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

Student journalists at the University of Georgia's newspaper, <em>The Red & Black</em>, saw firsthand how covering their local community was more important than ever over the last year.
Taylor Gerlach
Courtesy The Red & Black
Student journalists at the University of Georgia's newspaper, The Red & Black, saw firsthand how covering their local community was more important than ever over the last year.

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.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.