Behind the Story: On giving student journalists the pay, representation and institutional support they deserve
Interview with 2021 VOICES fellows Janice Kai Chen, Ilena Peng, Jasen Lo, Trisha Ahmed, Simon Levien and Devan Karp
By Daniella Ignacio
This month, we’re featuring some of our fellows from VOICES. VOICES is one of AAJA’s flagship programs, providing pre-professional training and mentorship to young student journalists who are in or recently graduated from college. This year’s cohort of 21 fellows convened virtually and produced work in investigative journalism, feature writing, documentary, and audio production. To check out all of this year’s VOICES projects, visit the program’s website.
We spoke to VOICES fellows Janice Kai Chen, Ilena Peng, Jasen Lo, Trisha Ahmed, Simon Levien and Devan Karp, who wrote “‘I didn’t feel wanted by student media’: Few Black and Latinx students are editors of top college newspapers,” investigating inequities in college journalism, which was re-published by Nieman Lab. This Q&A is edited for clarity and flow.
What was your personal experience with college journalism heading into this process?
JANICE KAI CHEN (she/her, graduate student at University of Oregon): Everyone here was in college journalism.
DEVAN KARP (he/him, senior at Trinity University): I did broadcast stuff, completely different from this [VOICES project].
JANICE: And then Jasen did these amazing data pieces for his student paper.
JASEN LO (he/him, data journalism intern at Associated Press, Chicago): I wouldn’t call it work, maybe pro bono.
TRISHA AHMED (she/her, data reporter at Howard Center for Investigative Reporting at University of Maryland, race/ethnicity beat reporter at Capital News Service): I think most of us freelanced if we did anything for the college paper, but Ilena and Simon were actually staff on their college newspapers. Right?
ILENA PENG (she/her, graduate student at Columbia University): I was a news reporter [for the G.W. Hatchet], a news editor covering the metro, a contributing news editor covering events, and a contributing web developer my last year working on data and graphics.
SIMON LEVIEN (he/him, sophomore at Harvard University): I’m on the news magazine and multimedia boards of the Crimson. My favorite thing that I’ve worked on are longer-term, long-form magazine pieces with a historical bent. I just really like retrospectives, but I’ve done a lot of digital strategy and engagement stuff as well.
I also do a little bit of DNI [diversity and inclusion] stuff internally. We made a reference website for the news people. The sense that a lot of people get is that everyone else was all editors-in-chief for their high school paper, but I had no formal journalism experience before college. So a big priority was to basically catch everyone up to speed with the resources we were creating.
JANICE: I couldn’t work for my paper because we weren’t paid. I went to Dartmouth College for undergrad and I was only able to work for my paper for one term. I had to work student jobs to pay rent.
When I was applying to VOICES, I was asked what I’d change about the journalism industry besides diversity. I wrote about my experience in my student newsroom and about how there should be more institutional support and opportunities for student newsrooms to really thrive, both financially and in their coverage.
I thought it was a throwaway pitch. We were originally going to do a COVID story, but unpaid labor really resonated with people and we ended up going down that path. It definitely evolved into a story about much more than just pay in newsrooms. I think there’s a lot on representation, about seeing yourself or your communities covered, and seeing people like yourself reflected in leadership roles.
When I was applying to VOICES, they asked, “What is something that you would like to change about the journalism industry besides diversity?”
I wrote about my experience in my senior newsroom, and about how there should be more institutional support for student newsrooms, both financially and also in their coverage. I thought it was a bit of a throwaway pitch, but the fact of unpaid labor resonated with people. It evolved into a story that is much more than about pay in newsrooms.
-Janice Kai Chen
What steps did you take to get this piece published? How was the process of pitching the story?
ILENA: The process was chaotic. That’s probably the one word for it. It was a lot of very, very long Zoom calls, where all of us were trying not to type over each other. I don’t think we gave a lot of thought into how to get our work out there until it was actually out there because we were so focused on making sure that the story itself was as good and airtight as it could be.
It was only afterward that we started thinking about engagement. We reached out to people we knew who were members of AAJA or who had worked on diversity and inclusion efforts in newsrooms. We shared it with our sources. We can’t take credit for [the republish by] Nieman Lab; they reached out to the VOICES program directors and asked about that.
The process was chaotic. That’s probably the one word for it. It was a lot of very, very long Zoom calls, where all of us were trying not to type over each other. I don’t think we gave a lot of thought into how to get our work out there until it was actually out there because we were so focused on making sure that the story itself was as good and airtight as it could be.
TRISHA: I spent most of my AAJA 2021 convention time talking with recruiters. and I mentioned the story that was going to come out. They all pretty much were like, “Send it to me when it comes out.” Or I was doing one-on-ones after the story came out and I sent it to them directly when we were talking. It was cool to see different reactions to the story from the industry side in real time — [the recruiter from the AP, Amanda Barrett, said] “Oh, yeah, I’m going to share this internally, because people in my newsroom need to see it.”
JANICE: That’s how we ended up in one of The Washington Post’s newsletters — that was a significant part of getting the word out there.
TRISHA: And [The Washington Post’s] Marian Liu used to be the [VOICES] director; I met her at the VOICES mixer at convention the day before I had my one-on-one with her and she expressed interest. Our mentors also did a really nice job of talking about the story before it came out to other people so they would know to talk to us about it.
I spent most of my AAJA 2021 convention time talking one-on-one with recruiters and I mentioned the story that was going to come out. And they all pretty much were like, “Send it to me when it comes out.” So I did and [the recruiter from the AP, Amanda Barrett, said] “I’m going to share this internally, because people in my newsroom need to see it.”
What was your reaction as the piece started gaining more traction on social media and from other publications?
ILENA: That was insane to all of us. The reason we pursued this article in the first place was because we were all talking about our encounters with student newsrooms, some of them brief, some of them expansive — but we were all like, these seem to be really big problems. We keep hearing about them. Can we quantify it? Once the story came out and we saw other people talking about it, we were like, yes, other people experienced similar things to what we experienced. We were really grateful to be able to push that discussion from the inside of a newsroom into the public and journalism discourse.
DEVAN: It was this bubble that kept getting bigger and bigger. When it finally popped, I couldn’t believe it. It was insane — something we had been working on for so long was resonating with so many people, which was really good, but also really bad. (laughs)
JANICE: It strengthened my resolve to do journalism. At many points we weren’t sure if it was going to be a story in some respects. We always had a bare minimum of a story in our heads, but in the middle of it, when it was all messy, we had all these interviews coming in and we weren’t sure if we were going to collect enough survey responses.
It wasn’t clear until the day of publication that it was going to be a story with a really strong narrative arc to it, a story that would emotionally resonate with people. To see that come together, chaos coalescing into something that means something to people, was important to me as somebody who’s kind of new to journalism.
What are your hopes for the future of more people of color in leadership in student newsrooms? And in journalism in general?
TRISHA: It needs to happen, but my question is, how is it going to change? This industry can be really old school. And they don’t always want to pay enough. Having done this investigation with this team, I’m more frustrated when I see newsrooms — whether student or professional — trying to figure out why there’s such a big diversity problem, but continuing to either not pay, or not pay enough. It’s really disappointing.
DEVAN: I think so many news directors and higher-ups confuse the need for higher pay with greed, luxury or wanting to have more than you’re given, when, in reality, it’s not about breaking even. It’s about surviving. It’s about being able to take care of yourself as a person while you’re working in this industry with a livable wage. And yes, it is often romanticized, how journalists are working for little money and still putting out great work, but that’s not a healthy trend for people or for an industry. People need to be paid what they’re worth; people need to be paid to live in big cities where journalism happens.
SIMON: It makes it incredibly clear just how much work college newsrooms need to do in order to really be reflective of broader trends in DNI. All college newsrooms are, by definition, not technically workplaces legally, so there’s less focus on DNI when, if it were a professional publication, there would be a lot more of it.
It’s incredibly disappointing, given the fact that college newsrooms are the training ground for so many, although not all, professional journalists. But when one of your primary funnels into the professional world of journalism is completely unreflective of the real diversity of the communities that you’ll be reporting on, that’s a significant problem. The whole pipeline is clogged to some extent. Some people can’t get through just because of these early clots in the process that prevent people from going into the industry.
It is often romanticized, how journalists are working for little money and still putting out great work, but that’s not a healthy trend for people or for an industry. People need to be paid what they’re worth; people need to be paid to live in big cities where journalism happens.
JANICE: If we take student journalism seriously as a pipeline, then there needs to be infrastructural support or institutional support on the other end of that pipeline to keep these people in journalism. I hope the takeaway from the article isn’t that with more diverse college newsrooms, magically, we’ll be able to osmose that into a professional journalism sphere. I don’t think there’s any institutional support for that right now.
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