USA Today journalists Patrick Foster and McKenna Grant are on a mission to create a voice for college students.
Patrick, 45, and McKenna, 23, serve as top editors for USA Today College, a program Gannett Co. Inc. launched in 2011 to mentor college students and provide opportunities for them to publish stories with a USA Today standard. They work with dozens of young writers from around the country to report and publish interesting, newsworthy college content and help them develop into better reporters and editors.
As a USA Today College intern, I have first-hand experience with the program. I sat down with Patrick and McKenna to discuss the impact that college journalists are having on media as a whole, and to get their opinions on everything from social media to depictions of sexuality on college-media themed websites.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
AJR: What was your inspiration behind starting USA Today College?
Patrick: We realized that a really large [separation] formed between USA Today’s audience and the collegiate audience. …We asked [education department interns in 2011] to go through the papers and pick out articles that they would read so that they could tweet them out [to college students]. … They came back and said ‘there’s no stories here that we would actually read, but there’s this one and this one that I would show to my mom or dad’ and that’s when we realized that there was a problem. We were so far removed from what college students actually read. We started this project to turn over the voice of what USA Today is to college students.
AJR: You have the Collegiate Correspondent program, which is a group of students from across the country who were chosen to write weekly articles for USAT College. What were you looking for in the students who applied?
McKenna: For the most part, the process was looking at [clips] and making sure that they’re balanced, thoroughly reported and that it’s an interesting [and unique] topic. I think that’s one thing [the topic] that we really, really look at.
Patrick: In the second part of the application, [we] say ‘Here’s 48 hours – you have to go and you have to find a story in USA Today and you have to either use that as inspiration for an original story or just give a college angle on that.’ — that’s where we started to differentiate some people from others. … We’ve [also] had some really good non-journalism majors in the program because it is really about telling a story, whether you’re using video or Storify or just 140 characters or you’re writing a 700-word balanced, well-reported story; you have to be able to tell a story.
AJR: USA Today College posts stories with topics ranging from coffee habits to racial issues. What is your guideline for publishable content on USAT College?
Patrick: We are dictated by the USA Today standards, so we have to be fair and we have to be balanced.
AJR: Well, of course with college students, topics about sex, drugs and alcohol are bound to come up. Where does the line get drawn?
McKenna: We actually just dealt with this, with a story about students who aspire to be porn stars. At first we looked at the topic and we thought, “Well if it’s balanced and he’s getting both sides of the story then it’s a story,” but the thing is that it ended up kind of glamorizing porn and he couldn’t get college administrations to comment on it, so in that case I didn’t feel comfortable running it. If he had been able to get those sources and it didn’t come off as a promotional ad for students turning into porn stars, then maybe. Certain topics, they might seem like a little bit too much, but I feel like if you handle the reporting the right way, you can still have it.
Patrick: We can write about porn as a serious issue and how it impacts college students and Americans and those who might just need money, but we’re not going to show actual clips of the movies this girl has done or whatever it is. There are plenty of Total Frat Move sites out there on the Internet, and that’s not something we really need to be, because there’s plenty of people serving that market.
AJR: Speaking of Total Frat Move, do you think it’s valuable for college students to write for those types of racy blogs?
McKenna: I don’t think it’s a bad thing. You’re still [being] creative and thinking of stories, and it’s just a different topic and a different tone for the most part. I feel like if you’re still reporting and showing that you know how to write a story and get the facts and everything, then it’s not bad. But, if that were somebody’s only experience on their resume, I’d want to see stories that are more serious.
Patrick: I also think it’s important to remember that we live in the Internet age and you have to know how to work the Internet. Those sites really have figured out how to work the Internet for their audience really, really well, and that’s what makes them successful. If you can be successful on that platform, then that shows me that you really have an understanding of it and I think that’s really important.
AJR: Do you feel as though college journalists need to be more limited on social media, even on their own personal accounts?
Patrick: It’s a fine line, but the line is always moving, so that’s why you have to pay attention to know where it’s moving to. Basically, when you decide to be a journalist in the public view, whether that’s a college journalist or a journalist for Gannett, you do give up your rights. It’s no longer freedom of speech on the Internet. You have to sacrifice the fact that [what you say could] damage all of your credibility.
McKenna: It just takes one screenshot once you post something like that.
Patrick: It’s one drunken tweet at 2 a.m. that you may or may not remember sending, but you sent it, and that’s all it takes.
McKenna: I guess it just really depends on the person, because some people, they’ll just tweet news and things like that, and some people bring themselves into it. You just have to be careful.
AJR (to McKenna): As a recently graduated college student, what advice do you have for college journalists who are about to graduate and enter the real world?
McKenna: Don’t be afraid to take an opportunity that you didn’t necessarily see yourself at. I think back to one of my internships that I had — it was a digital communications internship with a nonprofit, and honestly it taught me so much about the web and digital marketing. It wasn’t necessarily journalism, but having that knowledge from that experience changed everything.
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