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Home > Publications > Quill > Think outside the newsroom


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Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Think outside the newsroom

Amy Guyer

Alumni magazines

It’s not all PR in alumni journalism.

While some journalists might write off alumni magazines as minions milling out fluff for the sake of a university, that’s not always the case. Not all journalistic integrity gets tossed under the jumbo wheels of the education machine.

“There are some alumni magazines that are PR vehicles,” said Tina Hay, editor of the Penn Stater, which won a “best alumni magazine” award in 2007 from Newsweek. “But (there are) a handful, a dozen or two, that are high quality, that you’d find interesting even if you didn’t go to that university.”

Sometimes that’s hard to tiptoe around, since most alumni magazines are almost funded entirely by the university. At the Penn Stater, for example, the staff’s salaries come from the general budget. And if the university is paying a journalist’s wages, it might be a little hard for that journalist to eye an institute critically.

“It definitely depends on the magazine,” Hay said. Some are “boring, PR-driven, recycled news releases — not much fun to read, not much fun to write for. (But) some (are) fun, with a fair amount of candor.”

It’s on a continuum, she said. At one end, you have the most PR-driven publications; on the other, the most liberal, the ones unafraid to nibble at the hand that feeds them. And in the middle, all the shades in between.

At Penn State, for example, Hay said they have a longstanding tradition of writing fairly and honestly about the university. It’s even written in the bylaws. Their goal is to keep the alumni informed on issues they should be aware of, even if it means expressing something of concern about the university.

Hay has worked for Penn State for 25 years. She started in radio as a DJ, then got into news, then went to school at Penn State, then did PR for the school, only to eventually cross over to the editorial side. So when she says it’s not all PR, she certainly knows what PR is.

All PR aside, alumni magazines offer a unique vehicle for true general interest material. A school offers a “wealth of subject matter,” Hay said. Alumni magazines can cover sports, human interest, research, profiles, question and answer pieces, even news and investigative reporting.

“We have a lot of subject matter available,” Hay said, while consumer magazines have a much narrower focus, such as gardening, health or golfing.

And there are definite perks when it comes to working for a university, Hay said. She feels secure in her job because, though she’s not an expert on the matter, she gets the sense that higher education jobs might have higher security than those in newspapers.

Oh, and she gets five weeks vacation. Not too shabby.

Fantasy sports journalism

Fantasy … and journalism? How can you report on something that’s not real?

One out of every 10 Americans participate in a fantasy sport of some type, so chances are you know how it works. But for those out of the fantasy sports bubble, it might be hard to grasp. The idea is that an individual — you, for instance — acts as the general manager of a sports team and decides who gets to play each game. You earn points based on how well the people on your team do in their real sports games. It’s all based on statistics and entertainment.

But still, how do you report on a topic that is based on statistics and fantasy?

“The journalists are using quantitative statistical analysis,” said Mead Loop, an associate professor at Ithaca College who’s done research in this field. “(It’s) not exclusive that (New England Patriots quarterback) Tom Brady tore his knee – (fantasy sports journalism) looks at the implications of an injury.”

In fact, there are three main ways that fantasy sports journalism differs from sports journalism, and Loop outlined them in the research he did with a graduate student.

Fantasy sports journalism focuses on analysis over traditional reporting, holds entertainment over information and views attribution in a different light.

According to research Loop performed, some journalists “find the analytic nature of fantasy writing frustrating … ‘analysis is all it’s about in the fantasy world, which is terribly discouraging if you’ve worked for newspapers’” and are used to breaking the news. Toss in the fact that readers are perusing your article for entertainment and not to catch up on what’s going on in the world, and you have a whole new ballgame — one possibly played in a sports-lover’s heaven.

Very few journalists make a living off this concept, though; most do fantasy sports reporting on the side, as freelance for media outlets such as ESPN or Yahoo! Sports News. Some start their own Web sites, like a former student of Loop’s, Matt Schauf, who started fantasysportsbusiness.com.

Though it’s not safe to give up your day job, there’s “no shortage of people interested in the information,” Loop said. As with all online ventures, it’s all about finding the proper revenue mode.

With 30 million people playing fantasy sports, the entertainment function probably rates higher than information. But that doesn’t mean it’s not real journalism. The Fantasy Sports Writers Association calls for best practices, recognizing good work — and this reverence for journalistic integrity is paving the way for some to venture into the field.

“Most people start by writing,” Loop said, and if that’s something you’re interested in, be sure to “pitch a fresh angle … with either original stats or a creative style.”

After all, in fantasy sports, it’s all about analysis and entertainment, not twisted knees and fallen quarterbacks.

There are plenty more roads leading away from the mainstream media. These are just two examples. With your eyes and minds open to the possibilities the Internet-age brings, you’ll be sure to find your niche in the toughest of job markets.

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