Behind the Tennessee Journalist
As the only independent news source at the University of Tennessee, TNJN gives students a valuable journalism experience.
Student media has been found at academic institutions for years, especially in the form of newspapers, radio, or television broadcasts.
While the same is true for the University of Tennessee, there is one student publication that has a unique twist — the Tennessee Journalist (TNJN).
TNJN is the School of Journalism and Electronic Media’s website that prides itself on being an independently run organization covering news, arts and culture and sports around the university and the Knoxville community.
The site was developed in 2006 by Dr. Jim Stovall, an emeritus professor in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media, who was asked to create a news website for UT journalism students similar to one that he developed at the University of Alabama. After six weeks of working with Staci Martin-Wolfe and Johnny Dobbins to create a content management system that would allow for a website to be started, the system that would later become the TNJN website was debuted on Oct. 12, 2006 to a senior level web journalism class.
“It worked beautifully and produced a website that was extraordinarily handsome and useful,” Stovall said. “Once we were up and rolling, I asked students from the class if they wanted to volunteer to be the site’s first editors, and several of them stepped forward, and we began publishing.
“Early that next semester I issued a call for all JEM students who wanted to work with the site, and the response was overwhelming. We started having weekly staff meetings where 40 or 50 people would show up.”
Since the website’s 2006 debut, hundreds of students interested in journalism have made their way onto the site as staff writers, editors, and photographers. The site also acts as an archive of student work.
The Tennessee Journalist has given students the chance to attain real world experience while still in school. For a number of years, students enrolled in Journalism 175, Principles and History of Journalism and Media, are required to work with an on-campus media. This requirement has given many of those students their start with TNJN, coming in as staff writers and contributors. They are given a specific number of stories that they are supposed to write during that semester and are required to attend a certain amount of meetings. These requirements have given students not only an outside of class assignment of sorts but an idea of what the real world will be like once they graduate and find a career.
STORIES FROM THE PAST
For students who worked for the website and have since gone on to graduate, their time with TNJN allowed them to hone in on their leadership qualities in order to find their place in the field through internships and jobs.
Katie Swafford served as the managing editor months before becoming the editor-in-chief for the 2007–08 school year. She credits TNJN to opening her eyes to the study of management.
“While in college, TNJN led to an internship at Scripps Networks and then it gave me the confidence to approach a local NBC affiliate during a UTK-sponsored job fair to secure a job immediately following my graduation in May 2008,” Swafford said. “Since then, I’ve switched jobs, received promotions, and continued to grow professionally. Last year, I graduated with my MBA with a concentration in management.”
Ben Moser’s journey with TNJN was a bit more unusual than most, joining as a photographer and eventually becoming the editor-in-chief without ever serving as an official writer for the website.
“Over time, then, my work really evolved as becoming more complete — starting with simple photographs and growing to entire packages of content — either groups of articles or multimedia within the same article,” Moser said. “I refined my storytelling skills — imagery and written — in TNJN and that has helped me both in direct and indirect application during my career thus far.
“Currently, I am the strategic content director at a prominent Knoxville-based advertising agency. In the past six years, I have started, operated, and grown my media production business to include multiple divisions and win many award,” Moser added.
Being a news publication, students who have worked with TNJN have covered major sporting events, campus events, and even special events out in the community. Linda Nguyen had the opportunity to walk on the red carpet for the premiere of the Twilight Saga: New Moon in 2009 thanks to her position at TNJN. Her story became the most visited story on the site at that time.
While the movie’s premiere brought traffic to the website, it was another story that she wrote that drove in national attention — an article she wrote about a local non-profit called Project Being There that aides children in Vietnamese orphanages.
“At the time, there was a ban on US adoption in Vietnam. That article caught the attention of a producer from NBC’s Nightly News,” Nguyen said. That producer eventually came down to Knoxville, interviewed the organization, even traveled to Vietnam with them. That story was featured in NBC’s Making a Difference.”
While the website does allow students to strengthen their leadership and journalistic qualities, they also build relationships with their colleagues throughout the process. Maggie Jones is one former staffer who started from the Journalism 175 requirement and made it to editor-in-chief before graduating in 2015, serving also as staff writer, assistant news editor, and news editor. While she covered a wide range of stories in her time with the website including student government campaign descriptions, event previews, and campus connection pieces, the experiences she had and the friends she made are what still stand out to her today.
“I met some amazing people both in terms of talent and their drive,” Jones mused. “I made a lot of friends through the organization. They’re people I can count on and people that I would help out any chance I could.”
Jones also added that the website appealed to her over other news outlets on campus because of its focus on the future of journalism as an exclusively online source. This appeal was shared by other students including Jessica Carr, who was a member of the website throughout her entire college career.
“I chose TNJN as my Journalism 175 project because I was really interested in digital media,” Carr admitted. “I knew that it would help me out in the future because that is where the industry is headed.”
Former sports editor Cody McClure had an online content preference when he was deciding which outlet to choose and thought TNJN would provide him with the most opportunities for growth and for the future — it did just that and more.
“Having that outlet was the best thing that could have ever happened for my sports journalism career because it allowed me such a comfortable environment for improvement,” McClure said. “Overall, I guess you could say I’m proud of the work that I did for TNJN and will always be able to confidently say I helped make it better — but also I know I’ll always be indebted to TNJN for what it did for me.”
BENEFITING THE PRESENT
The Tennessee Journalist currently has 25 students on staff as writers and editors. Kaitlin Flippo is the current news editor and managing editor. Her journey with the site started in the fall of 2015 as a JEM 175 writer before becoming a staff writer and then assistant editor for both the arts and culture department and news in the fall of 2016. While she left orientation being interested in the Daily Beacon, the university’s student newspaper, she found more of an interest in TNJN during one of her JEM 175 classes. From there, she knew exactly where she wanted to be in terms of student publications. The next question she had to answer was what she would cover for the website.
“It’s weird because I really wanted to go into sports when I first came to UT,” Flippo said. “I realized I didn’t really fit and that I couldn’t keep up with it so I tried out arts and culture. I started really liking that, but then I started writing for news and saw that this is where I really wanted to be.”
One perk of writing for the Tennessee Journalist is being able to write in whatever section you want while also trying out different writing styles to improve your work. That’s a facet of TNJN that has stood out to junior Nathan Odom who serves as the sports editor. Thanks to the support he received from the sports editor, Cody McClure, during his first two years with the website, he was able to see how he could become not just a better writer, but a better journalist, too.
“Being online was a lot of fun because I could write literally about anything sports related that I wanted,” Odom said. “So just being able to have that creativity through my three years with TNJN has just helped me figure out what I’m good at, what I like writing about, the sports I like to cover, and just getting a sense of where I really want to go and what I want to do after I graduate in hopefully a year.”
For both Odom and Flippo, having other students who had been in their shoes as a young writer for the site helped them to see how they could improve while trusting that the advice given to them would be beneficial.
Flippo wants to be that same mentor to her fellow writers, especially those within her department, that her editor was for her.
“When I was a 175 student, my arts and culture editor was Hannah Hunnicutt. She actually would send me feedback on all of my stories, even if it was something little like, ‘pay attention to your AP style’ or ‘this is why I changed this.’
“As an editor, I’ve tried to do the same thing. I’ve had writers ask me why I or other editors would change parts of their stories, and it has allowed me to give feedback, which I think is great. I loved getting feedback and I think they also appreciate it. We’re all here to provide feedback and help one another become better writers.”
The Tennessee Journalist is not only an online news source of the University of Tennessee, but it also serves as an outlet for students to put into action everything that they are learning in the classroom. With classes like Multimedia Writing, Multimedia Reporting and Mass Communication Law and Ethics, students are learning how to not only become better journalists stylistically, they are learning to ins and outs to journalism from a legal standpoint. Beyond that, they are gaining experience and becoming more professional through internships and practicums out in the Knoxville area and beyond.
Working with media outlets on campus to get acquainted with the world of journalism helps students learn how to prioritize their time, a key lesson that Odom feels has been the toughest but most beneficial part of being involved with the Tennessee Journalist.
“One of the hardest parts I found was reminding myself that school does come first and saying, ‘Well, we can’t get this story published today because I have a test tomorrow and none of the other editors can get to it so we can’t post it until tomorrow,’” Odom said. “That’s something I’ve struggled with and still struggle with is trying to prioritize what’s important because if you don’t graduate then you don’t have the degree with the experience, which is why we’re here first and foremost.
“Sometimes I think writers will miss the balance there, the balance of time prioritizing between school and experience that works for you.”
While the balance can be difficult, the experience students gain is invaluable because it gets their names out there to be known by the public. This is one perk that Senior Lecturer in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media Lisa Gary says is pivotal in what makes TNJN unique.
“One of the things I’ve really liked best about it is the sort of instant gratification that you get because you put together the components of the story — the visuals, the story that you’ve written, the links that go with it — and then the content management system for the Tennessee Journalist allows you to put that together, hit a button, and see it as the published piece is going to look,” Gary said. “It gives you immediate feedback and makes you feel like what you’ve done has some professional merit. I think it really encourages students that they can do professional quality work when they are able to get instant feedback.”
This encouragement is what pushes students to produce their best work. As with any writing, no one writes the absolute best story when they start out; it’s a growing process. Improvements are made along the way that can make students wonder how they even had their first works published. Flippo is one of these students. Her first article for TNJN covered Vol Tango, a group of students and faculty that met weekly to learn how to tango.
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“Looking back at my first article, I remember how I wasn’t really sure what I was doing. I looked at recent A&C articles to try and get a feel for how articles were supposed to be written,” Flippo mused. “I obviously had no experience in writing articles prior to this, other than the writing I did in high school.”
At the time, she knew next to nothing about AP Style and did not have a good grasp on a distinct writing style. She is quite pleased with the improvement she has made up to this point in her more recent articles for the website.
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“Now looking at one of my more recent articles, I can tell a major difference in my style of writing and I can see that I’m making less and less AP Style mistakes. I think my confidence in my writing has definitely improved.
“I also think that being an editor for almost a year now has truly helped me in my own writing because I’m able to read other peoples’ work and see different styles of writing on a daily basis.”
As for Odom, the improvements he has made over the years have come in story development. One of his first article with TNJN involved just a quick synopsis of what quarterback Joshua Dobbs brings to the Tennessee football team. His initially writing style was one that he said lacked a true storyline.
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“I know that when I first started writing I knew a little about a lot and so, in my writing, I tried to talk about a lot,” Odom said. “Because of that, I never really had a sense of direction within my story. I kind of had an idea and I would put some ideas on paper and try to mold that into a general story.”
Since his start with the website, he has grown into a more coherent writer, allowing him to teach other writers how to properly write a complete story. While he is still the sports editor, he is also gaining experience through an internship with FOX Sports Knoxville where he also writes sports articles.
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“One of the biggest changes I’ve had is learning to be concise with my wording as opposed to trying to make things like an English paper, using the most intricate words and the best vocabulary while fluffing things up instead of making things easy to read.”
All of the experience writers and editors receive through their work with TNJN and even outside of the website is what pushes them to produce the best content they can. As they move through their years at the University of Tennessee, it allows for them to pave the way for future students who choose to be a part of TNJN.
In the past decade, the Tennessee Journalist had grown through its number of members and the exposure it has received. As with any media outlet, there is always room for growth and improvement. As the students who are currently members continue with their careers and move into different walks of life and take on new experiences, they want to make sure that their beloved website can continue to become the best it absolutely can be. That being said, each member has their own personal goals they want to achieve. For Flippo, she wants to eventually become the managing editor or even the editor-in-chief. For incoming students who want to become a part of TNJN, she encourages them to just go for it and put their all into what they write while also remembering to let others give their feedback.
“It’s not about being perfect from the start and writing that perfect article, it’s important to improve, grow, and get feedback because feedback is key,” she said. “You need feedback in order to get better, so you should take it while not thinking of it as someone is yelling at you or criticizing you. You should take it knowing that the same person has been there before and only wants to push you to get better.”
As Odom moves on from TNJN and looks ahead at interning with FOX Sports Knoxville, the one wish he has for the future of website is that the writers and editors don’t fall away from the basics of journalism.
“As the internet and social media grow and become more popular with more stories being shared that way, I think it’s important for student journalists who are just getting started to remember that not everything is opinion,” he said. “You don’t have to throw your opinion into everything and you don’t have to be an expert on a subject.”
For students who are looking into student media in general, there are plenty of avenues for them to take at UT in order to gain valuable experience. The key is to check into each one to find the best fit while seeing which one will be the most beneficial professionally in the long term. According to Professor Gary, the opportunities for students to grow in their professionalism while in school is changing as rapidly as the media world around them and members of TNJN can benefit from that.
“A lot of what consumers consider to be news sources now didn’t exist a few years ago. Things like Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post don’t exist in hard form, they’re online,” Gary said. “The Tennessee Journalist is perfect training ground for that. I’ve said it’s a competitive field, and that’s true, but, in other ways, there are more opportunities than there ever have been because of all of the standalone websites.”
Numerous students have parlayed the work they have done with TNJN and at UT into good professional work and much of that is because of the dedication and motivation the students have within their own works and projects from their very first days at the university.
“The opportunity to get started when you’re a first semester freshman, the value of that can’t be overstated,” Gary said. “Students should take advantage of every opportunity, take it seriously and work on their professionalism. They should remember to make everything they do their best possible effort because that’s really what it takes to get ahead, and the students who do that end up getting jobs.”
In the end, the Tennessee Journalist is here to help students find their place in the ever-evolving world of web journalism by letting them display the work they do for classes or strictly for the website in order to get their name out into the world. Members will come and go and the site will continue to evolve, but one thing will remain the same — the value of the experience that the students receive from being a part of the staff will continue to be beneficial for years to come.