Miriam Montes is the editor-in-chief of Elmhurst’s much-lauded student newspaper, the Leader, which means her journalistic beat extends not much beyond the fringes of campus. But in the lobby of Cureton Hall last week, Montes was talking about her chance to change that.
Montes and the rest of the Leader staff were excited about a recently announced partnership between Elmhurst and the Washington, D.C.-based Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, which offers fellowships for student-journalists who want to report from global news hot spots. Montes plans to apply.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said.
Montes was one of a dozen students gathered in the Lucks Conference Room on October 25 to hear the Pulitzer Center’s Maura Youngman talk about how international journalists can use social media to track and report stories. The students hardly needed to be told how profoundly new media have shaken the foundations of the news business. Hundreds of newspapers, large and small, have closed in recent years, plagued by a faltering economy and an exodus of advertisers and consumers for online sources. The surviving publications sometimes seem to be in a race to see who can most quickly shed newsroom jobs and shutter overseas bureaus.
Still, Youngman and the students in the room were more interested in talking about the ways journalists can make social media work for them. Youngman invoked the example of NPR’s Andy Carvin, whose relentless Twitter streams about recent popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt made him an indispensible resource for anyone interested in foreign affairs. Carvin, who is said to tweet more than 400 times each day, has been called “the man who tweeted the revolution.”
“Social media gives you the chance to eavesdrop on a lot of different conversations and learn what’s being talked about ,” Youngman told the students. “It’s another tool in the journalist’s arsenal.”
Around the conference room table, students exchanged their takes on what part citizen-journalists are playing in stories such as the revolutions in North Africa or the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests. The challenge, Youngman reminded them, is to apply time-tested journalistic standards for checking out social media sources and separating fact from rumor. Navigating the new landscape remains as much a challenge for seasoned veterans as it is for aspiring journalists like Montes.
During a break in the session, Montes, a poised English major from Aurora, said that the topic comes up often in Leader staff meetings, as the paper’s leadership looks for ways to boost its online presence. Even editors whose bias is toward print, she said, recognize that social media represents an opportunity and a challenge that can’t be ignored.
“It’s where journalism is headed,” Montes said.
It’s also where Elmhurst and the Pulitzer Center are headed. The College hosted two days of workshops, seminars and lectures on the future of journalism during the week of October 24. Veteran journalists including James O’Shea of the Chicago News Cooperative and the Pulitzer Center’s Tom Hundley (both are Chicago Tribune alums; O’Shea was managing editor, Hundley a foreign correspondent) talked about the changing media scene and worked with Elmhurst students. Hundley sat in on a Leader staff meeting and critiqued a Montes news story.
“He told me how I could have taken a different angle,” she said. “It was great to get his perspective. We’re all here to learn.”
Like previous Leader editors, Montes has talked about wanting to create a more robust online presence for the paper. Progress has come slowly. One of the hurdles has been the staff’s unwavering dedication to the print edition. Forget those generational stereotypes: Apparently not all college-age news consumers are allergic to print after all.
In fact, the ink-and-paper Leader has been on a roll lately, scoring a string of Illinois Press Association awards as the best small college newspaper in the state. It’s a record Montes cannot forget.
“When I was a freshman I used to hang around the office and wonder why the editors were all worrying and working so hard,” she said. “Now I understand. It’s such a great paper, and we feel like it’s on our shoulders. We can’t fail it.”
In the Cureton Hall conference room, students were returning to their seats for another session with the Pulitzer Center’s Youngman. Montes was thinking about the world beyond campus, and the prize that awaited the Elmhurst student who would earn the Pulitzer Center fellowship.
“I think part of being a student journalist is being interested in what’s happening in the world,” she said. “Who wouldn’t want to go out and learn more about it?”