Student Journo (16 November 2015)
1. What do I want to know?
Sending Freedom of Information requests to your University is a good way to create original content – but asking half-hearted questions on things you don’t really care about is often a non-starter.
For example, I once sent an FOI about first year retakes. The answers came back, broken down into subjects like I’d asked… But even though the numbers were fairly high, it was all just a bit “meh.” If I couldn’t even interest myself in these figures, how on earth was I going to interest readers?!
On the other hand, I was interested in how many bullying and harassment claims Exeter staff members had made in recent years. So when these figures came back, I was itching to start writing.
You could spend a lifetime trying to puzzle out what might interest readers – but in reality, you’ve got a pretty good market research tool inside your own head.
2. Air your friends’ complaints
We all love having a good moan. And when we do, it’s great to know we’re backed up by others. Think about it: if you’ve been suffering from a dodgy Virgin Media connection for a couple of days, and while on campus a news story pops up headlined: “Virgin Media has let Exeter students down” you’ll probably give it a read.
So, if something’s rattling your coursemates’ cages, getting on your lecturers’ nerves or just generally pissing you and your friends off, take note. If others are feeling it, you could have a story.
Late marking, badly scheduled deadlines, poorly organised modules… anything that gets people annoyed could be a hit. Because we love being part of the action. If you can write a story that people will see and think: “Oh my gosh, I was literally just moaning about that!” you’re onto a winner.
3. Always have your “news head” on
I was having lunch with a friend last year when he complained he’d had “about 50 house viewings” at the weekend in his student accommodation. “Woah,” I gasped. It wasn’t until later that I realised: if this was my reaction to the news, maybe others would find it shocking too.
Of course, after getting in touch with his landlord, it turned out it was more like 16 than 50 viewings. It was still pretty surprising, though – and with our university currently struggling to reassure students that the city has enough housing, it seemed fairly topical.
Start connecting that “woah!” feeling with a “this might be news!” feeling. Not everything will turn into a story – but just think of it as always having your mental notebook open.
4. Boost a mediocre story with great quotes
If you know someone who’s likely to be outraged / ecstatic / *insert hyperbolic emotion* by the story you’re investigating, try your absolute hardest to get a quote from them.
For example, the Virgin Media story was once just a vaguely eyebrow-raising piece about broadband connections. But as soon as someone I spoke to said they were “letting Exeter students down,” I had a story.
Likewise, the staff bullying story got way more interesting when we contacted a former professor who could state first-hand that staff bullying was an issue.
Of course, make sure your sources are at least partly relevant to the story. And it’s always important to find someone with a contrasting opinion so your report’s not one-sided.
5. Find out what people are fighting for
Exeter University Students’ Guild has a “Student Ideas” section. Here, any student can suggest things to the Guild, and others can vote on the idea. If it gets enough student support, it’s discussed at Guild Council where it’s either passed, rejected or returned to the Ideas page for further discussion.
At Exeposé, we got a few good stories out of this page last year. Because, of course, while most use it to raise issues they’re really peeved about, there are always those who like to have a bit of fun.
Perhaps the best story was one student’s proposal to have a slide installed down Exeter’s infamous Cardiac Hill. It got enough votes to reach Council – but sadly (and somewhat predictably) the idea was quashed.
Either way: whether it’s a fun suggestion or a serious issue students are fighting to get their voices heard on, it could be worth covering.
Find out if your union has a service like this, and milk it for all it’s worth. You’ve got solid evidence, ready-made quote sources and a guarantee that at least one student cares about the story you’re about to write. Win-win!