THE REAL WORLD.

Talk to St. Thomas graduates working in journalism, and they don’t take long to get around to it. Here’s Ryan Shaver, sports anchor at KIMT-TV in Mason City, Iowa: “I think the only surprise was how much work the Real World is. I knew that we were going to be turning out stories, but my first day on the job I had two voice-overs and a package. I was used to having a week to turn in stuff.

“So even though the deadlines were harsh at TommieMedia, I was just not expecting the amount of work that goes into my job now.”

Shaver ’12 is among the first group of graduates from the Communication and Journalism program who didn’t have a chance to work for The Aquin, the venerable student newspaper that had operated on the St. Thomas campus since 1933. Shaver earned his stripes working for TommieMedia, the online student-operated news organization that replaced The Aquin in 2009. Shaver served as TM’s sports editor, production editor and, finally, as its director.

He and 10 other TommieMedia veterans stepped into the Real World in May 2012. Those of us who keep an eye on the Real World of journalism were a bit surprised when all 11 found jobs in their desired field.

Dana Ashby is one. She was TommieMedia’s advertising and public relations director in spring 2012, a position that did not exist with the ad-free Aquin. Ashby works as a digital media coordinator at Periscope, an advertising agency in Minneapolis.

“My boss says on a weekly basis, ‘I only hired you because you knew what media was,’ and I learned that at TommieMedia,” Ashby said. “I was doing sales at TommieMedia, and I learned what this area was because that’s what we did there.”

Her job at Periscope is “more behind the scenes of working with that ad server and being able to monitor different campaigns and being able to interact with clients immediately.”

“TommieMedia gave me those decision-making opportunities and showed me the consequences with this real living, breathing digital experience,” she said.

The Real World was a concern among those of us who laid The Aquin to rest and replaced it with the brave, new whirlwind TommieMedia, one of the first online student-operated news organizations in the country. The goal was to reflect what was happening in the Real World.

At the time, the Real World of journalism was changing rapidly. Newspapers cut staff as revenue from retail, national and classified advertising tumbled. The Pew Research Center reported that print advertising revenue nationwide fell from a peak of $49 billion a year in 2006 to about $27.5 billion in 2009, when the plot to kill The Aquin was hatched. Online advertising revenue was growing, while the cost of printing and delivering thousands of papers every day seemed less and less sustainable.

We watched thousands of dollars each year go for printing 11 editions of 2,600 copies of The Aquin for a student population of more than 11,000. Even with those few copies, The Aquin would pile up in the Murray-Herrick post office like fallen leaves.

CAS Associate Dean Kris Bunton, chair of the Communication and Journalism Department at the time, set TommieMedia in motion. We would merge The Aquin and Campus Scope, a periodic television news magazine, into one website. Campus Scope adviser Tim Scully came onboard as a TM adviser, as did I and professors Mark Neuzil for his editorial experience, Greg Vandegrift for his video reporting experience and Craig Bryan, who would lead the students in our new advertising venture. The website launched in September 2009.

We were further ahead of the curve than we thought.

Print Still Reigns

Imagine my surprise when Shane Kitzman ’10 told me that newspaper design was something he wished TommieMedia had taught him. Kitzman, the last Aquin editor and second TommieMedia director, took the job of sports editor at the Northfield News after he graduated. When he said this over sandwiches at a Northfield eatery, Jordan Osterman, current Northfield News sports editor, and Miles Trump, sports editor of the Waseca County News, nodded in agreement.

“When I went into the Real World, and when he did and he did, you had to be able to design a page,” Kitzman said. “So TommieMedia was great, but the first position that you get when you come out of school will probably have a design element. I had to learn on the fly.”

“That’s where you start,” Osterman said. “If you’re in print, it’s going to be at a weekly newspaper.”

Print operations still generate far more income in the Real World of community journalism than does online advertising. Video skills are prized, too, but print reigns.

“They love at small newspapers,” Kitzman said. “They drool over that.”

“But at the same time, they didn’t hire you to do that video, to be a video person for them,” Osterman added.

“Video is like this added bonus,” Trump said, “but it’s not like this mandatory part of your day-to-day job, whereas layout is.”

The fact is, print advertising still accounts for far more revenue than the online edition.

“We hear it all the time that print is still where we make our money,” Osterman said. “And maybe somewhere down the line, it will be online, but right now, print is still the money horse.”

So did TM fail in preparing them for the Real World? No. Community journalism is the art of doing everything, and doing everything is something TommieMedia stresses. All three of these TommieMedia veterans found success at small papers. They represent the past three winners of the Minnesota Newspaper Association’s Best Young Journalist award for weekly papers.

TommieMedia

Sean Crotty covers a men’s basketball game. (Photos by Mike Ekern ’02)

Kitzman moved from Northfield in July 2012 to become a Web producer for WCCO-TV in Minneapolis. Like Shaver, Kitzman has found the TommieMedia experience to be right in line with his new job.

“I loved the print,” Kitzman said. “I loved having a finished product that could be so set in stone and so tangible.

“Now at WCCO.com, it’s just like TommieMedia again, where my work is cool for one day, but then I haven’t done anything for a day. If I don’t create a blog for one day, the next day it’s deadly. I really didn’t do much that day.”

TommieMedia provides the greatest gains for St. Thomas students interested in broadcasting, advertising and public relations. TM produces daily video news and sports reports, and weekly studio shows. Its ad people have built a growing clientele, and the PR staff does everything from signing up students for email updates to handing out TM goodies at football games.

Shaver said TommieMedia’s hands-on approach has served him well.

“I learned a lot about the basics of writing and editing,” Shaver said, “but just that we had our own TV studio, and had people like Professor Vandegrift, who had been in the business, really prepared me for what I was getting myself into. People like Professor Scully could go over my video for things that were as simple as lighting an interview.

“When I got to my real job, my bosses were really impressed that I knew how to light an interview, how to frame things like that, and they didn’t have to sit down and teach me to do all that stuff over again.”

Shaver and Kitzman agreed that for online journalism, TommieMedia gets it right. Kitzman uses the same content-management system at WCCO that he used at TommieMedia, while Shaver said KIMT’s system is much like it. And each of these alumni said TommieMedia’s emphasis on using social media is crucial.

“Twitter is one of the most powerful tools we have that we use on a day-to-day basis,” Trump said. “It’s how we engage with everyone.”

Engaging Readers … and Student Journalists

TommieMedia has been engaging people like The Aquin never could. Online analytics show that for Nov. 15 to Dec. 15, 2012, the last month of the fall semester, 24,250 “unique” visitors came to the site 50,193 times and viewed 122,026 pages. They came to the TM website from 97 countries and translated its pages into 60 languages.

The most-viewed page for the month profiled Tommie Award finalists (3,177 views), followed by the memorial service for a student who died on campus (2,678). Athletics was a big draw, topped by 1,298 viewers for the football team’s national semifinal victory and 1,004 viewers for St. Thomas’ victory in the volleyball national championship game.

Having thousands of people see your work is about as real as it gets. Finding value and reward in your work is even better. The greatest contribution TommieMedia makes might be in hooking 35 to 50 students a semester on the Real World of journalism.

“I never worked at The Aquin,” Trump said, adding that he enjoys online journalism because TommieMedia was where he “first jumped into journalism.”

“I enjoy more the fact that online, there is a sports section that can be constantly changed and updated,” Trump said, “because I just see that everything is constantly moving, that the media is constantly changing and constantly flowing, and I have this area where people can go to check the progress as these teams play. I like that.”

Read more from CAS Spotlight.