ASU’s Cronkite News Service Cleans Up in SEJ Student Awards

January 15, 2020

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Decades-old aerial maps and other research material used in student reporting for an award-winning series about abandoned mines. Photo: Courtesy Arizona State University’s Cronkite News Service. Click to enlarge.

EJ Academy: ASU’s Cronkite News Service Cleans Up in SEJ Student Awards

By Bob Wyss

 Take one professionally oriented news service staffed by 130 students. Add one commitment to covering the environmental stories others are ignoring. The result? Arizona State University just won three of five student journalism awards in the most recent Society of Environmental Journalists contest. 

All three winners in the Ray Reece “Excellence in Environmental Journalism” Student Awards originally published their stories for the Cronkite News Service, part of the ASU Cronkite School of Journalism.

“We operate as close to a professional news organization as we possibly can,” said Christina Leonard, executive editor of Cronkite News. Undergraduate and graduate students earn academic credit while working as part of a team under the direction of a faculty member. Stories are published on the news service website or broadcast via a daily news report on a local public broadcast service.

It appears that size has not hurt the program. ASU has more than 70,000 students and the School of Journalism is one of the nation’s largest with more than 2,000 members. 

The news service, which Leonard said is funded by income from tuition as well as outside grants, runs both fall and spring semesters, as well as the summer.

As news service director, Leonard has 16 full-time faculty members managing students. Typically, story ideas are either pitched or assigned, and students work in teams that could include reporting and production members for both print and broadcasting.  


Sustainability a specialty at the news service

“Part of our mission is to deliver stories that are not posed elsewhere,” explained Leonard. Teams are organized around specialties, such as sustainability, with a focus on climate, water resources and renewable energy.

In addition, the news service has a southwest focus, which covers a geographic area from California to Colorado, although stories are not limited by that approach. Two of the SEJ award winners are based on Arizona issues, the third from farther afield in Puerto Rico.

First place was won by Chris McCrory for two stories about how Arizona is struggling to regulate and protect the public from more than 100,000 abandoned mines in the state. (See the accompanying feature, in which McCrory recounts his five-month-long reporting effort).

Broadcast student Lillian Donahue and a digital reporter, Christopher Cadeau, won an honorable mention for a series of reports about concerns being expressed by Havasupai tribal members over uranium mining near the Grand Canyon. Donahue developed the story as part of her coverage of Native American issues.

SEJ judges said they were impressed by the multimedia package’s range of stories, from a long-form TV piece and separate radio report to a 360-degree video of the colorful Havasupai Falls.  

Jenna Miller was also awarded an honorable mention for a story about food sustainability issues in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017. The story was an outgrowth of a separate class where students visited the Caribbean island during the 2018 spring break to report on pressing issues.


Establishing the internship-coursework balance

Clearly, with anywhere from 130 to 150 students enrolled each semester, the Cronkite program has a plethora of stories to pick when it comes time to make nominations for journalism contests. 

But Leonard said that the focus is less on winning awards than it is on education. “Because we push our students, we expect excellence and so it does result in award-winning work at times,” she said.  “Students know this is hard work. It is not an easy A.”

Almost all journalism programs have internship programs and some do have news services, although few are the size of the Cronkite program. The debate within academia is how to balance internships with more traditional coursework instruction.

Undergraduates at the ASU journalism school are required to take a minimum of three and a maximum of nine internship credits during their academic career. Master’s degree students need nine credits.  Students can either take internships at outside news organizations or work for Cronkite News Service.

One concern about any internship program is the need to closely monitor them, so students are not earning academic credit for running errands. Instead, to be effective, students need to be enmeshed in the daily operations of a journalism program so that they can learn from professionals.

Leonard said the faculty directors in the Cronkite News Service have extensive experience in their respective specialties and directly oversee students. Students typically earn three credits to work two full days at the program. They can work in the primary office in Phoenix, which includes a separate sports bureau, or in offices in Los Angeles and Washington.

Ultimately, awards or not, audience reach is one measure of student work. By that tally Cronkite undoubtedly succeeds.  Between the website and the daily PBS broadcast, the news service reports that the student work is going into 1.9 million homes.

Bob Wyss, SEJournal’s EJ Academy editor, is a retired journalism professor from the University of Connecticut and the author of the journalism textbook “Covering the Environment.”

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 2. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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