Oct. 8, 2020
CWU Student Media Outlets Discover Benefits, Challenges of Working Remotely
Like most news operations around the country, Central Washington University’s three student media organizations have had to make some major adjustments over the past seven months.
In some ways, the staffs of The Observer, PULSE Magazine, and Central News Watch are still adapting to the remote working environment brought on by the partial campus shutdown. But overall, CWU’s student journalists have enthusiastically met every challenge since last spring, and their editors say they’ve barely missed a beat.
“Everyone has responded really well so far,” said senior Madeline Wilson, editor-in-chief of PULSE Magazine for the past five quarters. “We’ve definitely had to adapt to a more virtual communication style, but everyone on our staff is very interested in learning and they’ve been relying on the editors to show them the way.”
Expanded use of social media has been a common thread at all three student media outlets in 2020. With only 1,600 students living on campus this fall, and off-campus residents attending classes remotely, The Observer and PULSE editors knew they wouldn’t be able to reach as many potential readers with hard copies this fall.
PULSE elected to produce just one print edition this quarter (instead of the typical two) and is producing more multimedia content for the website. The Observer reduced its print run to 700 newspapers a week and introduced a weekly email newsletter.
“Since there aren’t many people on campus this fall, we’ve had to be more creative about how we get our message out there,” said senior Mitchell Roland, editor-in-chief at CWU’s student newspaper. “We’ve been doing more with social media and we’re putting out a digital version so we can reach more people. It’s been interesting, but it’s going pretty well so far.”
Similarly, Central News Watch has expanded its online presence since last spring, relying almost exclusively on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to share its content. The traditional, in-studio newscasts of prior years had to be replaced by social media packages. But, if anything, community interest has increased.
“Most of our viewers are on Facebook, so we haven’t noticed a huge difference in how we do things,” said Jessica Perez, the news director at News Watch. “We have more than 3,000 followers now, so interest is growing. It’s good to see that we’re still gaining viewers because we’ve been doing a lot of good news stories.”
The number of Facebook followers on the Central News Watch page has grown from 2,877 to 3,297 since March, representing about a 13% increase.
Now in her fifth quarter with News Watch, Perez admits that the current news gathering and production processes are very different than what she was used to before the shift to a virtual news environment.
She and the other student-managers have been training a large crop of first-year reporters this fall, which has presented its own set of challenges. But Perez said everyone on staff is eager to learn, and she is committed to developing her successors before she graduates next month.
“Most people on our staff have some experience with PULSE or The Observer, which has been helpful,” she said. “But broadcasting is also very different from print, so we started out by doing a lot of teaching.”
Building Toward the Future
The PULSE and Observer staffs also were hit hard by graduation, but Wilson and Roland each have enough experience that they have been able to steer their respective publications in a positive direction. Both editors said they got involved in student media because they genuinely care about their news products and the people they report on. Deep down, they feel like they are making a difference.
“Over the past five quarters, I’ve tried to make PULSE more recognizable for certain groups of people and certain departments on campus,” said Wilson, a social sciences major. “One of my goals was to focus on more diversity-related issues, and I feel like I’ve really set a tone for the magazine by targeting students whose voices aren’t normally heard.”
Roland also intends to leave his mark on The Observer before he becomes a professional reporter, and he appreciates the guidance and support he has received during his short time at CWU. He is confident that the skills he is developing as a newspaper editor will translate well to his journalism career.
“Every newspaper in the country is learning how to offer a better online product, so bringing that experience with me can only help,” said Roland, who transferred to CWU last spring and worked as a staff reporter.
While he misses working in the newsroom on deadline nights — as he did at his previous two college papers — he has found that the virtual newsroom concept offers some advantages, too.
“Most journalism jobs today require you to have remote working experience, so I think this is really going to benefit us in our careers,” he said.
Perez agreed, saying that the virtual environment has shown her and her staff what it will take to become professional broadcasters and news producers.
“I just tell them to be patient,” she said. “That’s what you have to do in the business. Things are constantly changing and it can be a very stressful environment. You just have to go with the flow and do the news.”
Senior Mitchell Roland is the editor in chief of The Observer this fall.
Track Record of Success
The dedication shown by the CWU student journalists has not been lost on the faculty who educate and advise them.
Francesco Somaini, the Department of Communication chair, said he and the three faculty advisors — Jennifer Green (PULSE), Terri Reddout (Central News Watch), and Cynthia Mitchell (Observer) — continue to be impressed by their students’ commitment to quality.
“We’re not as big as some other communication schools, but we have found that we’re pretty good at what we do,” said Somaini, who also coordinates the Digital Journalism program. “Our publications consistently win regional awards — and, sometimes, national awards — and our faculty advisors are experienced professionals who worked in the industry for many years. We know we are preparing our students well.”
Four CWU student journalists, including Wilson, were recently nominated for the national Pinnacle Awards and six others were nominated last year. In that contest, PULSE won first place for its website and also collected two second-place honors, while News Watch received a second-place award.
Meanwhile, The Observer earned eight regional awards and one national award in a recent Society of Professional Journalists contest.
To illustrate the school’s ability to train future journalists, Somaini pointed to the accomplishments of recent graduates such as Jonathan Glover, Simone Corbett, Jacob Gerken, Daisy Hernandez, and Mariah Valles. Each of them excelled during their time at CWU, and they have been enjoying similar success early in their careers.
The primary reason for that success, Somaini believes, is the CWU program’s emphasis on experiential learning. Communication majors are required to spend at least one quarter with each of the three student media outlets so they are prepared to step into a professional role once they graduate.
This year’s student journalists have been asked to take that on-the-job experience to an entirely new level — and they’ve made their professors very proud along the way.
“The past few months have been the ultimate experiential learning experience, and our students have responded very well,” Somaini said. “Changes happen all the time in the news industry and you just have to learn to get the job done with fewer resources. Journalists have always been able to adapt, and we’ve done that as well as anyone else this year.”
Media contact: David Leder, Department of Public Affairs, David.Leder@cwu.edu, 509-963-1518.