PHOENIX, ARIZONA — Student journalists now learning their trade by filing stories for Cronkite News were born long after Walter Cronkite (1916-2009) signed off the CBS Evening News in 1981.
A part of Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Cronkite News publishes news by student journalists on its own website, and produces stories for the Associated Press, McClatchy-Tribune News Service, and about thirty newspapers in Arizona, including the Arizona Republic. Most stories have an Arizona angle, though they often have national implications.
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Today, Cronkite News issues dozens of news, feature, and investigative stories every week. Staff also produce a half-hour news show, Cronkite NewsWatch, which airs weekdays on Phoenix’s PBS station KAET and in other Arizona cities, including Tucson and Yuma.
“Cronkite News is at its core a website, but it’s also the banner for the overall news operation that integrates the various parts. A little like GM is to Chevy and Pontiac,” says Steve Elliott, a nineteen-year Associated Press veteran who is now Cronkite News’s director for print and digital services. Cronkite News launched in 2007 as a wire service. It provided student news stories to other outlets, but did not publish stories itself until launching the website in 2010. Besides housing all of the Cronkite News stories, the website also brings together content from Cronkite NewsWatch and, when available, content from other in-depth reporting programs at ASU, particularly the school’s Southwest Borderlands Initiative.
Each semester, Elliot sifts through applications and picks about a dozen students to write, edit, and produce broadcast stories. “I’ll take students as early as the second year, once they’ve finished intermediate news writing,” he says. “Generally, they’re the top students. But they don’t have to be seniors to work for me, or grad students.”
Students work for credit, not pay. Elliott is their editor. “Virtually everything a student does will get on the site,” he says. “It’s just a question of what gets in the top four slots. Ultimately that’s my decision.”
This past summer, Cronkite News also opened a Washington, D.C. bureau. The bureau is staffed by six student reporters and bureau director Steve Crane. (The D.C. bureau remains open year-round, whereas the Phoenix-based operation runs during the academic year and shuts down over the summer.)
Cronkite News is funded entirely by ASU, and does not receive payment from any of the newspaper or wire services which pick up its content. The site’s reporting does not spare public officials, including the Arizona Legislature, which funds ASU and its 30,000 students at about $5,700 per full-time attendee.
“Pretty much every semester we’re doing hard-edged, public policy oriented coverage,” Elliott says. One recent example is an expose on loopholes in Arizona’s publicly funded elections law. Student reporter Alyssa Newcomb “just did really good records work… She just started talking to people and looking through filings of Clean Election money and noticed a lot of them were buying and keeping computers and printers and things like that.” After the story ran in the Arizona Republic, says Elliott, the state Clean Elections Commission tightened the rules.
Another story, by student reporter Jennifer A. Johnson, uncovered how Resolution Copper Mining made questionable payments to Superior, Ariz. town officials and environmental groups. Last year her story won a “Best in Business Award” from the Society of American Business Editors & Writers.
Students usually work in teams, on broad beats such as education, health, social issues, or American Indian affairs. Though they are required to submit ideas regularly for spot coverage and enterprise, instructors also give them story ideas. “The ratio is weighted more to the instructors’s ideas early on and the students’s ideas later, as they gain traction on their beats,” Elliot says. “As the semester goes on, students really begin to understand what’s our story, what’s not our story. Why should we go jump in a crowded pool when we could go over here and cover something else?”
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