In California, journalists lean on student reporters for education coverage

Center Hall, a lecture hall near the center of UCSD campus. Photo by Wikipedia Commons.

It was early June when the legendary congressman John Lewis cancelled his scheduled commencement address at the University of California, San Diego. Lewis had backed out in a show of solidarity with a union strike involving UC workers just two weeks before graduation. Gary Robbins, a science and technology reporter at the San Diego Union Tribune was juggling three stories that afternoon, but found time to cover the news anyways. Robbins is not a higher-education reporter, but his work places him on UCSD and other research university campuses in the area frequently. Without a dedicated higher-education reporter at the daily paper, the 40-year veteran has become the paper’s de facto correspondent, filing higher-education stories when he can find the time.

Robbins says he might have missed the Lewis story were it not for a tip he got from a student reporter.

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All over the country, daily newspapers and metro sections have thinned as revenue streams have dried up. For the education beat, this has left journalists responsible for covering impossibly large areas—and more reliant on college newspapers. The burden is especially potent in California, home to a three-tiered public university system that represents a massive chunk of the state budget and includes California State University–the largest in the US—as well as the 10-campus University of California system and a host of public community colleges.  

Gabriel Schneider, a recent graduate of UCSD and founder of the independent student news outlet, The Triton, broke the news and then gave Robbins a heads up, who later wrote a story of his own including comment from a Triton staff member. For Robbins, higher education is a kind of “subbeat,” one that he has to cherry-pick ideas from.

“I’m not on campus everyday to find stories,” he notes. But Schneider and other student reporters like him are, and their coverage is increasingly vital.

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“They’re essential. They don’t have formal training, but they keep banging on doors and asking the right people the right things, so sometimes when stories surface it comes up first from student reporting,” says Robbins.

Robbins maintains contact with editors at the Triton and at The Guardian, another independent UCSD student newspaper, and he’s in touch with student reporters at nearby San Diego State University. Those relationships help him keep tabs on developing stories on campus in a way that might otherwise be impossible.

And when newsworthy things happen on campus that have implications beyond the college gates, student journalists offer local reporters a starting point–and sometimes a directory–for potential sources.

Last year, The Triton covered protests from some student groups after the Dalai Lama was invited to speak on campus. Schneider says soon after, reporters from The New York Times were on campus to cover the controversy–and they linked back to their story. In January, as the national conversation around immigration and the future of young undocumented immigrants protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program raged, a UCSD student with DACA made a wrong turn and accidentally crossed the Mexican border. He was detained while trying to re-enter. Schneider covered the news for the Triton before the local daily picked up the story. (He was eventually released.) Earlier this year the Triton ran a story about a university professor who publicly denigrated a student who transferred from a community college that was later covered by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

In California, the presence of higher-education reporters varies widely. Outlets like CalMatters, KQED, inewsource, and Voice of San Diego have education reporters covering the state with a focus on both K-12 and higher education matters. Often this work is investigative and infrequent. Outlets like EdSource cover education exclusively. (Two higher-education reporters are stationed in Los Angeles.)

Teresa Watanabe, the Los Angeles Times’s higher-education reporter covers the University of California system extensively (another reporter previously focused on the California State system, but the position is currently vacant). She says she makes a point of keeping track of what student journalists are covering, and has picked up stories from them in the past, including this story about a UC Berkeley student who ran for a student senate seat as a squirrel–and won. It was first covered by The Daily Californian, the campus’s student newspaper.

Megan Burks, the sole education reporter at KPBS in San Diego, covers a whopping 42 K-12 districts, about eight community colleges, and four major universities. She hasn’t collaborated with student journalists, but says they’re often “a step or several” ahead of her when she starts digging into a higher-education story. And student reporters have appeared on the station’s midday show to talk about stories that they weren’t able to assign a staffer to, says Burks.

“I’m the only education reporter at my station. I’m taking more of a global view as opposed to tracking the progress of student fee increases or a referendum,” she says. She uses student newspapers most often, she says, when “I start digging and looking for a way to localize [a story] or I’ve heard rumblings and start googling to see where the sources would be, usually the first hits [are] student newspapers.”

In the Bay Area, local reporters at places like the East Bay Express and the San Francisco Chronicle work to dig into higher-education news–and major stories such as the free speech debate routinely attract national interest. But Suhauna Hussian, a former editor at UC Berkeley’s The Daily Californian, worries that smaller—but equally important—stories are slipping through the cracks.

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“There is no shortage of stories that need telling, even at a place like UC Berkeley that receives so much scrutiny from national media,” says Hussain. She offered instances of sexual misconduct in university Greek life as an example.

The Daily Californian broke a story about the UC Berkeley chapter of Sigma Chi: Leadership knew about repeated allegations of drugging and sexual assault and didn’t take action until the newspaper made inquiries about the allegations,” says Hussain in an email.

But Hussain says the capacity of a student newsroom to build institutional knowledge and cultivate sources is hard given the turnover baked into their four-year college experience. Local reporters are better positioned to do long-term reporting.

Local media also benefits from student reporters in their internship programs as they look for ways to supplement higher-ed coverage. At KPCC, education editor Maura Walz constantly grapples with how best to focus her reporters’ energies across such a large swath of the state; there is one higher-ed reporter focused primarily on undercovered community colleges and first-generation students. Walz follows several student newspapers on Twitter, and says having student interns around the office helps keep them tuned into what’s happening on campus.

“We have had student reporters on our air before…A lot of times, the student press has been helpful in breaking news situations,” says Walz, offering reports of an active shooter on UCLA’s campus as an example where the student press helped them stay on top of a fast moving story.

“Having the reporters featured on our talk shows is a really good middle ground where [we’re] crediting reporting to them and they are getting the experience of being on air,” says Walz.

This kind of symbiotic relationship is promising. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently expanded a training program for college journalists intended to equip them with stronger reporting skills in areas like the Freedom of Information Act and Title IX.

Walz, the editor at KPCC, worries that limited resources create a situation in which professional journalists bogged down by large coverage areas and a nuanced beat potentially miss opportunities to do meaningful accountability reporting in the public interest.

“I get worried we are not thinking about how much public money is being spent by the University of California system and [whether it] is being spent efficiently or well,” says Walz. “Are we not being good at holding these institutions accountable because we are focused on other things?”

Student reporters also say the presence of professional reporters on their campuses legitimizes their efforts to do solid reporting on the stories that are within their capability, in the face of university administrators who are sometimes reluctant to take them seriously.

“Nationally, there is a crisis with reporters being called ‘fake news’ and being told we don’t want you here, and I see that replicated on campus,” says Schneider. “A huge [issue] is that we don’t have a lawyer. We file public records requests and when they deny them and say they’re out of scope, we can’t sue. When we want to fight for something, we just can’t.”

Schneider believes the guaranteed turnover of university newspaper staffs, and their status as students, encourages university administrators to treat their requests less seriously.

In one meeting with the UCSD chancellor’s administration, Schneider adds, an official asked plainly: Why do we need to support student newspapers?

As the professional reporting corps steels itself against similar antagonisms, one reason to support student papers is the amount that they contribute to important, local reporting.

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Alexandria Neason is CJR's Staff Writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow. Previously, she was a reporter at The Village Voice and covered education for the Teacher Project, a partnership between Columbia Journalism School and Slate. A team she worked on won the 2016 Education Writers Association award for news features. Follow her on Twitter @alexandrianeas.