Student Newspaper Finds New Ways to Engage Readers

After learning that Pitt would move online following spring break and would remain so during the 2020 fall semester, staff at the student paper, The Pitt News, made myriad changes in its workflow, format and publication schedule.

A man in glasses smiles for the camera in a T-shirt and cap“I think we learned a lot of different things,” said Editor-in-Chief Jon Moss, a junior studying business. “One key thing was truly seeing how many different people contribute during production nights, and how many different dots must connect to make everything happen.”

The Pitt News is the University’s student-run news publication, an editorially independent organization in the Office of Student Life. It is one of the largest student organizations at Pitt, with an office manager, news advisor and currently more than 150 students who write stories, take pictures and edit copy.

“It’s a massive operation,” said Moss, who became editor-in-chief in April, not long after the organization went fully remote following spring break—a first in the newspaper’s 110-year history. Print publication paused in favor of digital and social channels, and a workflow that had included impromptu office meetings and huddles around conference tables shifted to Zoom.

Managing editor and information sciences student Mary Rose O’Donnell thought staff adjusted well. “None of us were expecting any of this to happen, even outside of the newspaper, but most of the tools we use are online anyway,” she said.

“I’m really proud and amazed at how the staff has rallied around this,” Moss said, though he noted that video conferencing couldn’t quite replicate the office culture he called his favorite part of working at the newspaper. “You meet some of your closest and best friends there.”

A woman in a black T-shirtMoss joined The Pitt News in 2018, when it transitioned to four editions per week, Monday through Thursday, with a digital update on Fridays. When the University moved to Flex@Pitt learning, the publication switched to an online-only edition; over the summer, Moss noted, both web traffic and social engagement were “through the roof.”

A new day-side breaking news shift was added. Combined with an email newsletter, digital channels proved an effective way to not only get the news out quickly but to where people are, in the moment.

Moss noted that social media mentions not only helped drive discussion, but ultimately prompted readers to engage with the news and even take action based on it.

“We want to arm readers with the facts once we have them,” he said. “So they can do what they need to do, call or text someone, talk about it at dinner with friends, or even email someone that’s in charge at the University to say ‘I don’t like this,’ or ‘I like this. Please do more of it.’”

With the start of the fall 2020 semester, print publication has resumed once per week. On Wednesdays, it’s a longer edition with a magazine-type format that allows for creativity with the cover, but it also enabled the staff to re-imagine what print looks like and how it fits into news delivery.

The Pitt News recently won one of the Columbia Scholastic Press Association's Crown awards for the 2019-20 school year, one of the highest honors in student journalism. Only 10 other schools in the country won the award, and Pitt was the only school to win the award with no journalism major or minor.

“What we want the print to be is longer feature stories,” Moss said. “Readers get breaking news by following us on Twitter, or by going to the newsletter.”

The flexible approach, he said, offers a different way of thinking about the news. “When you’re caught up in breaking news every day, you can sometimes fall into the trap of not seeing the larger context,” he said. “The weekly paper, with its longer features, can give us the chance to offer more perspective and explore different and new stories we want to do justice.”

Going forward, Moss anticipates the publication will continue to become more nimble, both in operation and production. Some process that have been in place for years may change simply because operating remotely was not something people thought about in person.

“Continuing to grow our online presence has also been very important, to make sure we're getting our news into the hands of the community,” Moss said.