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Don't believe the skeptics: college newspapers are great training for real-world journalism

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Jenny Surane spent her senior year of college editing the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina. And as she writes in Quartz, she came away from the experience thinking it's left her ill-prepared for the future.

"It’s kind of scary to think that I’ve spent the last year training for a job I’ll never have," Surane writes.

The article struck a chord with me because I also spent a year editing my college paper, Student Life, at Washington University in St. Louis. And I came away with a totally different perspective: it was, hands down, the best training I ever got for the job I hold right now.

My college paper! (Student Life)

The fundamental skills of journalism haven't changed much in the past decade: all of us need to be able to write, report, and edit great stories. Student Life is where I got my first crack at that. As a freshman, I wrote some terrible stories. As a sophomore (and then junior and then senior), I wrote some better ones. Most important, I learned by doing: I published articles in the paper, saw what worked and what didn't, and then tried to do better the next time.

It's that constant feedback loop — not just taking a journalism class, but actually producing dozens of stories each year — that makes the college paper experience so valuable. It's why whenever any student asks me for advice, my top recommendation is to work for the college paper.

Becoming editor-in-chief of my college paper broadened my perspective. I had to think about all the important ways to draw readers into stories: things like headlines and layout and photographs and illustrations. I spent lots of late nights in our basement office with the paper's copy chief and lead designer. These produced an absurd number of inside jokes, as well as a granular understanding of how words and design have to work together for any publication.

Today I work for a website that looks really different from the one I edited in 2006. But my day-to-day job is surprisingly similar: generate interesting story ideas. Write about them. Use layout and design to draw readers in. And always try to do better the next time.

What hasn't changed: journalism has always been a fight for eyeballs

There's me giving reporters directions in the Student Life newsroom, circa 2006. (Facebook)

Most of Surane's article is about how much the web has changed journalism, how a traditional print paper like hers has trouble competing with Twitter and other sites that demand readers' attention.

"Even some of my closest friends refused to pick up the newspaper I spent dozens of hours on each week," Surane writes. "They’d rather get the day’s news from many different sources by scrolling through their Twitter feed.

"Millennials want reporters to clearly state why a story matters to them. This is the selfish side of millennials we hear so much about."

But here's the thing: the battle for readers' eyeballs was well underway before Twitter launched. At my college paper, we always lamented how we'd work till 2 am finishing some great front-page story — only to see other students in class skip over it so they could do the sudoku puzzle on the back page.

It was easy to get frustrated with readers who would skip over our stories; I'd watch a student in front of me in class breeze by the story I'd spent all night editing and designing and perfecting. But in retrospect, I've come to think that was on us as journalists: we just had to think more about how draw those readers in — and to make our stories just as compelling as sudoku.

What has changed: how we consume and deliver the news

Well, here is an embarrassing graduation photo. (Facebook)

Student Life has alumni like me critique the paper once a year, where we'll look at a week's worth of news and offer thoughts. My most consistent advice for the past few years has been to think about how they deliver the news — how can they better meet readers where they are, and take advantage of all the digital tools out there? It can be scary and daunting to think of all the different ways to reach readers that didn't exist a decade ago. It can also be liberating and fun to explore what medium is the exact right fit for a given story.

One thing that has surprised me since leaving college journalism is how print-based it's remained — and how little experimentation shows up in ways of delivering the news. If Twitter is where students are getting their news, why not focus resources into launching a kick-ass Twitter feed? If millennial students are demanding stories with more context on why they should care, that's a case for thinking about how to better serve that need.

There are so many exciting things to do in the world, especially on a college campus, so of course newspapers are going to have to fight for readers' attention. The battle is certainly more intense now, with more blogs and Facebook pages and news sources. But that key tension — how do we get people to read our stuff, instead of doing other things? — isn't new. It's persistent. And the fact that Surane's college paper experience has forced her to think about it is actually great preparation for a career as a journalist.