An Interview with Tammy Merrett
President, Illinois College Press Association & Program Director,
The Alestle, Southern Illinois University - Edwardsville
Briefly describe the newspaper/student media at your school for our readers: how often you publish, what you cover, anything else you’d like to share?
We publish in print once a week during the fall and spring, and publish an online edition that's updated throughout the week. Our campus has population of about 14,000 students mixed between commuters and residents. It's located about 20 minutes outside of St. Louis. We mainly cover campus news including entertainment, sports, and opinion articles.
What are some successes you’ve experienced this year at Student Media?
Students are working hard on covering the state of Illinois' on-going budget crisis, which has had a direct impact on the campus. We have been excited about the presidential campaigns and covering the candidates' stops in the area.
What were some challenges this year and how did you handle them?
With our group and this generation of students, the sense of urgency of getting news out there seems to be lost. Breaking news has to be published in a short timeframe and if it's a minute over, then it's no longer considered breaking news.
For some reason, this generation doesn’t seem to have that instinct so it has been a challenge to teach students that it's something they should be concerned about. Many kids are too laid back and casual about things, which has been a challenge. But we have been getting through to them.
What do you think student media will look like in 5 years?
I think it will look more like a ‘news organization,’ and not so much like a newspaper due to news being delivered on multiple platforms such as mobile, social media, online, and print.
Do you think papers need print editions and why?
Print is still necessary because the audience for print and online are for two different groups of people. Since our audience is not just the current 18-22 year old generation, print is still necessary for our campus. I don't think online takes away from print, it's just an addition, and our work should be delivered through as many platforms as possible. Some people are just conditioned to reading print while some prefer online.
The Alestle moved from a two-time weekly to a one-time weekly. Could you explain that decision?
Ninety percent budgetary constraints.
How do you think papers should improve readership, print, and digital?
We need to figure out what our audience wants, and involve their considerations in the planning process. That includes interacting with the community, and doing readership surveys to give them what they want while trying not to eliminate the necessities.
While doing that, we still need to continue to provide live coverage, while also tailoring it in ways that our current audience finds more palatable. Overall, I think it’s all still a moving target and hard to predict, so we need to keep the conversations going with our audience.
Have you done readership studies? If so, how do you go about doing it?
To get a full blown readership survey we would have to hire an auditing agency, which is costly. It would be great to hire one, but we are not in the place to do that. But we are currently in the process of working on a readership survey that we are going to administer through someone on campus. I have been here for eight years, and this is the first one we're doing, so we are interested in seeing the results.
How would you describe the mission of the student media (newspaper) at your school?
Our mission is to inform the campus community of things that are coming up, to document things that have happened, to try and show as broad of a sample to our audience that reflect themselves and our pages.
Part of our audience is also faculty and staff, so we need to cover stories and provide information that is useful to them as well. For all of our constituencies, we not only want to give them the information they need, but also information they will find interesting.
Can you describe your staffing structure, including student, advisers, and professionals?
We have a professional program director (only full-time employee), an office assistant that works for the university part-time, six students who work in the front office reception area, the business end of things, circulation, and 20 students in the newsroom.
How is the staff trained?
They're usually trained through learning, and hands-on experience. We do not have a set training program at the moment. Although I wish we did; we just do not have the resources for that.
Are students paid? If so, is it a stipend based or hourly?
Writers are paid minimum wage and are limited to a maximum of 20 hours per week to work on campus. Some also qualify for a work study. Right now we have three graduate assistants to do ad sales and a production manager, who can earn stipends and/or credit hours. Ad sales people receive a base salary and are paid 10 percent commission for any ads after that.
Do student receive credits for participating in student media?
How is your paper funded?
It used to be about 50/50 ad revenue and student fees. Now it has swung to 80/20 with ad revenue hovering at about 20 percent.
What is your paper doing to manage any budget challenges?
We are trying to get out in the community to work with as many potential clients as possible. We have had some ad staffing issues this year, which helps compound the problem. We are rolling with the punches and trying to diversify what we offer as much as we can. We feel that giving temporary discounts is better than not having them in at all.
What is your biggest wish for student media?
A lot of our limitations at this point are connected to financial stability, so my biggest wish would be that funding won’t be hanging over our heads. It would be nice to flourish rather than just exist.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
We need to be open to change, and not be so set in our ways as we have seen the media industry transform in the past 30 to 40 years. So we need to be open to change, but at the same time not throw all the old standards overboard when you’re going through the changes. We need to keep an eye on the horizons while respecting what we have learned in the past as well.