Student journalists play an important role on college campuses; they cover student events, student government and sports, and in a unique, intimate way. But the first semester of the 2020-21 school year has brought new challenges as they navigate emerging digital journalism trends and how to best reach students in a COVID-19 environment.

Mason Dunleavy is a senior marketing and communications student at UND and serves as the editor in chief at the Dakota Student. The paper, which has been around since 1888, went online only this year, Dunleavy said.

“It’s been stressful,” he said. “Some people think since everything's online, it's easier, you can just get up and do everything in your pajamas. But it just feels like there's something that needs to be done second after second after second. It's almost like a never-ending cycle of stuff to do.”

In a typical school year, student journalists might have some separation between their daily class loads and their work at the student paper. But with so many classes online this year due to the pandemic, students are having to strike a new balance.

Student journalists across the country have been intimately following what’s happening with their campus’ coronavirus counts as well as covering issues like campus race relations and gender issues. In some cases, they're making national news.

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Students with the Daily Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina, for example, made headlines this summer after the campus had increased clusters of COVID-19 cases on campus. The student paper used a curse word in the headline to describe the situation, which quickly made its way around social media and to national news networks.

Meghan Arbegast is the head news editor for The Spectrum at North Dakota State University. (Submitted photo)
Meghan Arbegast is the head news editor for The Spectrum at North Dakota State University. (Submitted photo)

Meghan Arbegast, news editor of The Spectrum at North Dakota State University, said she believes student journalists are important to a campus’ understanding of diverse, difficult issues.

“We have the opportunity to be a student, so we get that perspective,” she said. “But then also, we get that opportunity to then report on what might be happening around campus. I think that is very important because students want to know what's going on.”

Chuck Haga, longtime journalist at the Grand Forks Herald and Star Tribune who teaches some of the Dakota Student staff, said student newspapers need to hold their universities accountable for their COVID-19 response.

“They need to hold faculty and administration accountable and themselves accountable,” said Haga, who was editor of the student paper when he attended UND. “They need to raise hell. They need to ask questions and point out problems and demand answers and solutions.”

The Dakota Student is diving into important campus topics like student mental health and activities that are available to connect students amid the pandemic, Haga said.

“I really believe that it has a critical role to play,” he said. “It's the students’ voice.”

Reading the student paper is a way to stay engaged, but it seems fewer students are reading the Dakota Student, Haga said.

“They're doing some good work – good, timely, relevant work,” he said. “I wish that more students saw it and responded to it. It's a great opportunity to flex your own voice.”

Dunleavy said staff at UND's Dakota Student have a two-day editing system in place so reporters and editors get more time to fully flesh out a story.

At NDSU, The Spectrum also has been making adjustments to its work this semester. The paper previously printed twice a week, but now only prints once a week, said Editor in Chief Brayden Zenker.

Brayden Zenker is the editor-in-chief for The Spectrum at North Dakota State University. (Submitted photo)
Brayden Zenker is the editor-in-chief for The Spectrum at North Dakota State University. (Submitted photo)

To make up for the loss of the second printed edition each week, he said Spectrum staff members are posting online constantly to “bridge the gap between students that are on campus and off campus and bring them the student news that we think they need.”

The pandemic has affected coverage in different ways, Zenker said. Some don’t want to meet up for interviews because they worry about potentially exposing themselves to the virus, he said.

“My writers are coming up with unique and creative ways to interact with people ... to get those stories out and get the sources that they need,” he said. “They've been doing a really amazing job, even though they're confronted with many challenges.”

Zenker said the lessons he’s learned this semester will stick with him for the rest of his career.

“As somebody who has always had a passion for journalism, it's amazing to see what people can do and how they can overcome when they're faced with challenges like this,” he said. “It'll be something that I’ll probably hold very dear to my heart for probably the rest of my career.”