Being invited to your alma mater is always an honor. Last week, I was doubly honored when Michigan State University, from which I earned my bachelor’s degree in Humanities, gave me its Distinguished Alumni Award.
A little less grand, but equally exciting, was the chance to visit my first college newspaper, The Eastern Echo, at Eastern Michigan University. I worked there as a high school senior taking classes at Eastern, and during my freshman year, before I decamped to launch my studies at MSU in East Lansing.
Echo Executive Editor Nora Naughton invited me to speak to her staff, and to journalism students, in Reynolds’ first College Custom Newsroom Training seminar. Our college program is an offshoot of Reynolds Custom Newsroom Training, which we launched this summer at the Baton Rouge Business Report in Louisiana.
Lots of schools have student newspapers, but not all of them have journalism programs or even journalism departments. And, some students bypass journalism classes all together, even though they have a hankering to write. Luckily, Eastern offers classes and a newspaper where students can test their skills.
The Echo (@TheEasternEcho) is a great blend of journalism tradition and new technology. The Echo’s print edition is still published twice a week, and the paper is updated constantly online, serving a campus with nearly 19,000 students as well as the surrounding community of Ypsilanti, founded in 1823. (Lately, Ypsi has been described as the Brooklyn of Southeast Michigan, although some of us who lived in Brooklyn aren’t quite sure it’s there yet.)
Inside its endearingly shabby offices, the Echo has a morgue with printed copies, and binders with copies from decades past, and a wooden sign with the paper’s name. There are also plenty of places to camp out and brainstorm.
But the focus of these students is a future in journalism, an ever changing business. I’ve gotten to know Nora and some of her colleagues, like managing editor Al Willman, over social media, and they’re right on top of what’s happening on the Eastern campus. (You can follow Nora @NoraNaughton and Al is @AlWillmanEcho.)
Naughton asked me to speak to the Echo group about writing feature stories, for which the paper always has a need. Over cider and cookies in the Echo’s conference room, I gave students some of my basic tips. Here are a few of them:
1) What’s the most important takeaway from the story? What would you want to overhear in Starbucks if you heard someone talking about your story to a friend?
2) What’s the reason for doing the story? In journalism, we call that the news peg. But sometimes, there isn’t an anniversary or another big development on which you can pin the story. If you don’t have that, why are you writing it?
3) Every feature needs a beginning, a middle and an end. Forget about old-style inverted pyramids when it comes to features. You need to keep the reader hooked throughout.
The Echo group had lots of questions, and I had many questions for them, especially about their hopes and dreams for the future. Some want to write books. Some want to work at The New York Times, like I did. Others want to use their journalism to help people back home, in Detroit, or on the Texas-Mexico border.
Walking out of the building, we ran into Swoop, the EMU mascot, who seemed to be enjoying the beautiful fall weather as much as I was. He symbolizes the school’s nickname, the Eagles. I didn’t have a chance to ask the student inside Swoop what it’s like to be asked to pose for photos with every visitor. But, that might make a good future Echo feature — if there’s a good news peg. (Swoop, by the way, has his own Twitter account @EMU_Swoop.)
Could your college newsroom use some custom training? We can meet with you in person, via Skype or on a conference call. Let us know how we can help.