Technician, the student newspaper at N.C. State University, recently switched to a tabloid format and reduced its printing schedule to two days a week.
Ellen Meder is editorial adviser for student media at N.C. State University, a position she has held since 2014. An alumna of the University of South Carolina, she previously worked as a multimedia journalist at TV station WSPA and at The Morning News in Florence, South Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Meder discusses her role at N.C. State and changes at Technician, a campus newspaper.
Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?
A. The main goal of my job is to teach, train and advise the students who run N.C. State’s two student newspapers, Technician and Nubian Message. Basically, I use my professional experience and perspective to help them do what they do better.
It’s nice that a “typical” day doesn’t always look the same, but I’m usually juggling creating or leading training sessions on reporting or editing, holding critique sessions with newer writers, marking up the latest issues with constructive criticism and doling out advice for the papers’ senior staff on everything from management styles to good design.
Another role is helping writers and editors strategize on how to pursue difficult reporting — which is often one part coach, one part gumshoe and one part paralegal — but that has to be one of the best parts; seeing students’ curiosity get sparked and realize that they actually can track down the truth. Sometimes paperwork wrangling and departmental reports sneak in there, too, unfortunately.
Q. Technician will reduce its publication schedule in print to two days a week. What is the reason for this change, and what else is ahead for the newspaper?
A. We are definitely viewing the change as a shift of how and where content is produced, not as an overall reduction. It was a tough decision and one our professional staff and students didn’t take lightly.
We took the idea to this year’s editor-in-chief when we realized that a change in the print production schedule could bolster some of her goals, including pushing toward a more web-first mentality and really shaking things up with multimedia content and design, and our departmental goals, like increasing student pay for our leaders as to take down a barrier to diversity and stanch the flow of talented students who couldn’t afford not to have better paid, low skill jobs.
So those are the primary reasons for the decision being made now: It will lend more in the budget for payroll, and it will give the team time and space to focus more on their online output, instead of grinding so hard on each print edition that they’re too burnt out to think of producing anything until 5 p.m. the following day.
But it’s not something that had to happen right this second. Decreased advertising revenues would have eventually forced a reduction, though. We saw the writing on the wall with other universities and our own budget trends and decided that we’d rather make the move when our backs aren’t yet against the wall, when we can control it, and when we can advance other goals.
As far as what’s next, Rachel Smith, the editor-in-chief, has some great goals, and we’ll all be working toward making this transition smooth and ultimately more useful for readers. That means restructuring the newsroom work flow to get news online accurately and quickly (not the other way around) via the website, mobile, the app and social media.
Technician definitely wants to meet readers where they are, and that’s frequently on their phones. The students also want to produce more graphics for web and continue beefing up their video department.
The push to web means that the balance of content will likely shift in the print editions, since no one wants to put 24-hour old news on stands to sit for three days. It’s also transitioning to a modified tab format, so they’re trying new things with design and more engaging covers that don’t look the exact same each day. It’s definitely an exciting time!
Q. How did you get involved with student media, and what do you like most about the job?
A. I loved student media in college, and The Daily Gamecock newsroom was my second home. After I graduated, I worked as a reporter in TV and then at a newspaper in South Carolina for a few years before I started looking around for a new challenge.
I grew up in Raleigh, and when I found the listing for this position, I was super excited and, during the interview, very nervous because I wanted it so badly. I had contemplated going to graduate school for higher education administration when I was scared I’d never get a job in news, but this position meshed my love of journalism and helping college students grow into awesome, productive adults as so many staffers at USC had done for me.
The best part of the job is hands down the students. Watching them learn and grow is exciting and they are hilarious, smart, ambitious and excited. There isn’t the same pall of a declining industry in a student newsroom, nor the jaded curmudgeonliness that was starting to tint my outlook at a small-town paper.
Plus, they are downright challenging. Each student and each group is different, so I have to adapt my teaching and communication styles to best serve them and help them do what they do better. Sometimes that goes great! Sometimes it’s more frustrating, and I have to keep adapting. But when they get it, when they publish a damn good paper, uncover something important or cover a difficult topic with sensitivity, grace and attention to detail, there is nothing better.
Q. What advice do you have for college students considering working for campus publications?
A. Jump right in! Go talk to the students who are already working for the publications and ask why they love it, what makes it worthwhile and even what makes it hard. They’ll be honest with you, and if you stick around for a staff meeting or a production night you’ll find a tight-knit, and hopefully welcoming, group that works hard and has fun. Regardless of the outlet, you will learn skills that you can use in any industry you go into after college, and will gain valuable experience and probably some hilarious stories.
Plus, you’ll find some lifelong friends. I met some of my best, most trusted friends in student media, and we still go on vacation together once a year! I just got back from Nashville with them last week.
Once you’re involved, it’s all about continuing to ask questions and use the resources at your disposal to grow. Pick the brains of older students, your advisers, students at other outlets, alumni and just about anyone on campus who you have questions for! Being in student media is like having an all-access pass to your community.
Last piece of advice: Learn more than one hard skill. If you’re interested in reporting, spend some nights on the copy desk and learn the design software your team uses. If you love shooting photos, go ahead and work with the video team, too. Like it or not, if you want to go into journalism, you are going to need to be a jack of all multimedia trades, in addition to having a solid foundation of journalistic ethics, tenacity and know-how.