The Next Generation Of Journalists Are Ready To Change The News Industry

Jun 4, 2021
Originally published on June 10, 2021 8:15 am

Updated June 10, 2021 at 10:15 AM ET

From the pandemic and protests for racial justice to a pivotal presidential election and Senate runoff, the last year and a half has been a news cycle like no other.

And yes, professional journalists across the country have been all over it. But so have student journalists at college newspapers around the country.

In Athens, Ga., students have been running the University of Georgia's newspaper, The Red & Black, since 1893. Editorial meetings this last year may have unfolded over Zoom, but these students have been covering huge stories in person.

Taylor Gerlach, a recent graduate and former photo editor of The Red &Black, was documenting a protest near campus right after Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd when police came in with tear gas.

"I heard canisters being fired, and it was just a moment of chaos. I saw the gas and my throat started burning," Gerlach says. "I was just making photos. It was like my brain was in work mode."

Gerlach raced back to her apartment, showered to wash off the tear gas and then started uploading. She says it hit her that night that she was there to bear witness, that she, a student journalist, was holding people in power accountable.

As part of NPR's We Hold These Truths series, NPR's Mary Louise Kelly has been talking about the press and its role in our democracy. We're ending this installment meeting the next generation, including The Red & Black's spring editor-in-chief, Sherry Liang. From her office in the newsroom, she spoke about what it's been like to lead a newspaper in this mother of all news cycles.

"I have moments where I just sit there and I'm like, 'I don't know the answer' sometimes. And then I think, 'Yeah, that makes sense because I'm 20 years old.' I'm not supposed to know the answers," Liang says. "Most of us aren't even of legal drinking age, and we're trying to cover our town and our university and we're one of the primary sources of news here. So it's been a lot to process."

Liang spoke to NPR's All Things Considered about growing up in a news environment defined by former President Trump's attacks on the media, the power of journalism to make a difference in the community and the way she thinks bringing your identity and experience into reporting is the future of news reporting. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for highlights of the interview.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On why the paper has had a record number of new recruits

I think especially at the end of last year, during the summer, people have kind of dispersed because they're quarantined with their parents across the country. And we had record digital metrics that summer. And I think people were really seeing the importance of being able to have an accountable news source to check what's going on, check the protests. Parents were sending us news tips like crazy. And so these were all factors that I think punched up our recruitment and made people want to join.

On wanting to practice journalism despite former President Trump's attacks on the media

I think we kind of grew up in an interesting time because in 2016, when Trump was elected, I was also taking my first journalism class in high school. So this was kind of like our reality that we entered the field into. I guess what we find is that there is a very vocal minority, as well, of people who don't trust the news. But at the same time, we have very loyal readers who are subscribed to our newsletter, who look at our app every morning, who genuinely come to our site for answers, and I think it's important not to lose sight of that.

On how the paper handled editorial decisions that many national newsrooms also faced

At the start of the summer, when I was digital managing editor, we were having these really long conversations about what objectivity meant, what professionalism meant. It was like, hours on hours each week of just sitting there and talking through [these questions]. It started with trying to make a policy about AP style. So like, "Should we capitalize the B in Black?"

We landed on capitalize. We had sources come up to us and saying, like, "Hey, if you're going to write an article about us, we want you to capitalize the B in Black." It was hard for us to say "no" to that because they've trusted us with their stories and part of it is building trust with the community.

On the impact of last year's events on students' desire to continue into journalism

I don't think this last year has dissuaded many of us from entering this field at all — if anything, it's given us more reason to enter and help make a change. -

A lot of us have come into this field because we want to hold our institutions accountable. Especially as an independent news organization, I think we have a lot of power in this community to make a difference. I don't know what that [career] would look like exactly for me; I think a lot of us are just figuring things out as they come. But I don't think this last year has dissuaded many of us from entering this field at all — if anything, it's given us more reason to enter and help make a change.

On bringing personal experience and identity to news reporting

I had a big identity crisis, when the Atlanta shootings happened. It hit very close to home because I grew up around Atlanta, so I was very familiar with the area; I grew up in a majority Asian community. A lot of questions about my identity as a journalist came up, especially as we've come to find, I think I'm the first East Asian editor-in-chief at The Red & Black as well. That experience made me realize: Is there a possibility that journalism can be personal as much as it is news reporting? And is there a way we can have people of these identities report on the news as we would see on the front page of any major news organizations, but also talk about their experiences? Because I think that's just as valuable and it improves the credibility of the journalist as well.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

I want to bring you inside a newsroom - no, not NPR headquarters. We are in Athens, Ga.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So this is our graduation issue. These will be, like, the cover photos. They're going to be kind of collaged together.

KELLY: Graduation issue because this is a student paper - The Red and Black, founded 1893, reported and run by students at the University of Georgia, who've been pitching stories over Zoom.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Tomorrow we have a story that our resident science writer did about algae blooms.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We'll have a write-up for the women's golf considering (ph) regionals.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: 8 a.m., we have Nimra's Ramadan story going up. It's supposed to be just about her reflecting on...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: On Thursday we'll hopefully have that keeping UGA accountable protest. And hopefully Kate will be able to go, but if not, I'm trying to find, like, a backup person.

KELLY: Editorial meetings this last year may have unfolded over Zoom, but these students - they have been covering huge stories in person from the pandemic to the Georgia Senate runoffs to racial justice protests. Take Taylor Gerlach. She just graduated and was photo editor of the Red and Black. She was there with her camera documenting a protest near campus right after George Floyd was killed when police came in with tear gas.

TAYLOR GERLACH: Like, I heard canisters being fired. And it was just, like, a moment of chaos. And so I saw the gas, and my throat started burning. And so I was just making photos. Just, like, my brain was just, like, in work mode.

KELLY: What picture did you get? What's the picture from that night?

GERLACH: One is just two protesters holding hands, running through, like, the cloud of gas.

KELLY: And how quickly were you able to get those posted and out to the world?

GERLACH: Within a few hours. I went back to my apartment and took a shower to get the teargas particles off and then immediately just started uploading.

KELLY: Gerlach says it hit her that night that she was there to bear witness, that she, a student journalist, was holding people in power accountable. All this week, we have been talking about the press, its role in our democracy. We're ending the series today meeting the next generation, including the spring editor-in-chief of The Red and Black, Sherry Liang. From her office in the newsroom, she told me what it's been like to lead a newspaper in this mother of all news cycles.

SHERRY LIANG: I have moments where I just sit there, and I'm like, I don't know the answer sometimes. And then I think, yeah, that makes sense because I'm 20 years old. Like, I'm not supposed to know.

KELLY: It doesn't change in your 50s. I hate to tell you.

(LAUGHTER)

LIANG: Yes. No, I - and, like, we have a very new staff this year because we've had, like, a record number of recruits come in. And I'm just thinking, like, most of us aren't even of legal drinking age, like, and we're trying to cover our town and our university. And we're one of the primary sources of news here. So it's been a lot to process.

KELLY: You said you have had a record number of recruits to the newspaper, which interests me. What's driving that, do you think?

LIANG: I think especially at the end of last year, during the summer, people have kind of dispersed because they're quarantined with their parents across the country. And we had a record digital metrics that summer. And I think people were really seeing the importance of being able to have an accountable news source to check what's going on and check the protests. Parents were sending us news tips like crazy. And so these were all factors that I think punched up our recruitment and made people want to join.

KELLY: It's super-interesting because we have just lived through a moment where the most powerful person in the United States, the former president, was regularly attacking the press. And so I'm interested that people in their teens, in their 20s, students are flocking to it.

LIANG: Yes. I think we kind of grew up in an interesting time because in 2016, when Trump was elected, I was also taking my first journalism class in high school. And so this was kind of, like, our reality that we kind of entered the field into. And I guess what we find is that there is a very vocal minority as well of people who don't trust the news. But at the same time, we have very loyal readers who are subscribed to our newsletter, who look at our app every morning, who genuinely come to our site for answers. And I think it's important not to lose sight of that.

KELLY: Is there a particular story, a particular editorial meeting where there was debate on your staff over how to cover some of this stuff?

LIANG: I would say at the start of the summer when I was digital managing editor, we were having these really long conversations about what objectivity meant, what professionalism meant. And it was, like, hours on hours each week of just sitting there and talking through. And it started with trying to make a policy about AP style. So, like, should we capitalize the B in Black?

KELLY: We had the same conversation in our newsroom.

LIANG: Yes.

KELLY: We capitalize.

LIANG: Right.

KELLY: How about you? Where'd you land?

LIANG: We landed on capitalize. And it was hard because, like, we had sources come up to us and saying, like, hey; like, if you're going to write an article about us, we want you to capitalize the B in Black. And it was hard for us to say no to that because they've trusted us with their stories. And part of it is, like, building trust with the community.

KELLY: Do you plan a career in journalism?

LIANG: I hope so. I think it really comes down to a lot of us have come into this field because we want to hold our institutions accountable. And especially as an independent news organization, I think we have a lot of power in this community to make a difference. And I don't know what that will look like exactly for me. I think a lot of us are just figuring things out as they come. But I don't think this last year has dissuaded many of us from entering the field at all. If anything, it's given us more reason to enter and help make a change.

KELLY: That makes me so happy to hear.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: I will be cheering on the ranks of reinforcements. I wonder, you know, how living through this last year, how trying to chronicle this last year - how does that influence the kind of storytelling you want to do as a journalist?

LIANG: I had a big identity crisis, I think, which was when the Atlanta shootings happened. And it hit very close to home because it was a topic that - I grew up around Atlanta, so I was very familiar with the area. I grew up in a majority Asian community. And a lot of questions about my identity as a journalist came up, especially - as we've come to find, I think I'm the first East Asian editor-in-chief of The Red and Black as well. And that experience made me realize, like, is there a possibility that journalism can be personal as much as it is news reporting? And is there a way we can have people of these identities report on the news as we would see on the front page of any major news organizations but also talk about their experiences? - because I think that's just as valuable. And it improves the credibility of the journalist as well.

KELLY: We've been speaking with Sherry Liang. She is the editor-in-chief of The Red and Black at the University of Georgia. Thank you. This has been a total pleasure, and good luck.

LIANG: Thank you. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE FACES SONG, "OOH LA LA")

KELLY: And an update - we checked back with Sherry to see how her summer plans are shaping up. And she told us she's landed an internship with Georgia Public Broadcasting, an NPR member station. Congratulations. And here's to the next generation of journalists training to tell the messy, contradictory, glorious story of this country and our democracy, figuring it out together in real time along with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE FACES SONG, "OOH LA LA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.