With so many student publications around the UK and Ireland, it’s to be expected that there’s a publication covering just about everything. At the Student Publication Association, with over 130 member publications, we’re acutely aware of the diversity in genres, styles and designs which student publications represent, but there is one thing which unites a significant chunk of them – news.
But why is student news important, and why is it vital to make sure you get it right? Well, as a student journalist, you’re often the first line of defence, holding your university to account. Quite often, student journalists – or their sources – are the first to spot mismanagement, failings or abuses of power on your campus, and are the ones to bring it to light.
Some of the biggest student-centred stories we’ve seen in recent years, from The Boar’s coverage of racism on campus, to The Mancunion’s fearless reporting on the caging of students during lockdown in October 2020, have started in student publications before going national, and you have to ask whether they would have come to light without the hard work and dedication of the journalists who worked on them.
But it’s also important to make sure your stories are factually accurate, ethically sourced, and stylistically sound, so they can stand up to scrutiny, and you can let the story speak for itself.
This guide should give you the tools you need for putting together a good news story, covering where to find them, how to get them from a tip-off to something in print, and making sure you’ve covered all your bases from start to finish.
Please note: the SPA is not empowered to advise on legal issues, and this guide does not cover libel or defamation.
Sourcing news stories
A lot of student newspapers publish multiple times a year, which means those news pages constantly need fresh content, covering new stories each time. Because of this, it can sometimes feel a bit overwhelming trying to put sections together. In my two years as Head of News of Forge Press, it was a real struggle trying to think of 15 ideas (sometimes more) to fill five pages of news every fortnight.
However, luckily for you, there are loads of ways you can source stories for your student paper.
First of all, it could be as simple as receiving a press release – although this might be easier for more established publications. Over time, public bodies, your university, charities and companies will add you to their distribution list for press releases, and as this happens, you’ll have a steady stream of stories coming in throughout the week. Many of these press releases either won’t make a good story, or won’t be engaging for your specific audience, but that’s okay – because every now and then you’ll get one which is a diamond in the rough, and most of the work has already been done for you. If you don’t have many press releases coming in already, then don’t fret! Reach out to your local authority, the university, political parties active in the city, and anyone else who might be of interest to your readers, and ask to be added to their distribution list.
Secondly, you can get stories from what are called ‘on-diary’ and ‘off-diary events’. ‘On-diary events’ are sort of what it says on the tin – events (such as protests, or an election debate) which you know about ahead of time, and you can prepare for and cover. ‘Off-diary events’ are the opposite – there’s no opportunity to prepare, and often you’ll be forced to just get up and go. This could be anything from a spontaneous demonstration, to a car accident, to a fire – although it goes without saying, put your safety first!
Thirdly, you may get a news story in the form of an interview with a public figure – say, a newly-elected Member of Parliament representing a lot of students from your university. These pieces can be really interesting, and are great experience if you want to make the move into professional journalism after you’ve left university, although it’s important to make sure they don’t turn into promotional pieces for the interviewee – still ask them the tough questions you would normally and treat it like any other interview.
Lastly, you can get source news from tip-offs or leads, and these could come from anyone. On a campus, typically you might get a tip-off from another student, or student group, a sabbatical officer, someone working at the university, accommodation staff, and these leads can turn into excellent pieces. These can be some of the hardest stories you’ll cover, if they aim to expose wrongdoing and could damage someone’s reputation, but don’t let that dissuade you – if there’s a story there, it’s right for you to follow it. However, as with all these sources, there are ethical considerations you must take, and you should bear these in mind as you follow up any tip-off or lead.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember with all of these sources is that you should remain professional throughout, and if you do, it should improve the quality of your journalism. By this, I mean maintain a cordial relationship with your university’s press team (at Forge Press, we often got stories from the university first due to our good relationship with the team), treat any sensitive story with the respect the topic deserves, and so on. It can be tough at times, but it’s worth it.
Unless your piece comes pre-packaged in the form of a press release, there’s a good chance you’ll need to interview someone during the writing and production of it – whether that’s an in-depth interview which will provide the spine and heart of the piece, or a request for comment on some statistics which have just been released.
Depending on your deadline, however, some interviews may be more difficult to arrange than others. If you’re covering a story and you’ve only got three hours until you need to send it to print, you may find it difficult to get a comment from someone, much less an in-depth question and answer session. Unfortunately that often can’t be helped, and it isn’t your fault. I couldn’t count the amount of times at Forge where a story broke on the day of our print deadline, which we knew we wanted to cover, setting off a rush to try and get it done before sending the pages to the printers.
An element of that does go back to your relations with the relevant people though – on several occasions, I contacted the Sheffield University media team at quite short notice, half-expecting them to tell me they couldn’t comment before the deadline a few hours later, only for them to pull something together. It’s impossible to say, but this may have been due to the relationship we’d built up with them, and the same might apply at your university too.
This does pose the question of how long you should allow for interview or comment request, and it really depends on what you’re after. If you want to set up a more in-depth talk with someone (particularly if the piece is going to focus on what they have to say), you may want to get in touch with them a couple of weeks before you need to go to print, to make sure they’ve got time to fit you in, and to allow for a possible rearranging if the initial time falls through. But if you only want a comment on a story, my general rule was always to try to give 24 hours’ notice, at least, unless this genuinely wasn’t possible.
The people fielding your comment requests will appreciate having as much time as you can give them, although they will also know that sometimes, it can’t be helped – if there’s a late breaking story, or your story takes a long time to piece together. Don’t be afraid to also phone the person who’s going to be dealing with your request, to inform them you’ve emailed them (sometimes it can get lost in the maelstrom of their inbox), and to ask if there’s any further information you can provide. If they miss the deadline you set them, you should feel comfortable chasing, and if they don’t respond by the time you have to go to print, you may need to make a judgement call on whether you can publish without their comment. If it came to it, you could always update the online version of the piece with any comment which comes in after you’ve published. However, we wouldn’t recommend taking this decision without talking to your editor and any staff support your publication may have first.
If you’d like some guidance on how to get the most out of your interview, have a read of Training & Opportunities Officer Charlotte Colombo’s guide here.
Images can often make a story, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, if you have an incredibly eye-catching picture accompanying your front-page story, it can draw peoples’ eyes to it around the Students’ Union or on Facebook, and ensure it gets the attention it deserves.
Secondly, an image might provide vital context or evidence for your story, and without it, you could struggle to back up what the copy says (although in the majority of cases, this doesn’t apply).
So, you should be thinking from the very start what images are going to accompany your story, and if you have a number to choose from, which would represent the story the best on the page.
However, it’s also worth saying you need to be wary of copyright when using images, and if you haven’t taken it yourself, you may not have permission to use it. If not, you should ask the copyright holder if you can use it, although they may ask for payment, which many student publications simply don’t have the resources for.
In that case, you may need to turn to Google Images, or one of the sites which offers free stock photos, although you should always check the licencing, and whether any photos you want to use are free to use, whether you have to provide credit as a condition of using the photograph, and so on.
Alternatively, you may find it easier to take photos for your story yourself, especially if your publication owns a camera or two! In this case, you’d own the copyright for that photo, and wouldn’t need to worry about any unnecessary charges – although make sure you’ve got the permission of anyone you photograph identifiably.
Writing your story
Once you’ve got all the constituent parts of your story – your evidence, quotes, any images, and so on – it’s time to start writing a first draft (if you haven’t already). All student publications have their own style of writing and formatting (such as different ways of writing times, or numbers), so if you don’t know the style, it’s probably a good idea to ask if they have a style guide you could have access to and cut down any editing that needs to be done later quite significantly.
First up is the introduction: this should hook in your reader and outline the angle your piece is going for, trying to cover as many of the who, what, why, where, when and how as possible. Although, it’s more important to try and keep it relatively short, and 20-25 words is probably a good target to aim for.
Then you should get into the nitty-gritty of the story itself, starting with the most important information near the beginning. This is because is your editor needs to cut the story down, they’ll tend to start near the end, so if you’ve got some vital information, you don’t want to risk it being cut.
One way to avoid this is to ask for a word count from your publication, but if they can’t provide one, then don’t worry too much – they might be planning to design around the length of your piece, rather than cutting your piece to fit a template.
There are any number of different types of news story, from News In Briefs (which are often only a couple of sentences long), to sidebars, to page leads, and if you know what type you’re writing, use this to your advantage when writing your piece.
Unfortunately we can’t go much more detailed than that, because the range of student publications which exist and cover news are so wide-ranging, it would be next-to impossible. Just remember to ensure all the information you need to back up your story is in there, it flows well, and you’re happy with it, and you should be on the right track!
While your student publication may not be signed up to a press regulator, it’s always good practice to ensure you’re following some kind of professional ethical code. For SPA members, we ask that they adhere to the Editors’ Code of Practice, published by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (or for Irish members, the Code of Practice published by the Press Council of Ireland).
These codes do cover some things which usually aren’t relevant to student publications (such as payments to criminals or witnesses in criminal trials, which are both covered by IPSO’s code), but much of it is, and we strongly advise you to ensure you comply with your relevant code throughout the writing process.
There are some public interest exceptions to the various ethical codes, which are outlined within, but we recommend you discuss these with your editor and any staff support your publication has before you take the decision to breach the code on these grounds.
Perhaps most important, and your final step before sending a news story to print (although you should also be doing this throughout your process) is fact-checking. Essentially, making sure your story is accurate, that any evidence you’ve used proves or says what you say it does, that any quotes don’t make false claims without qualification,
This is vital because you want to be able to ensure your story can stand up, and that you aren’t misleading your readers accidentally. While you likely will have been doing this throughout, if there’s anything you’re unsure about this is when you should make any final checks by researching online, or re-reading any relevant material you’ve used in your story to confirm you’ve interpreted it correctly.
Once you’ve completed this step, and you’re happy the story is factually accurate and you’re satisfied with the copy, send it off to your editor, and wait for it to come out!
We hope this guide has provided you with the tools you need to get your next big scoop to print, and given you the confidence to be able to put together a plaudit-winning news section.
However, this guide isn’t one-size-fits-all, and depending on your role in your publication (whether you’re a News Editor, or simply a contributor), the steps may differ slightly, whilst each publication will have a different way of operating. So while the above guide is useful, make sure you bear in mind how your publication works too.
News is an incredibly important function which student publications do the hard work on day in, day out. My only hope is that this guide has gone some of the way to helping you make the work you’re already doing even better.
Ben Warner is Chair of the Student Publication Association, and former Head of News and Editor-in-Chief of Forge Press at the University of Sheffield.