LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA — When swine flu heated up international headlines in 2009, University of Southern California’s fledgling news site Neon Tommy discovered some cold truths about the official reaction to the disease. Neon Tommy staff obtained forty-four death certificates from Los Angeles county health officials, interviewed family members and doctors, and discovered authorities weren’t notifying relatives that the deceased had died from a contagious pandemic. Half the death certificates didn’t show swine flu as a cause of death. The package won national awards, and catapulted the school project onto the pages of the Huffington Post and Gawker.
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Today, the two-year-old site averages 300,000 page views per month, and is first in the country in traffic among online-only college news outlets. A core staff of twenty-five students run the twenty-four-hour news nonprofit, aggregating international and national news, and localizing headlines with their own original reporting. Based out of a one-room office at the Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, editor-in-chief Callie Schweitzer says the small but mighty enterprise was conceived originally as an outlet for reporting pieces and projects coming out of classes at the school, though now much of the content is created explicitly for the site by students and does not pass through a particular classroom.
According to Schwietzer, the j-school’s move to create an online outlet for student journalism was precipitated by a need for a medium that was less campus-centric than the student newspaper. Annenberg formed a news site in Moveable Type for students’ work to be published. Neon Tommy’s name sprung from the idea of an electrified version of the Trojan mascot, known as ‘Tommy Trojan.’
“But it really turned into something much, much more,” Schweitzer says. “What we do at Neon Tommy is the opposite of campus news and sports. Instead we focus on national and international news, science, technology, opinion, arts, and entertainment.”
Schweitzer’s fall 2009 swine flu package as a junior undergrad was an example of what readers might see at the pre-bankrupt Los Angeles Times–a personal look at an international story affecting local residents. When Callie went on the Which Way L.A. radio show and took a county health director to task for inaccurate death certificates that might help spread disease, the story got national pickup.
Today, Neon Tommy is a mix of aggregation and original reporting in a fresh young enthusiastic style that is regularly linked to by the L.A. Times, Huffington Post, LA Observed, Gawker, Romenesko, and Yahoo.
Callie says the site has about twenty-five core staffers and 150 contributors. The site operates around the clock, seven days a week. Bloggers take four-hour shifts and maintain a listserv for breaking news assignments, running about twenty-five posts per day and up to fifty on a big day. “We have a lot of communications via e-mail. It’s impossible to get everybody together,” she says. The site just completed a switch to Drupal.
Neon Tommy was nominated for an IRE award in the student category and took a second place award at the L.A. Press Club in 2010. Schweitzer took home a Hearst award for opinion writing in 2010. After the senior graduates this year, the twenty-two-year-old will become the executive assistant to the publisher of Talking Points Memo–a career start she directly attributes to her field work at Neon Tommy.
The practice of journalism in a fast-changing world now trumps learning sometimes outdated theory in class, Schweitzer says. “Practicing the trade itself has returned to the center. If you leave college and you’re not Googleable, you don’t exist.”
In the future, the site will continue to work to further localize international news, as it has done while reporting on the local implications of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Tommy’s young staffers are also optimizing the site’s use of social media for maximum impact.
“I have no doubt that Neon Tommy is going to be known throughout L.A.,” Schweitzer says.
Neon Tommy Data
Name: Neon Tommy
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