How’d it go? Evaluating the move to digital first student media

It’s been one semester since we implemented a digital first approach with student media at TCU’s Schieffer School of Journalism, where I am a professor and a student media advisor.

I detailed our approach here in May. Now it’s time to assess our efforts (and no, I’m not going to assign a letter grade).

“I feel that we are just on top of everything on campus,” said Lexy Cruz, who served as the first executive editor for student media, overseeing all content across platforms. “It’s almost like we’re just watching the TCU ‘trending topics’ and reporting for students that like up-to-the-minute information and details. I like giving the audience everything we have when we have it.”

Before the move to digital first, Cruz was the editor of the converged website, TCU 360, which hosted content from the TCU Daily Skiff newspaper, “TCU News Now” television broadcast and Image magazine. The site also produced some original content. Each outlet had its own staff and was focused on its own goals.

“The transition to digital first was somewhat difficult at first, regarding the separation from the traditional print style of the Skiff and the habit we’d all been in within student media,” said Taylor Prater, the visuals editor, which was one of four senior leadership positions that oversaw operations under Cruz’s direction. “I believe it was a vital transition.”

Now, aside from Image and our program’s community news website,, all of the content is produced through what has been dubbed “one big news team” with about 70 student journalists and is focused on content and delivering news digitally – and not based on legacy media needs.

Each content area was organized into a team with a team leader who worked as both an editor and senior reporter.

As part of the evolution the senior leadership positions of news director, sports director, visuals editor and operations manager positions have been consolidated. Prater will be one of three managing editors in the spring, reporting to a new executive editor, Olivia Caridi, who was a team leader in the fall.

“We still have some way to go and some things to smooth out, but we are no longer in our old ways,” Prater said.

The transition to digital first was rapid, organic, surprising and exciting, according to News Director Emily Atteberry.

“In May, hearing that our news organization was considering switching to digital first seemed like an absurd joke – there was no way we could make the switch by August, it was too confusing, too risky, too bizarre,” she said. “It was a lot like the Wild West – there are not quite rules, best practices and standards enacted. The first time we had a big breaking news story or two reporters accidentally assigned the same story, it was a bit of a snag. But we found ways to work through things. Flexibility was key.”

Notably, the University of Oregon’s Daily Emerald and The Red & Black, the University of Georgia’s independent newspaper, have gone digital first the past couple years, among others.

At TCU, the consistently best work, according to the students, has come in coverage of breaking news.

“The biggest success is getting breaking news out quickly, while the story still remains factual and well rounded,” Prater said. “Digital first has given the campus an easier means of getting news quickly, which is essential in the growing digital age.”

Just since August, the students have covered the arrest of the football team’s starting quarterback for driving while intoxicated (student reporters previously used open records to reveal he had failed a drug test and admitted to using cocaine) and impeachment proceedings for the student government president.

“We were able to break stories faster and more comprehensively than we had ever been able to before,” Atteberry said, “and we followed stories for days, updating content over and over and adding elements as they became available.”

Cruz said the same standards for accuracy and the other best traditions of journalism still apply, but that they simply have to work faster, comparing what her team has done to a hot meal.

“We have a very hungry beast that doesn’t understand why the food has to sit on the counter ready and become cold when he can eat it fresh out of the oven,” Cruz said.

Digital first allows for more up-to-date, more engaging news coverage, but the move did require a change in mindset.

“We were now being given deadlines within a few hours after an event or news break,” said Luis Ortiz, the “New Now” news director. “It took some getting used to, but I feel like it was worth it and we acquired some new skills.”

Maybe the biggest challenge was figuring out how to impose those deadlines in a digital first environment. The traditional broadcast and print, in particular, deadlines were no longer a focus, but that meant some stories either got lost in the shuffle or were not pushed through because there was no hard deadline like before.

“It was hard figuring out deadlines,” Cruz said. “I always questioned how long it would take to write and copy edit a story and even then I would consider how late the event ended.”

Advisors and professors have discussed what the deadline for event-based stories should be. Thirty minutes? An hour? Two hours? Longer? Shorter? When it’s ready? What about if there’s a live blog?

“I would like to see changes in the turnaround of event stories,” Prater said. “They should be posted within a few hours after the end of the events.”

It’s likely students will be encouraged (perhaps as part of the grade for stories done as part of classes) to file within an hour or two at the latest. Sports game stories already have the expectation of an initial story when the game ends with updates after post-game player and coach interviews.

Prater said she’d like to see more accountability for reporters on deadline and more reporters taking their own photos.

There was also the challenge of putting out a paper four days a week, as well as a weekly broadcast.

“Because we were dependent on 360’s editors to approve content, we had to be very flexible with our budget and had to always have a back-up plan,” said Skiff editor Sarah Greufe.

The Skiff editor and “News Now” news director positions changed dramatically this semester. In the past, both led newsgathering efforts for their respective outlets and had the autonomy to cover what they wished and assign stories based on their production schedules.

“The things that were reported through (the paper and broadcast) were ‘old,’” Ortiz said. “It was very hard to do the newspaper and even the broadcast aspects because much of the content that would come through there was ‘old’ news because it had already been online for a day or two.”

Greufe said the digital first transition had a big impact on how she had to produce the paper.

“We went in with the expectation that stories would be published in a more timely means than they had formerly been in the paper,” Greufe said. “What ended up happening was content would get stuck at some part of the editing process or back at the reporters making it too old for even the paper to publish.”

For Atteberry, who was originally hired as the Skiff editor before taking the news director job and who has written about the transition for USA Today, student media will not truly be digital first until the print scheduled is reduced form four days a week to bi-weekly or weekly.

“Because our paper is still a daily publication, there are still pressures to fill the pages, avoid wire and meet their 9 p.m. print deadline,” Atteberry said. “When we’re breaking a story or covering late events, we still feel traditional print pressure to get it into the paper, which is not necessarily digital-first.”

The efforts of these students are similar to the transition occurring in many professional newsrooms.

“I don’t think we have as many challenges as professionals because students are generally at the edge of technology and social media,” Ortiz said. “The only challenge I feel student news organizations could encounter would be the same as that of professionals, and that’s getting used to producing work quickly and accurately.”

Atteberry, counterintuitively, said there is a disconnect between what she has been taught in school and what has been her experience as an intern.

“I had been taught that I needed to take my laptop to event coverage, live-tweet it, write the story during the event, and have it ready to go 15 minutes after it commenced,” Atteberry said. “When I worked at a daily community paper this past summer, they actually worried that I wrote too quickly even if I took 2 hours to write something up. Digital-first is not yet a strongly developed concept or priority at most community papers.

“If student journalists are passionate about digital first, they will be faced with the challenge of coaxing their employers into the shift or finding a news organization that has embraced the new model.”

Of course, for now, students also have to juggle another challenge: classes that can get in the way of producing journalism.

“Being truly ‘digital-first’ is a struggle for student media because our reporters and editors are also taking a full load of classes and are still learning their positions,” Greufe said.

“Our only issue is that students can’t devote 100 percent of their time to their stories, because of things like classes and grades, which is understandable as a student,” Prater said. “Sometimes that means the turnaround takes a little longer, whereas I’m sure professionals are able to get it all done at once.”

There is, after all, a lot to do – and do quickly.