Editors note: Two journalism professors at Kent State, Jacqueline Marino, and Susan Kirkman Zake, have been the driving force behind several initiatives that provide student-generated content directly to local media outlets.
Richard Watts sat down with Susan Zake in late June to talk (mostly) about the newest initiative, called the Collaborative NewsLab, where students write and produce stories for four local media partners. Three to five students a semester and seven to 11 in the summer are paid to write stories (a few receive credit instead). Susan, and to a lesser extent Jacquie, choose the partners, recruit the students and raise the money to pay them and a part-time professional editor to ensure the work meets journalistic standards and provides added educational learning for the students. The program is entering its third year, and about 27 students have participated so far.
NewsLab is not Kent State’s first university-professional media partnership, however. Since 2017, it has worked with Public News Service on the Kent State-Ohio News Connection Collaboration, funded in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation. Professors and (now a professional editor) work one-on-one with students, helping them craft story pitches. Then an Ohio News Connection producer responds to the pitches, greenlighting them or asking for revisions. Once a story pitch is approved, the students report until they’ve turned those pitches into solid multimedia pieces, always with text and audio. Sometimes, students have crunched data, developed graphics, and taken photos. Two students often get internship credit and payment for their work each year. This year (2021-2022), Public News Service doubled the grant amount, meaning there is now enough funding for five students to get paid to produce about three stories each annually.

Over the past five years, Kent State students have developed news stories that have been circulated on ONC and sometimes Public News Service on a variety of issues, often related to each student’s interests and news relevance. The grant ensures that students are paid for their work, and the exposure their work receives often surpasses their expectations. Usage reports show that stories regularly reach audiences of about a million people or more and are aired or published by many outlets throughout the state and sometimes the nation. The successful partnership with ONC was a factor in Kent State’s ability to attract other grants for NewsLab. This year is the first time the ONC collaboration was rolled into NewsLab to enable greater efficiency.
Susan Zake is a Professor and Faculty Newsroom Adviser for the School of Media and Journalism at Kent State University. Prior to Kent State, she spent 20 years at the Akron Beacon Journal, the Knight-Ridder (now Gannett) paper in Akron.
Jacqueline Marino is a Professor in the School of Media and Journalism, as well as an author and editor. Her work has appeared in many journalism outlets, including the Washington Post, Cleveland Magazine, and WKSU-FM.
You can reach Jacqueline Marino and Susan Zake at:
Jacqueline Marino: jmarino7@kent.edu
Susan  Zake: szake@kent.edu

Q&A: Richard Watts & Susan Zake on the Ohio NewsLab
Richard: Can you tell us the back story of the Ohio NewsLab and how it works?
Susan: The idea came from the first summer of COVID. I had my best students have their internships canceled. I had a really terrific sports journalist, and I mean, she's so good I can't tell you. And they cancel her internship, and she goes, “what am I going to do?” And I said you're going to work for me.
And so we cobbled together enough money to partner with our student newsroom for the first summer—most of the reporters and editors working for KentWired.com also worked in NewsLab. Then, I used an initial grant from Scripps-Howard to hire three of my students as part-time Kent State employees to work for the NewsLab and keep working as journalists and waitresses and whatever else they had to do to pay their bills. But they were able to work part-time for me and with the outside partners. And that helped them get the jobs that they're working at now.
Richard: Who are the partners in the NewsLab? Can you tell us about them and how you select them?
Susan: We're working with Ideastream Public Media in Cleveland and WKSU, which was the NPR radio affiliate at Kent State. They’ve been a long-term partner with our school and continue to be terrific for our students to work with. One of my partners is The Portager, which is a for-profit startup in Portage County, which is where Kent State is located. The editor, Ben Wolford, was a former student editor of mine from about ten years ago. And he is such a good editor for the students to work with. We're kind of partners in that he'll promote student media stories on his newsletter, which gets us traffic and exposure, and then we, you know, recommend students to work with him.
We also partner with The Land, a non-profit newsroom that covers community news in Cleveland neighborhoods. Those stories are mostly environmental in nature since we received two grants, one from the Society of Environmental Journalists Fund for Environmental Journalism and another, the Greater Cleveland Environmental Justice Local Journalism Collaboratives Grant, to examine issues related to environmental justice.
Last summer, we also had students working with Your Voice Ohio and the Cleveland Documenters Project. There’s really no one way that we find our partners – they have to be willing to work with and help mentor students, so that’s a piece of it. We provide quite a bit of editing support to them and the students, which is one of the founding ideas of NewsLab. Our partners, particularly the start-ups, don’t have a lot of bandwidth to manage students, so we help reduce their workload. They also have to practice journalistic ethics and show strong news values—we’ve been fortunate to have some great partners for our students who are committed to their professional development.
This summer, we're poking around in some of the more sparsely populated sections of Ohio that don't get much media attention. I really think that's a good news niche for us to explore, both for students and the media landscape in Ohio because media companies are really concentrated in cities. For example, agriculture is the biggest business in Ohio, and it gets very little media attention.
Richard: That’s great. I agree that rural areas have the greatest need. So the four partners, can you describe the process more of how you decide what to cover? Is it, Could you help us cover this?, then there is you figuring it out with your students, and then you actually assign the stories?
Susan: Depending on the partner, we’re either an assignment desk, where our pool of student reporters are available to the editors who need help covering something, or we’re pitching story ideas to the partner, like the Ohio News Connection, whose producer reviews the pitch and typically gives it the green light.
For example, Ben at The Portager will say, “Hey, do you have anybody who could cover a school board meeting Wednesday night?” And so I'll put that out to the students.
Richard: How do you find the students?
Susan: We put out a call to basically apply for the NewsLab with a description of what it is and what the work is like. I also recruit directly and ask my colleagues, particularly Jacquie, who they would recommend. We have a really robust student media operation with tons of students in it, and I'm the adviser. So I have a ready-made set of candidates that I already work with. I'm looking for potential and also trying to find the students who may not have had the opportunity or can't afford to work in student media. So if the student has done a good job but maybe doesn't have as much experience as some other students, we’ll bank on that potential.
We haven't really had too much difficulty getting students to apply for this, in part because I think they're hearing from other students that it was a good experience and it's paid. You know, they're not volunteering their time.
Typically, the pay is a stipend of about $1500 for the semester, which is roughly equivalent to hourly pay rates so they don’t have to work as much at Dunkin’ Donuts. We're shooting for a $12- to $15-an-hour rate and try to make the work we're asking of them to be around a 10- to 12- hour per week commitment during the semester. Some of them work more or some of them work less depending on what other things they're juggling.
Richard: Does this experience help students in the job market?
Susan: Absolutely! Students need that outside-facing experience to be hired. The hiring landscape has changed and it's way more competitive and students have to be more ready and more able to work independently than they ever have had to before. And so that's what we're trying to do in the NewsLab is give them that professional editor, bring their work up to professional standards, and make sure they get paid for it.
Richard: And what about during the summer?
Susan: They typically work more in the summer because they have more free time. We also have more students. During the semester, we have three to five students, but in the summe,r we have had between seven and 11.
The pay doesn't change a whole lot because they need the money. And literally, we're competing with 15 bucks an hour walking in the door at Dunkin. But it's a different kind of work. Working for a news outlet, you're working whenever the call comes in. You know, my source just called me back. I have to take this call. I've been waiting two days. When you go to Dunkin, you walk in the door, you work for five hour,s and you walk out. So it's much harder to delineate hours worked in NewsLab jobs than it would be if I were working at Dunkin Donuts or a Starbucks or whatever.
Richard: How does the University view your work?
Susan: It's put our students in front of professional outlets. From where I sit they're doing the best work in the school because it's real work. It's not student media work that's edited by one of our wonderful student editors. It's not classroom work that never quite gets finished. It's real work that gets published in real, live publications or aired on real, live stations, like Ideastream Public Media’s WKSU. And so that that's been really good. It also exposes our students to those news outlets who want to hire them. So I don't know how many jobs our interns have gotten already. You know, people have worked in the NewsLab, and then they get hired by the partner. Or I have other people that know me from my professional life and I say, “Oh, this student was in the NewsLab.” And it gives them a leg u,p and it gives them clips. So it's just, it's been a really kind of holistic and incredible networking thing for the students and for the school. I don't know that there have been any negatives in the whole thing except to try and find the money.
Richard: I understand you’ve also hired a local editor to work with the students?
Susan: Yes, we've also hired Rosalie Murphy, a part-time outside editor, to help because we would lose our minds otherwise. And she has been terrific working with the students and helping them learn more about finishing pieces for publication. But Jacquie and I are still very involved in editing, assigning, and all aspects of this.
Richard: And what about funding? This sounds like it costs $5,000 to $10,000 a semester for the students and the editor (plus your time) and $25,000 or so in the summer?
Susan: We've gotten three grants so far, including two environmental reporting grants with The Land in Cleveland. We also received funding from the Scripps Howard Foundation, as well as funding via the Scripps internship program. My dean and director are also very supportive of NewsLab and have directed internal funds, including some of my faculty time, toward this effort.
We had a $10,000 Greater Cleveland Environmental Justice Local Journalism Collaboratives Grant last year that we just finished in the fall. And now, we have a Society of Environmental Journalists grant that I have two students working on right now. We also had a Scripps Howard Foundation Journalism Grant to start as well. We've gotten about $25,000 in grants in two years, plus about $6,000 in internship funding via Scripps. A list of funders is here.
But we also get support from Kent State’s School of Media and Journalism and the College of Communication and Information.
Richard: That sounds challenging. Every year you are raising from $10,000 to $20,000 in addition to your day job? 
Susan: Yes, that's an ongoing conversation—how do we raise sustainable funding for this? Our Dean and Director have put money in the bank for us because they recognize how important this is. We're not a land grant university, but we do have a civic responsibility in our mission.
What we've tried to do with the grants is write in some money for editing support. But the grant funders really want to pay students. They do not want to pay staff. Our long-term goal -- and we'll see how well it plays out – is that the staffing support for the students is paid through the University. It's the skin in the game that most grant funders want to see and that the students are essentially the ones that receive funds directly from the grants. And so far, that's worked pretty well. I think I've applied for six grants and gotten three. Not too bad.
Richard: Are there other initiatives or classes that are involved in supporting local news at Kent State?
Susan: So I teach our school’s public policy reporting class. If I have stories that come out of class that I think outside partners would be interested in, I let them know. The Land is about to publish a story about B-Corps in the next couple of days that started as a class-produced story. I tell the students this right at the get go, that they have an opportunity if they want to make sure the story is ready. I broker some of the stories, like I think I had three out of my last class that got published. So we're always looking for those.
We do have classes that formally partner with outside clients. And I've done that a few times, like we did a domestic violence partner project with one of the local television stations that went really well and won some awards. But that was a semester-long project. The public policy class is more iterative. I also have had students cover elections on Election Day as a substitute for an in-class assignment. 
I'm trying to figure out how to do this anywhere I can, because I think it's good for students.
Richard: Looking forward, what are some of your next steps?
Susan: We have a new collaboration and partnership with the Rural News Initiative which I think will bring new opportunities for our students and serve the underserved communities in rural areas. 100 Days in Appalachia is a good example for us—that was started at West Virginia University. It's been going for, I think, five or six years now, has had significant grant funding, does some really good work down in mostly West Virginia. They're potentially a partner for us because we could reach down into southern Ohio and they could reach up from West Virginia. And there are some overlapping stories we do along the Ohio River. So that's been my next stage, planning for future collaborations and what else could we be doing?
Richard: This is great. Thank you. Is there anything else you want to add?
Susan: For me this is just the natural extension of what I've been doing for 15 years and what I think has filled a need that I saw over the last five or six years. The hard part about this is that it stretches people like me really thin because I wear lots of different hats.
And so that's why I think I'm really lucky I have the extra editing support from Rosie. And Jacquie has always been supportive of me and my ideas. But I think, in general, universities aren't great at recognizing that these kinds of efforts take exceptional effort and are really hard to manage on top of one’s regular work load. And, you know, I'm lucky because I don't have kids at home anymore so this can be my focus most of the time. But yes, it's hard to do these kinds of initiatives without a lot of support.

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