When I accepted the managing editor position at the paper last spring, I fully expected the job to entail significant work. However, I never expected all the challenges we’ve faced over the last couple months.
In recent weeks, criticism has been leveled at our publication—not just regarding the plagiarism we address elsewhere in this issue, but also publication delays and content quality. I’m here to tell you a little bit about the challenges of running a student publication as small as ours, where we went wrong and what we are doing to bring our paper up to the standards you, the readers, deserve.
Staffing has been our most formidable challenge. Until last week, we were in desperate need of a new layout manager and reporters. Considering how few people are on campus during summer, we didn’t receive enough applications to make informed hiring decisions until fall semester began. Once we knew who to hire and submitted the request to the university, hiring procedures and paperwork for some hires took four or more weeks before the people were officially on staff and able to work.
For our second and third issues, that meant large workloads and publication delays. Our layout manager at the time was also our web and social media manager. In addition to completely remaking our drastically outdated website (reveal coming this month!), he also had to balance layout responsibilities, senior projects, an off-campus job, designing a new website for The VanCougar and personal responsibilities. Just before layout on the second issue, he had a family emergency and was attempting to complete layout from a hospital waiting room. I ended up coming to campus at 6:20 a.m. to complete layout myself and send it to print in time for distribution later that day.
When trying to schedule layout for our third issue, our layout manager’s family emergency was still ongoing, and Editor in Chief Rachel Wilson was confronted with an even more significant family emergency herself. Meeting our initial publication deadline proved impossible.
And layout wasn’t our only obstacle. Until this issue, the paper only had one reporter and two team editors on staff. That meant that in order to produce content, editors had to report stories themselves—leaving less time for editing. While all stories were examined by an editor before print, not enough time was available to catch the errors we address in this issue. The heavy workload meant that some stories weren’t even getting turned in on time.
None of these factors excuse the plagiarism we address in this issue. The VanCougar adheres to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics (published in its entirety on page 9) which calls on journalists to take responsibility for the accuracy of their work and states that “neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.” We take this seriously enough to devote an entire issue to correcting our errors. However, I do hope this background explains the factors that contributed to this situation.
We’re implementing several strategies to make sure previous problems don’t continue to plague us. Our biggest improvement will be adding sufficient staff. We now have three new reporters and a new layout manager. We’re also going to hire several more reporters in the coming weeks. With a more evenly distributed workload, this will free up editors to thoroughly edit every piece we publish. Our internal procedures are being updated to ensure that every story is not just viewed, but actually edited by a minimum of two editors.
We’re also going to work with our student media advisor to provide workshops for staff that emphasize how to conduct high-quality ethical reporting that avoids issues plagiarism. I believe recent events prove that anyone can make mistakes. My hope is that almost all problems will be caught by reporters themselves, rather than always relying on editors.
We are also in the process of updating our staff manuals with resources for reporters and clear checklists for what a complete story includes. We’re a campus that doesn’t have a journalism program, so providing resources ourselves in even more important.
Finally, from now on the paper will place a greater emphasis on content critiques and corrections. Staff meetings will include a critique of the paper and our internal procedures will be updated to provide a clear process on how we issue corrections. In addition to preventing significant problems like plagiarism, I believe these improvements will significantly improve the quality of our content.
We will of course continue to face challenges. Even when we had an excessively lean staff, we struggled to find times for weekly staff meetings. Many of our staff members work off campus, and nobody has the same class schedule. We now have two separate meetings times each week that should accommodate our entire staff, but we still expect to face challenges as we work around our staff members’ schedules.
Educational and training resources are also still a problem. We are blessed with a $57,650 budget and an excellent student media advisor, but we have zero academic resources and our campus doesn’t have a journalism program as I mentioned. That means staff training is entirely dictated by Rachel and me. The independence and flexibility is great, but it doesn’t make our job any easier.
These past few weeks have given me invaluable knowledges both about journalism and management. This job requires significant dedication, but I still enjoy it. Moving forward, I’m more excited than ever for the future of our publication.
I encourage you, the readers, to follow our progress. We strive to be as open and transparent as possible. Read our content with a critical eye. Challenge and correct us if warranted. Know that we are more committed than ever to providing high-quality, ethical and honest reporting you can rely on to stay informed about campus.
The VanCougar Managing Editor 2017-2018