CU News Corps: Students gain experience, media outlets use their work

January 14, 2013 •

(Photo taken outside of suspect James Holmes' apartment on July 20, 2012, by Beth Bartel/CU News Corps)

Katharina Buchholz awoke to the sound of her phone ringing at 7:30 on a morning last July. When she answered, a fellow student asked her to come to the Armory, where CU’s Journalism & Mass Communication program is headquartered. There had been a mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora.

Buchholz was one of the first members of what came to be called the CU News Corps. It began last summer as an informal group of students working under faculty supervision to cover an unprecedented wave of major breaking news stories, including statewide wildfires and the Aurora shooting. In the fall, News Corps became a class to teach advanced students how to produce breaking news of such quality that it could be distributed to professional news outlets.

As the semester progressed, the class also took on in-depth analysis and reporting on campaign advertising spending. Many of those stories were picked up by state and local news outlets.

The News Corps has now received a donation of $100,000, over two years, from university supporters Bill and Kathy Scripps, CU parents who also have supported the Parent Fund and CU athletics. The money is helping to pay for equipment, training and faculty support for the News Corps.

“The program at CU has a reputation for excellence and we hope this gift will help to enrich the students’ real-world experience and enable them to compete in a very competitive and ever-changing media environment,’’ Bill Scripps said. “The media world is at a crossroads and we need the smartest and best-educated professionals to help guide the industry into the future.”

Scripps is a great-grandson of newspaper publisher E.W. Scripps, founder of Scripps Howard Newspapers, and president/CEO of Scripps Aviation, an aircraft management company based in Carlsbad, Calif. Kathy Scripps is an equestrian enthusiast. The two have a son, Willie, who attends CU-Boulder, and a daughter, Shelby.

JMC Director Chris Braider suggested creating the News Corps when professional media outlets were stretched thin by the wildfires. Instructor Sandra Fish said the class simultaneously offers a specific type of training for students, and story placement with professional news outlets that bolsters their resumes. “It gives them some (professional) bylines, something they can point to and say ‘I contributed to this project, and I understand how to do this sort of thing,’ ’’she said. “We’re really reaching out to the Colorado media and doing things that are real rather than just writing a story for class.”

The Aurora shootings provided an eye-opening look at the chaos of a big breaking-news scene, Buchholz said. “It was a lesson on how frustrating it can be with so many other people from the media there. … How are you competing with them? What do you do when people won’t talk to you? Where do you go next?”

When she found out that three Indonesians who had been at the theater were unaccounted for, Buchholz contacted the Indonesian Embassy. Officials there put her in touch with family and friends of the three, who told her they had suffered relatively minor injuries. It was difficult to talk to victims’ loved ones, Buchholz said, but they were receptive and provided valuable information.

Fish said she tries to prepare her students for the challenges of such stories. “We’ve talked about what’s important in these situations, from having people in the field to having others at a home base to provide those in the field with guidance and disseminate our information. Professor Meg Moritz talked to the class about sensitivity with sources in the field. And we’ve practiced using Google Fusion maps, something that could come in handy the next time there’s, say, a wildfire that destroys homes. Maps can provide valuable information in natural disasters.”

The students are also getting practice with technology. Among other things, the Scripps donation funded kits, called “go-bags,” with tools for producing live, multimedia coverage. The bags include live-stream cameras, portable wireless routers that can be used as mobile Wi-Fi spots, and iPads. The tools will equip students to feed live coverage to news website and blogs, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and other social media platforms.

As the semester progressed, students launched a project to analyze campaign advertising expenditures during the campaign season. Boulder Daily Camera City Editor Matt Sebastian was impressed by their work. “The stories are interesting, and they’re well written and well edited,” he said. The stories on campaign ad buys were particularly helpful because the students’ database work went deeper than the paper’s staff had time to do.

“One of the reasons this project is so important is because it provides quality content to news outlets at a time when their resources are stretched increasingly thin,” JMC Director Braider said. “In an era when journalism education needs to keep up with industry changes, reform advocates are calling for what they refer to as the “hospital model,” following from the idea that medical students treat patients while they’re in training. Our News Corps follows a similar plan.”

In the fall semester, the class had six students, including advertising manager Jordan Wilsted. He’s always been interested in news and is considering pursuing a graduate journalism degree. The class deepened his interest. “I like being able to think both creatively and analytically in my advertising classes, and also in News Corps. I like finding that balance,” he said. His story on voters’ opinions about advertising was picked up by the Boulder Daily Camera and the Fox 31 News website.

Buchholz wrote about online ads called pre-rolls that play before streaming videos on websites. Student Zachary Cook wrote a story about broadcast football games as a prime market for campaign spending. The story was picked up by 9News and The Denver Post.

Cook said he learned a lot about interviewing time-strapped campaign spokespeople. “My main strategy was to have pen, paper and questions ready before I called them, since the first words out of their mouths would almost always be, ‘I don’t have a lot of time’ or, ‘I need to be in a meeting,’ ’’ Cook said.

Buchholz said not all her stories have been published, but writing with that prospect in mind taught her a lot. “It’s been good to write things that actually matter to an audience,” she said. “Most of the time you’re writing for school, and you’re never sure if anyone cares. With this, you know that your work matters.”

By Lucia Palmer (MA ’12)