students are here to learn and seem open to hearing what our professionals have to share. Sometimes there is resistance to advice from other students, but I don’t sense that from our professionals,” Carr said.

Baylor also reported follow-up sessions during the school year as well as a one-day training time prior to the spring semester.

Azusa Pacific University in California publishes weekly for its 5,200 on-campus students, but has much the same model as far larger Baylor. APU staffers return nearly a week early in fall and a couple days before the spring semester to get ready for the term’s demands.

“Students always need drilling on the journalistic fundamentals as well as a reminder of our grounding in the Judeo-Christian tradition,” said adviser Kyle Huckins, one of the co-authors of this piece. “I try to make sure we all realize we’re to be learning in community, helping each other along the way, and a number of sessions link explicitly to Scripture.”

Huckins holds workshops on AP style, grammar, localizing, accuracy and more. Designers examine page layout and photographers learn about the rule of thirds.

“Staffers enjoy getting back early to see each other as well as get into stories, designs and other tasks,” said Huckins, who gives time during the fall training to allow students to work on the year’s first edition.  For APU, spring semester training is shorter because most staffers already have gone through the fall effort, but there usually are new staffers at midyear to get up to speed, the adviser said.

Huckins said he’s had good success with his training approach in the previous several years at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion. While APU has roughly twice as many students on campus as IWU, the adviser said the latter’s model will help inform his efforts in California.

Huckins added that having students lead some workshops can help foster buy-in from staffers. “I like to give those in leadership the chance to express themselves, too,” he said.

Radio and TV

Student-run radio and television stations also rely on training programs to bring newbies up to speed. At the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville, home to nearly 10,000 undergraduates, John Morris, general manager of the student radio station The Edge, attends the training sessions, but they are run by students and split up according to jobs.

The program director does the orientation for the disc jockeys, the news director does the same for the news department, and the sports director and production director each head sessions for their respective departments, Morris said.

The length of each orientation varies. DJs have orientation once a week for the first four weeks, then monthly after that. Each meeting is about one to 1½ hours. The others all have the first orientation meeting the first week, and it lasts about one hour. In addition to area-specific training, topics covered include station policy, review of rules and the signing of practicum agreement sheets.

Robert Nulph, who currently teaches convergent journalism at Missouri Western State, an institution with an undergraduate population of 6,000, offers a more traditional boot camp to students at the campus media outlet.

Nulph started a boot camp when he advised a student newscast at Clarion University in western Pennsylvania. At Clarion, also a school with an undergraduate population in the 6,000 range, students from any major could sign up to work on the student newscast, which aired four days a week.

Nulph realized that students weren’t coming in the door with TV production experience.

“They didn’t have a common language,” he said. “They didn’t have the knowledge of what basic broadcast terms were. It was hard to direct. You’d ask them to pan left, and they didn’t know what pan meant. Simple things like that.”

He developed the boot camp to get students up to speed quickly at the beginning of each semester.

Nulph developed three two-hour training sessions: a production boot camp, a talent boot camp and an editing boot camp. While some students had a clear preference to be in front of or behind the camera, the professor encouraged students to take all three sessions.

“Most students who are really smart do all three, because especially in today’s media, you have to do everything,” he said.

He said he found he had to focus on lists of shots, director’s cues and how to dress and speak professionally on the air.

“Primarily it’s such a condensed time, I had to jam as much as possible into it,” he said.

After a week of orientation, students launch into the boot camp in Week Two of the semester. By Week Three, they tape a practice broadcast and by Week Four they’re on the air.

By the second semester each year, juniors and seniors help lead sessions. “They can take kids under their wing and tell them what’s going on,” he said. “I assign seniors to a piece of equipment and they can run it, so I don’t have to be everywhere for the two hours.”

Nulph said the mandatory boot camp gave students a common language. He agrees with Webster’s Baden that it helps speed up the learning curve of new staff each semester, and in his case, gets students on the air more quickly.

“One of things administration is looking for is how quickly can you get on the air,” he said.

He said it’s also a useful model for new advisers, noting, “It’s a way to make sure everyone has the same base of knowledge, that you’re not having to reinvent the wheel.”

“The first year at Clarion, I had to direct everything,” Nulph added. “The second year, I didn’t have to direct, just ran some of the equipment. The third year all I had to do is watch. I was able to step back; they did everything.”

Nulph is bringing his boot camp to Missouri Western, where students will run a weekly news show.

“One of the biggest things is you have to always keep in sight what you’re particular school’s end product will look like and focus your boot camp on that product,” he said.

Nulph’s talent boot camp at Missouri Western will include stand-ups, walk-and-talks, bumps, voiceovers, wardrobe, hair and makeup and on-mic presentation.

While one can’t cram everything students need to know in a two-hour session, “You can get them starting to think about it,” he said.

Training is also at the heart of Kent State’s award-winning television station’s success, said student general manager Katie Coduto. The campus has more than 22,000 students; some 200 are involved in TV2, a co-curricular program that Coduto described as having “a strong sense of family.”

“A lot of our success is just communicating with each other and how open we are with the underclassmen who come in,” said Coduto, whose job description includes overseeing staff training. That tone is established throughout the year with training sessions which help create the sense that “we are all teaching each other,” she said.

Training is scheduled throughout the year. It begins with four days of workshops for key station personnel the week before school starts to discuss station goals, the development of the broadcast schedule and topics such as ethics and media law.  While this four-day intensive is organized by students, faculty adviser John Butte is very much in the loop, she said. As an example, she noted that on Day One, when students kick off the sessions by discussing goals for the year, Butte floats in and out throughout the day in order “to give suggestions and a path to follow.” Nonetheless, “It very much comes down to us talking to each other, talking to each other and collaboration,” she said.

The time is also seen as an opportunity to find resources. This year, Coduto said she, like her predecessors, is asking journalism faculty to lead sessions on law, diversity and ethics—in part because it has the added advantage of letting students know who they can turn to for advice. She’s also planning to follow other precedents such as last year’s decisions to Skype in an alumnus to learn more about how to use social media effectively and to meet in person with a Kent State media relations spokesperson.

“We talked to him about ways to build a relationship with a university so that we can cover stories more efficiently and more effectively,” she said.

The orientation costs the station about $200 and covers the cost of pizza on some days – though not all – as well as preparing and photocopying promotional materials that are distributed during a recruiting day on the first Sunday of the fall semester.

Once the semester starts, Week One is devoted to auditions and tech sign-ups, paving the way for practice sessions for producers and anchors in Week Two. All shows go live by the third week of classes.

In addition, there are generally two staff writing workshops per semester, held around Week Five and Week 10, during which participants are asked to adapt a pre-selected online story to broadcast. Students welcome the training, she said.

“I think a lot of the appeal of TV2 is how passionate the people are who are in it,” she said. “I think a lot of it is they know they are getting great experience,”

What does Coduto think are the most important themes to hit on right away?

Ethics and law. “I think those are most important, and they give you that basic overview.”

Miriam Ascarelli teaches journalism and composition at New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark where she also serves as adviser to the student newspaper. She worked as a newspaper reporter and editor for nearly 15 years and has a master’s degree in English from Rutgers University-Newark.

Kyle Huckins holds a doctorate in journalism from The University of Texas at Austin as well as ordination from the Church of God in Christ. A journalist for a quarter-century, he has won awards for his work in small, medium and large media markets. He is a journalism professor at California’s Azusa Pacific University and a veteran of 15 years in university teaching, including several as an adviser to student media.

Trisha Collopy has worked as a reporter and copy editor at daily newspapers for more than a decade. She has a master’s degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Maryland. She is a journalism instructor and student media adviser at Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Minnesota.