By Lexi Browning, West Virginia Press Association
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of features on the newspapers in West Virginia.
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The Daily Athenaeum, as a student-led, independent print and online publication at West Virginia University, is far more than just a workspace that incubates journalism’s next generation — it’s an epicenter of community for students and advisers alike.
Founded as a literary magazine at WVU in 1887, The Daily Athenaeum, also called the “DA,” has a 130-year legacy with 100 years of faculty and student involvement.
Operating and serving students and the community during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic is adding a special edition to that legacy.
As the university notes at the opening of its online Coronavirus information, “COVID-19 has has upended daily life on campus and in our communities and has forced us to think differently and take specific health and safety measures to protect our communities.”
Jared Serre, editor-in-chief at The Daily Athenaeum, is charged with leading the operation during the pandemic. He said it’s crucial for all of the DA’s readers, from staff and students to alumni, to have credible, timely community journalism they can trust.
“With COVID, it’s been a challenge,” Serre said. “… We’re trying to position ourselves to focus on the multimedia and digital-first mindset. I think we’ve done a really good job with that. We consistently have content going online seven days a week, and that’s not something that we’ve always done, unfortunately.”
Prior to the pandemic, the DA published two print editions per week and updated their website daily as events unfolded in the community. Now, during an unprecedented semester, the staff publishes once weekly as students navigate new social distancing guidelines and balance their online courses, extracurriculars and part-time jobs.
“As all fields are changing, journalism is definitely changing, and multimedia is just becoming so much more important,” Serre said. “At the DA, we’re doing everything we can to stay relevant, and I think we’re doing a phenomenal job.”
The DA focuses on equipping students with skills and opportunities to think through different forms of storytelling. That innovation has also helped the staff reach their audience and deliver news to them in their preferred format, Serre said.
“People as a whole are reliant on a lot of different things. You have national media, which are good, but they’re national for a reason. For example, corruption isn’t just a national thing — it happens everywhere, just like news happens everywhere. Local news is important because while it’s nice to know what the president is up to, or what’s going on with Congress or the Supreme Court, most of what’s important is what’s happening down the road from you or a couple streets away from you,” said Serre.
Embracing storytelling formats, like podcasting for example, has certainly helped expand their reach, he said.
“[With podcasting] we focus on short, 10-15 minutes digestible stuff, because people are busy,” Serre said. “It seems like more and more every year, people don’t have time to wake up and grab a newspaper or wake up and check the website. But while they’re walking or driving to work or waiting in line, they can listen to our podcasts about what’s going on.”
Despite the circumstances with the pandemic, students have adjusted and made the most of the situation, said Nick Kratsas, digital media manager of The Daily Athenaeum. As students budget for their publication remotely through Zoom, Kratsas said he’s noticed them stepping up to be more involved in the process.
“Those Zoom meetings have become much more interactive for our students,” Kratsas said. “Everybody’s talking, where before only two or three would talk. We’re all showing up at the meeting. We’re being more accountable and more cognizant of the time that we’re spending in these meetings.”
The team has also found more efficient, organized ways of budgeting stories for each week, he added. Instead of meeting in person, students now share a Google spreadsheet, discuss stories and their presentations and talk through it together. The meetings, he said, are more robust now that they’ve moved online.
Digitally speaking, Kratsas has seen more than a few evolutions at the publication since he joined the full-time staff in 2018. As one of his first undertakings, he worked to streamline social media management through consolidation of accounts and branding consistency, making it more organized, efficient and manageable for students.
He attributed much of the DA’s successes over the last few years to Adell Crowe, advisor of The Daily Athenaeum. Crowe, who was awarded the 2020 College Media Association’s Distinguished Advisor Award last month, retired Nov. 4, after spending the last four years leading the publication.
“In the time that Adell has been here, I think she’s done a great job of thinking beyond print,” Kratsas said. “Then I came along and pushed that to the next level. Year after year, we just keep improving. It’s kind of ridiculous the amount of growth we’ve had over four years”
On the DA’s website, sports content usually accounts for 30 percent of the pageviews, Kratsas said, but this semester, it’s hovered around seven percent of the DA’s pageviews. News and culture sections views, however, have doubled.
Over time, Kratsas said the DA’s Facebook page has amassed 12,000 more followers, the Twitter account has a 4.2 percent engagement and their website, www.theDAonline.com, now averages 1.2 million pageviews per year.
As a media professional with more than a decade of digital management experience, Kratsas said he still believes in the power of print. Not only can print and digital formats work in conjunction with one another, but each format, he said, has its own advantage when it comes to telling stories in a way that is engaging and most effective.
At the DA, students are encouraged to test the waters with their journalistic creativity. Those who prefer longer, narrative-based storytelling, for example, can get involved with podcasting or with the student radio station, U92 the Moose. That’s all part of advising — finding the right fit for each story and each student, Kratsas said.
“We instill in them certain ideas and ideals and responsibilities and processes, and we get them to do those things on their own with the hope that not only are we creating an awesome culture for them, but also a self perpetuating culture,” Kratsas said. “When they move onto the next group, that group has learned from the previous group who learned from us, and that perpetually continues.”
But the greatest advising experiences come from seeing students succeed, he said.
“I love when these kids win awards, because it has nothing to do with ego — it’s all about getting them the accolades they deserve,” Kratsas said. “College to me is the time where you should concentrate on getting awards and doing awesome work and creative initiatives you wouldn’t do in the corporate world, because once you step out of these doors, all that goes away and you become a cog in a machine as opposed to here, where you’re kind of rolling up your sleeves and you’re all in the same family.”
Associate Professor Bob Britten, Ph.D., who has hosted weekly critiquing sessions with the students, echoed Kratsas’ sentiments about Crowe’s outside-the-box approach to teaching and advising.
When Crowe started at the DA, Britten said she asked him to participate in twice-weekly feedback sessions to assist students in thinking critically. Britten, a seasoned journalist who specializes in visual communication, information graphics and design, has been meeting with students since.
“Adell really took initiative to make sure students were thinking critically about their work,” Britten said. “I feel like that atmosphere has persisted throughout her term here, and I can’t say enough about Adell’s role in all of this.”
The critiquing sessions, he said, are designed to help strengthen the students’ work, as well as their bonds and confidence.
“Critiquing is not just saying what’s bad; it’s saying here’s what the weaknesses are, here’s how what you’re strong with can be used to improve what you’re weak with,” Britten said. “If the critique doesn’t address the individual strengths as well as their weaknesses, it’s not an effective critique.”
Now, they meet for critiques on Zoom each week to discuss what did and didn’t work in the latest editions. Though it’s taken time for students to adjust to thinking digital-first rather than holding stories for the next print edition, Britten said, each incoming group builds on the previous group’s progress.
“These are young adults who are relatively new to business, and they’re still pretty locked into traditional, fairly conservative ideas, which is to say there is still a strong preference for the print edition,” Britten said. “I understand that because I am a big believer in print… I think physical objects matter to humans, physical records matter, all of these things are important.”
But, he added, it’s “fair” to say most readers get the majority of their news online.
“To hold the good stuff until the print edition is an old timey notion,” he continued. “If your readers are expecting to be informed as things happen, you’re doing them a disservice by waiting until morning when the print comes out. I think that’s one of the hardest things they’re working on — getting information out when it happens.”
Still, some old habits die hard — even for younger generations.
“We are all relearning because we all grew up with the idea that the newspaper comes in the morning and the news broadcast comes at night, but that’s not the case anymore,” Britten said. “And it’s hard to unlearn.”
For Britten, there’s no one best way for students to tell a story — it’s often subjective. But that analytic approach helps students problem solve, work with their team, sharpen their communication skills and find their niche.
“That’s why student media is so important, because you get to watch them discover, and it’s important to let them fail, stumble and mess up,” Britten said. “It’s so important to edit with a light hand, because letting students screw up and make mistakes now helps them see if this is really cut out for them… These are students, and they’re learning. If they mess up here, they won’t mess up elsewhere, and that growth is critical to our students.”
Whether the students pursue journalism professionally or seek other occupations, for many, the skills learned at the DA can carry over into their next phase of life. And that’s part of the student media experience, Britten said.
“I love that we have a meaningful student organization that can help keep university accountable where it should,” Britten said. “It’s a rough time for journalists and student journalists right now, and it’s wonderful to have a brave group that’s building on successes from previous years.”
Despite this semester’s challenges with the ongoing pandemic and decreased printing, Serre said he and the staff have learned to adapt and rethink their strategies, like they did with Britten’s sessions.
“While [the sessions] come off as design-focused, it helps with journalism as a whole and with reporting because it’s all intertwined,” Serre said. “If you know design, you’re thinking a lot more about the specific details of things and what you need. Now, with COVID, [Britten will] share his screen and we’ll all jump in. It’s a really enjoyable experience each time we have our production.”
Serre said it’s been an unforgettable semester for those involved.
“I’m so proud and thankful that I get to lead this newsroom because there’s no group of people that I’d rather lead,” Serre said. “I like to think I make them better, but I know for a fact that they make me better every single day. We create a much better product because of it, and I’m just very thankful for this opportunity to lead the DA and even just be involved.”
The DA employs five full-time staff members and a host of part-time student editors — all working to cover and serve as a watchdog for the Morgantown community and WVU, the state’s largest university.
Though still intricately intertwined, The Daily Athenaeum became independent from the university in 1970.
To stay up to date with The Daily Athenaeum, visit online at www.theDAonline.com and pick up a print edition each Thursday.