Why we chose audio
In the course of our day-to-day coverage of the university, we write a lot of stories about the same handful of themes: tuition and fees, out-of-state enrollment, access and equity, and private funding, among others. These stories tend to be narrow in scope, as it’s difficult to connect the latest policy or tuition hike to the bigger picture with a 5 p.m. deadline. That means the larger story — what it means to be a public university in the face of these trends — goes untold.
Now more than ever, we felt as though readers need that bigger picture to make sense of tuition hikes and enrollment caps and philanthropy campaigns. When we thought about such a piece, though, an article didn’t make sense. The state of the university is both a multifaceted issue and one that is somewhat philosophical, brushing up against even broader questions about the role of higher education and the state’s responsibility to provide it.
Trying to distill such a complex topic into an article meant either paraphrasing the subtle arguments of academics and researchers who spend most of their time thinking about these matters, or assembling a list of direct quotes from said experts. Furthermore, the state of the university is not a novel topic or a recent issue; students, faculty, parents and staff have opinions, often based on facts they’ve gathered from articles and personal experience. Our challenge was to complete the picture without editorializing, a task we thought would be difficult if the piece were written in our own voices.
Our solution was to let the audience hear directly from our sources. We would guide the conversation — ask the right questions to the right people — but the final product would be recordings of higher education officials and experts speaking directly to listeners about the university’s public identity. Staccato quotes don’t do justice to such an intricate topic; we wanted our interviewees to present their narratives in full.
The project we created places an emphasis on the people being interviewed more so than a traditional news story does. Drawing inspiration from the Guardian and NPR, we found that the sense of ethos and personal connection we wanted was better created through multimedia than through text.
Video, of course, might have been another (some would say better) way to establish that credibility — but with a team of three people and a $50 budget, achieving the kind of visual consistency needed to make video interviews watchable was daunting.
In the end, cutting and curating audio interviews was probably equally challenging, journalistically, as would have been writing a several-thousands-of-words-long piece about the state of the university. But, looking back, the decision to try an online-only multimedia project was one that served our story well, and it’s a risk that we feel, as student journalists, we ought to consider taking more often.