Tips for managing campus coverage over the summer
Summer presents challenges for student journalists who stay on campus: It’s often a time of limited on-campus news and limited staffing. But summer also provides opportunities for student publications to try new things and be creative in how they structure coverage.
Libby Allnatt graduated in 2017 from Arizona State University, where she was the summer editor-in-chief of The State Press, ASU’s student-run publication. She’s now a wire editor for the USA Today Network.
Libby shared advice for finding off-campus story ideas, long-distance communication, and experimenting with new projects. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your experience as a summer editor-in-chief. What was different than being a manager during the school year?
There isn't the same structure as during the semester. It's summer break, so students aren't on campus as much. They might be traveling or living in a different state, so in-person meetings and check-ins aren't as feasible. In addition, I had a ton of freedom in how I wanted to manage things, which was exciting but also daunting!
But summer coverage for a student publication is important for two reasons. First, it helps the credibility of your publication and the value you can bring to readers. The State Press is a digital-only publication (besides the SP Magazine, which we did not publish during the summer), and it obviously isn't valuable from a news perspective for a site to sit dormant for three months.
Second, I felt it was important for reporters to maintain their pitching, interviewing and writing skills over the summer, as well as stay engaged with the community. I was also interested in seeing the kinds of stories we could do with a more flexible schedule that might otherwise be difficult to tackle during the semester.
What new things did you and the staff try over the summer?
Since it was summer, we were able to experiment with ideas that might fall through the cracks during the busy grind of a regular semester. The summer I was editor-in-chief, we had two opinion columnists who did "co-columns" each week, taking two different stances on a topic. It was rewarding to see them work together and produce such engaging pieces.
Some things you try might not work. We had talked about doing a music podcast, but we only had one staffer with audio experience and eventually it just did not seem like something we could consistently produce. Don't be afraid to experiment and try new things with your coverage. Summer is the perfect time to do just that.
What was challenging about coordinating coverage in the summer?
The first challenge comes from the nature of summer break. There's plenty going on at universities over the summer, but because students aren't on campus as much, they might not come across as many student-focused story ideas.
In order to provide valuable content, we had to expand our range of coverage a little more. Are there any clubs or professors doing interesting service work over the summer? What events are happening around the city that students living nearby might be interested in? Is there anything developing at the university level that could impact students in the fall? Questions like these can spark story ideas and lead to avenues of coverage.
Another challenge I mentioned above is that your staff might be located all over the country during these months, whether they're back home for the summer, in a different state for an internship, or traveling. The key to handling geographic variation? Communication, communication, communication.
What did you learn? What worked especially well?
The key to keeping everyone on the same page: documents! For the reporters, I had a pitching document that I made in Google Sheets and shared with everyone on the staff. Each reporter had a space on the sheet where they would write their story idea, potential sources, the photos they would provide, and any expected multimedia elements. I also had a space on the document for story ideas I came across that reporters could claim if they didn't have a pitch that week.
An online place to pitch stories (could be Slack, a Facebook group, whatever!) was helpful for two reasons: First, reporters could see what their peers were covering so we didn't have any overlap. Second, it helped me as an editor keep track of what stories were expected so I knew when a story would be submitted and ready to edit and publish.
Another method that worked well was having regular pitch dates and story due dates. At the beginning of the summer, I talked with each reporter about what day would work best for them to have their stories done. This not only helped ensure accountability, but also ensured that our coverage was regular and consistent (i.e. having one story up each day rather than publishing five on a Monday and nothing else that week).
If you have a small staff, perhaps such a regular system isn’t necessary. If you have four reporters, you may find it easier for them to just individually tell you what they’re working on and when it will be done. But the summer I was editor, we had about 12 regular reporters, so I wanted to keep it organized.
What advice would you give other students on managing summer coverage?
If you're managing a student publication over the summer, my top advice would be to keep things as structured as possible. I tried to approach the summer like any other semester, interviewing applicants in May, figuring out general beats for everyone on the summer staff, and setting deadlines.
At the same time, keep in mind that it IS summer. There might be weeks when newsworthy topics are hard to come by, or a large chunk of summer reporters are out of town. But a general sense of structure helped keep things consistent and allowed us to publish at least a few stories each week.
I also reached out to the State Press editor who managed our coverage the prior summer, and she gave me tons of helpful information. Don't be afraid to ask for help.
What pieces are you most proud of from that summer?
I was lucky to have a staff with a wide variety of interests and areas of coverage, so we were able to cover local politics, sports and art. These were some of my favorite pieces from the summer that I felt not only represented the quality that State Press delivers, but ones in which reporters were able to conduct engaging interviews and use their writing skills to tell a really interesting story.