Another day, another name

This is a post about creating Mustang Media Group, a new student media venture at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo that combines students from print, broadcast and PR journalism backgrounds to deliver a digital-first news experience to our campus community. As Mustang Media Group editor, I am one-fifth of our founding leadership team.    

What exactly is in a name?

That’s the question my colleague and Mustang Daily’s print editor in chief J.J. Jenkins posed at the beginning of a piece Friday announcing our publication’s historic name change. Mustang Daily, he revealed, will now be Mustang News.

As J.J. pointed out, and as any brand manager worth half their salary will tell you, quite a lot is in a name. Through one or two words, you leave first impressions, create hope among teams, provide readers an outlet for their frustration and establish a rallying call for your community.

That’s why we cannot take this name change lightly. Though the switch wasn’t by our design — the Cal Poly journalism faculty let us know as people began to trickle in for our Friday morning training in a literal last-minute announcement— the new name carries immense weight for our university.

Mustang Daily was a historic brand, there’s no doubt about that. Decades of editors tied their heart and soul for four or more years to that name, and most everyone in our newsroom today has spent years reading the pages within Mustang Daily.

But students, not faculty, decided this year to fully embrace the changing winds of media. Yes, the professors spurred the shift, but each of us five Mustang Media Group leaders made a conscious decision to go along with our new converged newsroom.

Like an awkward pimple, none of us wanted to point out the obvious problems with Mustang Daily. We felt tied to its history, and so we ignored its flaws. We made excuses to cover up the fact we would no longer be publishing daily, that MDTV (the proposed name for our new broadcast unit) was already trademarked and that the legacy of a traditional newspaper would hurt the morale of journalists focused on digital and television coverage.

Sucking up that pride and announcing Mustang News is perhaps our biggest symbolic commitment to change so far. Though I was more in shock than inspired when I first heard the news, I’ve come to realized in the past 36 hours that the decision was the right one. It will be a near-herculean feat to make the transition — within minutes of its announcement, we were calling graphic designers to get to work —but it will show our resolve to dedicate more than lip service to our “digital-first” newsroom approach.

Some might see the new name as a cop out on our promise to be Cal Poly’s daily news source, but that is not true. Far from decreasing our frequency, we plan to ramp it up as far as we can take it. Plans are underway to provide hour-by-hour updates to, the new home of student media at Cal Poly. Editors have been instructed to post stories throughout the week, irrespective of our now two-day-a-week print publication schedule. Adding to the mix, broadcast journalists will also appear on camera multiple times each day and supplement our already established print coverage.

Yes, as J.J. put it, there is a lot is in a name. “The impact is more than we even consider,” he wrote. With these changes, and the name being our final piece of the puzzle finally dropped into place, you better believe I’m excited.

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4 things a newspaper intern learned in Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C. capitol sunset

Sunset over the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

What a summer it’s been. Trying to recap it with my roommate this weekend, I didn’t even begin to know where to start. Sure, it’s easy to say it’s changed my life plans for the future. And my day-to-day life has changed during these three short months in Washington, D.C., too.

But it’s been more than just flying across the country, not knowing a soul in the D.C. area, making friends and earning bylines. It’s been picking up subtle cues, following the examples of people I admire and discovering what it means to live in a city (or a district, as I’ve started to say since feeling more and more like a “local” — whatever that means).

With five days left on this side of the country, it seemed only fitting to write up the top things I’ve picked up from my interning adventure at USA TODAY.

1. Successful journalists can be all sorts of people.

Maybe this is an obvious one, but working at USAT dispelled the myth part of my brain had latched on to, that all big-name journalists are underpaid, whiskey drinking, cigar smoking, curse-like-a-sailor-no-matter-who’s-around old white men. Sure, I’ve met some of those kinds (and maybe I’ll end up there one day…), but for every stereotypically crass reporter or editor I’ve run across, I’ve met a dozen diverse, compassionate and helpful people to balance it out.

2. There’s no clear-cut path for what I want to do.

Political journalism sounded great before I got here, and living in the nation’s capital for three months has only made it sound better. The work political jounos get to do here is awe-inspiring, and I felt lucky to have touched on some of it during my internship. But just because I know what I want to do doesn’t mean the way to get there is clear. I’ve heard from smart, successful people that it’s best to start at the zoning board meeting of the smallest paper in your state’s tiniest county and work your way up. But I’ve also met people just one or two years older than me doing real work for big-name publications in the D.C. area, and they swear it’s best to get inside the beltway and moving within it after that. I don’t know which one is for me, but it’s about time to figure it out.

3. The big leagues are just as unforgiving as advertised.

There’s pressure writing for a hyperlocal college paper because everyone you’re writing about reads your stories, but the national stage’s standards are enough to make most people crack. In some ways, they’re the same: What you’re writing will be read by all the important people you’re writing about. But now it carries major ramifications. That lesson has come my way a couple times already. I’ve gotten several after-hours emails from PRs wanting to help shape what I’m writing about their clients, because they know the reality is what I’m writing can make or break their marketing plan. Whatever ego boost that reality might bring is drowned out 10-fold by the crazy-to-imagine responsibility that comes along with it, and the fact that one mistake can grind your career to an all-too-early standstill.

4. Change is coming, and it’s easy to get left behind.

Yes, J-school professors have been lecturing us since we our wee freshman days about changes the Internet brings to newspapers, both big and small. But there’s something different about seeing it in action, about hearing stories of people who have been laid off or forced to take buy-outs because their skills weren’t needed or valuable anymore. Being just miles away from the Washington Post as their staff found out Jeff Bezos was taking over, sitting down with USA TODAY’s editor in chief to talk about what he looks for in a digital-first newsroom — those sorts of experiences cemented the idea of a changing economy for news more than any lecture ever has.

(BONUS) 5. Alcohol is expensive.

I turned 21 near the start of my internship…and as anyone who’s ever worked as an unpaid intern in D.C. knows, happy hours are your best friend.

If you’re interested, here’s my portfolio covering what I did during my first 10 weeks at USA TODAY.

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School’s over, planning’s begun

This is a post about creating Mustang Media Group, a new student media venture at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo that combines students from print, broadcast and PR journalism backgrounds to deliver a digital-first news experience to our campus community. As Mustang Media Group editor, I am one-fifth of our founding leadership team.    

One more year at Cal Poly’s in the books (Wait, I’m a senior?! That can’t be right.), but that doesn’t mean work’s done. Last year’s seniors are leaving, and it’s time for us to transition out of the old and into the new.

The five of us student media leaders had our first student-only meeting yesterday. We ended with a set of (rough, broad and unfinished) goals for next year, and I’ve posted the highlights below. Nothing here is final, but they all sync well with our broader goal of creating a converged newsroom and producing better content than we have in the past.

Are there things we missed or items you think we should change? Let me know in the comments or with an email/tweet.

  • Web
    • Constant updates
    • Optimize print/video content
    • Daily show videos posted
    • Additional tabs to explain who we are and what we do
    • Fix any existing issues (captions, etc)
      • Look into why current site is crashing
    • Do an AMA on Reddit
  • Print
    • Improve design
    • Put out more themed editions
    • Preview more events, utilize calendar
    • Have every reporter on Twitter interacting with readers
      • Twitter in bylines instead of email
    • Increase visible readership
  • Video
    • Push website during broadcasts
    • New graphics
    • New lower thirds with Twitter handles
    • Rework studio for new working environment
    • Improve live-shot technology
    • Utilize Tout
    • Bring section editors and reporters on camera
    • Special, extended segments — possibly integrate with print special editions
    • More “buzzy” videos
  • Radio
    • Utilize!
    • More news
    • Post to Soundcloud
    • Tease headlines on website throughout day
  • Messaging
    • Awareness of change (possible back-to-school broadcast)
    • “Buzzy” graphic for understanding of what we’re doing
    • Increase interactions and responses with readers
    • Marketing push during first week
    • Send info to campus and SLO entities to sync where they send us news releases
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First look: The new Mustang Daily

Mustang Daily logo

Too much coffee too late at night (and an extremely strange sleep schedule after being on-call this weekend) has put a lot of thoughts in my head about the latest and greatest project here at Cal Poly’s journalism department: Mustang Media. And, to a degree, all those thoughts have on thing in common.

I can’t wait for fall.

That’s because, beginning Fall 2013, we’re bringing a new way of thinking about the news to Cal Poly. Gone are the days where you’ll learn what’s happening at Cal Poly in the tomorrow’s newspaper. Instead, you’re going to find out on Facebook, or on Twitter or with a mobile alert from Mustang Daily’s app.

Four other student leaders and I are at the helm of this movement, literally setting precedent that could still be in the department when we retire from journalism forty or fifty years from now. We’re starting a daily news show (tentatively named Mustang Daily TV), expanding online coverage and lowering the print circulation from four to two days each week.

As sad as it is to see the newspaper decline in frequency, I am confident and excited that it will mean an opportunity for, our hub for all things news at Cal Poly, to increase in quality. Breaking reports online will now be accompanied by video and infographics, as well as an in-depth look in the next edition of the newspaper.

We’re in the final stages of creating a staffing structure now, and will most likely begin filling positions by the end of this week. From there, it will be a mad (but organized) rush to get everyone on the same page when it comes to vision, teamwork and workflow. Print reporters will be working in the same newsroom with colleagues from the broadcast side, and public relations students will be telling campus about the newest ways to get their news.

Broadcast journalism students at Cal Poly's CPTV

Student broadcast journalists at Cal Poly will now be working in the same newsroom with print-based reporters, creating a multimedia learning environment at Cal Poly.

As we’re making these changes, I can’t help but think this is moving Mustang Daily closer to what a professional newsroom is like. That can only benefit the students involved.

There will, of course, be mistakes made along the way — if everything went perfect, I’d know we were doing something wrong. I’m looking forward to taking risks we don’t know will pay off. Some will fail, but I know some will lead to innovative new content we haven’t even thought about yet.

It’s time to get moving.

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Where will MOOCs lead California’s higher education systems?

student typing

Photo: Sean McMinn

While working for USA TODAY College, I pitched my editor a story on the rise of massively open online courses, or MOOCs (I do wish I could take credit for that acronym). At the time, I didn’t know exactly what they were or why they were so significant, I just knew they were gaining prominent media coverage and reminded me of cows.

But days after finishing the story, I’m still trying to figure out whether I wrote about another technological fad, or the future of sustainable higher education.

These MOOCs connect hundreds — or even thousands — of students to one or two elite professors from universities across the country. They offer the combination of world-class instructors and the ability to move at your own pace, often for little or no cost.

It sounds too perfect. Why pay thousands of dollars for a degree at an Ivy League when you could take classes from its professors online for free?  Why bother enrolling in a class with a 100-person waitlist when you could learn cooperatively with those 100 students online?

“We at the very beginning of major disruption in higher education with online learning,” Columbia University Chief Digital Officer and journalism professor Sree Sreenivasan told me. Strong words from someone so knowledgeable in the profession.

But Sreenivasan emphasized MOOCs are new — just 18 months old, he said — and little research has been done to measure their effect on learning. So what is this major disruption he predicts?

The answer, it turns out, depends on who you ask. I talked to the founders of two major MOOC websites, both of who are in talks with California to begin using MOOCs to replace high-demand classes in the CSU, UC and state community college systems.

Sebastian Thrun of Udacity said some students report a more effective, intimate learning experience in large online classes. He would have no problem replacing the in-classroom learning environment with MOOCs, and has actually already begun such a program at San Jose State University.

In contrast, Andrew Ng from Coursera envisions a more comprehensive education model. According to him, professors can most effectively use MOOCs to supplement their own instruction by having students prepare for lecture by completing a MOOC lesson first, then going more in depth in the physical classroom.

“I think it will continue to grow,” Ng told me. “The fact is the world is a very different place now than where it was two years ago. Most people today would normally never have access to a Stanford class, but we’re changing that.”

My take: Browsing through the Coursera and Udacity class offerings online, there were some great courses I would love to take (if only there were 25 hours in a day). But advanced as they are, replacing a four-year education completely with MOOCs would rob students of some of the best parts of college: networking, critiques and life lessons. Sure, you can offer the perpetually overcrowded GE in a MOOC and it won’t likely ruin the value of a degree, but keep the upper-division major courses in the classroom.



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Why I knew about the semester decision and couldn’t tell you (and what it’s like to be one of 50 people in the loop on something that will piss off an entire university)

semester front pageExcuse the long headline, but there’s no easy way to describe Monday morning this week.

Waking up, everyone already knew big news was on the way — we just weren’t sure how to get it. There was a meeting that was closed (something that we’re getting used to at Cal Poly) and a vague promise of an “important announcement” at some point during the day.

After consulting with my editor Brian De Los Santos, we decided access would be more important than trying to outrace administration —likely a losing battle — to tell students what the announcement would be. With this philosophy in mind, I accepted an offer from Cal Poly to interview University President Jeffrey Armstrong before an email went out to campus, with the condition that I had to keep my lips shut anything until Armstrong sent a letter to students. It was a tough situation at a college where everyone likes to know everyone else’s business, but we all agreed it worth it.

“Access was more important than timeliness,” De Los Santos, a journalism senior and Mustang Daily’s editor-in-chief, said. “When it’s a topic that is that big, we want the most information to get to our readers.”

That information, however, was not exactly what I expected. Talking with Armstrong’s PR before the interview, his demeanor told me Cal Poly would probably be happy with what was coming. He essentially handed over a document with correspondence from Armstrong to the CSU, and told me that the president and chancellor were in agreement with how to proceed. Good news seemed to be coming.

But then, sitting in a closed office with just a CPTV photographer and Armstrong’s PR, we were allowed to see the memo that would soon be public. After scanning it, the photographer and I fixated on the same line: “If all goes as expected, Cal Poly would begin the process of converting to semesters by the end of the decade.”

We knew what was about to go down.

From there, we were whisked away to a quick, 15-minute interview with Armstrong where he got to say his talking points and I struggled to wrap my mind around the fact that despite pro-quarter recommendations from ASI, the Academic Senate and the Semester Review Task Force, Cal Poly would still convert to semesters. I was so prepared for the interview to be about why the campus was staying on quarters that it went by in a kind of blur.

Maybe that’s why I still can’t make sense of some of what was said: “This is a broader decision, broader than Cal Poly,” Armstrong told me. “There are times when as leaders, you have to make a decision for a bigger whole that might not be the best for individual parts.”

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Cal Poly semester vote gives administrators chance to prove themselves to students

Cal Poly's student government will hold an "advisory" vote on semesters and quarters for students Feb. 6.

Cal Poly’s student government will hold an “advisory” vote on semesters and quarters for students Feb. 6.

Student advisory. It’s easy to miss those two words on the slew of signs around Cal Poly encouraging students to “VOTE” whether or not they want the school to convert to semesters.

But those two words are key in understanding what this vote means. And more importantly, they’re key for knowing if the university actually cares what its students think.

The ASI Board of Directors called for the special election after President Jeffrey Armstrong asked them to give feedback on the Semester Review Task Force, which ended its work in a recommendation to stay on quarters. Though students overwhelmingly rejected the idea of quarters in an SRTF survey, 17 of 24 members on the ASI board thought a vote could add something to the discussion.

Though she is not a voting member, ASI President and sociology senior Katie Morrow said she was a strong supporter of the vote.

“This is one sure way to show to every single student that you care about their opinion directly,” she said during the nearly two-hour long debate on whether students should have a vote. “This (the vote) shows you want to have them look at the facts, then give you their opinion.”

What’s unclear is if anyone but Morrow cares about those opinions. Student government, of course, has a duty to represent its constituents — Morrow would look detached if she never held an ASI vote on what will likely be the most important issue of her presidency.

But the vote’s “advisory” qualifier is something student government has underrepresented in its advertising. The word “advisory” didn’t come up once in an ASI video promoting the vote, and “student advisory” are the two smallest words on the signs around campus (other than the time and place where students can vote).

Because of this, it’s easy to lose sight of what the vote will actually do: advise ASI on how to advise Armstrong on how to advise the CSU chancellor.

Lost? That makes sense. For everything the university has been telling us about semesters, it’s infrequently mentioned that Cal State Chancellor Timothy White, who began in January, could completely disregard Cal Poly’s research and mandate a semester switch.

But Armstrong could be the one to stop him from doing that. The president told ASI he has not yet met with White, so he will probably have the vote’s results in hand when he does.

Those results will likely show students are still opposed to semesters, just as they were when the Semester Review Task Force polled them in November.

If Armstrong’s meeting ends with White deciding to keep Cal Poly on quarters, it will be a big win for the president. He’ll be able to come back to students and tell the story of how he represented them and how he appreciates their diligent research into the issue.

But if White announces he plans to put Cal Poly on semesters, students will see how little the term “advisory vote” means.

If this happens, Armstrong will have two choices: he can either stand in solidarity with White, putting himself against Cal Poly’s students and the Semester Review Task Force. Or he can openly oppose White and use public pressure to make the new chancellor reconsider.

Armstrong told me he’s playing his cards “close to the vest,” until he meets with White, so there’s no indicator of where he’s going from here. But one thing’s for sure: if Cal Poly is unwillingly forced into semesters and the president doesn’t raise hell, students will.

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