The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Navigating the Digital Shift: How College Journalists Strive to Engage Gen Z in a Changing Media Landscape

11 min read


Chapter 1: The Beginning

Last April, I began a piece for my final project in my Investigative Journalism class, a deep dive on the frequent fire alarms at the university. However, a conversation with Chief of Police Michael Hall, revealed that these incidents were mostly harmless, often triggered by students cooking, and I figured out I had to shift my focus from what seemed like a potential safety issue to a mere inconvenience. That wasn’t as interesting a story to me. But on my way back from that interview, another idea sparked in my mind. A glimpse of a blue light near Farmer Hall caught my eye, redirecting my curiosity toward an overlooked aspect of campus safety: the blue light emergency phones.

I had seen them throughout campus all my four years but never witnessed anyone using them. For the most part, the ones I had seen were either covered in cobwebs or overgrown with Mother Nature’s touch. This had to be my new final investigative piece for the class, I knew. Intrigued by the potential of this new topic, I reached out again to Chief Hall, this time to discuss the campus’s blue light emergency system. During our follow-up interview, he provided an in-depth look at the existing safety measures and those planned for the future, offering insights that proved crucial for reshaping my investigative focus.

After meeting with various sources such as Chief Michael Hall and President Troy Paino, I put together a story titled “UMW Department of Public Safety System Review Blue Light Phones.” It was about the school’s security system and whether it was effective. Upon publishing an article in the school’s student-run newspaper, I was feeling pretty impressed with myself. I had cracked open the deficiencies in a key part of the campuses’ safety. I felt like I’d done something worthwhile for the community I was part of. But I soon started to see that maybe others didn’t see what I was doing as important as I thought it was.

Wandering the campus after publication, I was confronted with an unexpected sight: stacks of our latest newspaper edition lay untouched on the stands. Maybe it was my imagination but some had even begun to gather dust—a clear sign of disengagement that prompted me to question the relevance and reach of our work. While the article I had published was nothing compared to a complete expose piece on the school, I was surprised at the lack of attention it received from students and faculty alike. It was at this moment where it began to click in my head.

When I became an editor at the paper, the experience kept happening. I was proud of the work I was doing but was constantly surprised that others didn’t care. I wondered, is it problematic? Is this how journalists often feel in the real world? I started to see that my personal experience was related to what was happening in the larger world. In an era where information is as ubiquitous as it is varied, the role of journalism in guiding public discourse and fostering an informed society has never been more critical. With new applications of technology, readers are getting information in new ways, while news budgets wane. In my small role, I wondered how I could make a difference.

Chapter 2

“Where do you get your daily news from?” It’s a common question asked within the Communication & Digital Studies classes I take for my major. Usually, the responses include what people are supposed to say, such as The Washington Post or NPR. But more often than not, someone mentions the use of TikTok as their source of media gathering. Not for its accuracy, but for its convenience in the morning.

To better understand this shift, I conducted a survey among students, garnering 29 responses. A staggering 90 percent indicated they mainly accessed news through social media platforms, highlighting a significant change in information consumption habits. And slightly fewer, 72 percent, checked off receiving their information from online newspapers such as the Washington Post or New York Times. A class discussion with some respondents found that news from social media is like a breath of fresh air. It usually has more voice and style and is more fun to watch.

Essentially, social media platforms are the town squares of chatter, buzzing with news, opinions and debates. Instagram stories, Twitter threads and TikTok videos are Gen Z’s channels of information, offering a wide selection of narratives that are personal, immediate and diverse. But most said they still turn to traditional news outlets when they’re verifying whether information is accurate. They know all about misinformation, confirmation-bias and the dilution of journalistic integrity.

“I feel like ever since high school, teachers have taught me to keep asking questions. Having that mindset, it motivates you to do your own research about what’s told to you like on the news. It’s hard to just take it at face value without having some kind of independent knowledge,” said junior Communications & Digital Studies major Faith Hattersley.

But still, there’s a strong presence that doesn’t trust traditional news either. When asked about their trust in information provided by mainstream media outlets, 17 respondents replied that they somewhat trust the media with the other respondents answering around rarely and more than usual. Almost 80 percent found that mainstream media has some form of bias; with most saying the reason was political affiliation, corporate interests and cultural bias.

In the discussion, one of the topics was about how big news outlets often follow certain guidelines or “scripts” when reporting on stories. They don’t tell journalists exactly what to say, but they suggest specific ways to describe things, which can sometimes make the reporting less clear or detailed. On the other hand, independent and freelance journalists don’t have to stick to these rules, allowing them to use language and styles that might offer a clearer, less measured view of events.

“They wear their biases on their sleeves, whereas when you’re working for a corporation, your biases aren’t necessarily upfront,” said senior communication and digital studies major Tayin Rivera-Dorazio.

The relationship Gen Z has with news is a vivid illustration of their broader interaction with the world—entirely digital, inherently skeptical and dynamically interactive. For us, news is not something that arrives with the morning paper or the evening broadcast but is a constant, pulsating presence in the palm of our hands. It’s accessible at any given point in the day with several different publications to reach to. But our first introduction to stories usually does come from social media. It’s only when we’re double-checking, that we’ll go to a news organization, for the most part.

Given this shift in how we consume news, I wondered how a college newspaper can reach this audience. We still have print editions scattered around campus. But if our readers don’t typically get their news by picking up a paper, should we be finding some other way to reach them? I wondered what was going on with readership at other schools. As we stand on the cusp of redefining what college media means in the 21st century, the question remains: how are we able to adapt and continue to engage, inform and inspire our peers?

Chapter 3:

Predictably, just as social media has changed readers’ relationship with news in the wider world, the same is true for college journalism. A small portion of college newspapers can run independently of their schools because they’re able to generate ad revenue. Most schools, however, require subsidies from their universities. Those funds have been removed at a slow trickle for years. But when the Covid-19 pandemic forced many schools to go digital, so did their newspapers, and some never returned.

“Student media is in a financial crisis,” says the Student Press Law Center website. The organization provides resources for students to fight against budget cuts when they can demonstrate their politically motivated. At some schools, Covid-era decisions to cut funding have continued on because administrators aren’t in a hurry to encourage the return of print papers that have given them unflattering coverage. Even the storied student newspaper at Penn State, once the subject of a documentary shown on PBS, is at risk of closure currently.

There are some exceptions, of course. At the University of Iowa, students at the student paper—The Daily Iowan—purchased two local papers, where students at the university will help run. It’s an investment that has helped serve as an alternative to the news desert we find ourselves in today. Not only does this move expand the footprint of student journalism, it also provides a professional hands-on learning experience for those interested in the field. While this bold initiative highlights a proactive approach to the financial and operational challenges facing student media, it also prompts a reflection on the circumstances and contributions of student newspapers closer to home.

Our school never cut the print paper, even during the pandemic. Our readership still does come from readers who pick up a print copy. Our website isn’t established enough to have an app or for students to regularly check. So there’s a divide between how students tend to read us versus other news outlets. I’ve long wished I could convey to our audience better why we’re so important to those who haven’t yet picked up a copy. College newspapers are like that friend who knows exactly what you’re going through, because, well, they’re right in the trenches with you.

This is not just any old news—it’s news with a shared dorm room smell and mutual dislike for the inevitable 8 a.m. classes. Holding an editorial position in the school’s newspaper, I’m not just curating articles; I’m conveying the actuality of campus life, complete with the highs of the wonderful events we have on campus, as well as the lows of midterm meltdowns. Navigating the black and white, as well as the complex gray areas of issues on campus, has significantly changed my understanding of First Amendment Rights, censorship and sustaining a robust readership.

Being part of a campus newspaper is thrilling because you begin to understand the impact you can have on shaping student perceptions of campus life and beyond. Traversing the constantly evolving landscape of storytelling in a digital era, which transforms the norms quicker than a professor revises the syllabus, presents a challenge that demands engagement. School newspapers have been slow to change, and in some ways, that’s part of their charm. They’re still about shoe leather reporting. And I’m happy that my school still supports it, financially.

But that doesn’t resolve the disconnect that student journalists often feel from their fellow students. It can be frustrating at times when replacing last issue papers on the stands when they’re still untouched. What’s the point of the 11-day preparation we do for each issue, if no one is picking up the newspaper to read? There’s a tradition that we’re following to become journalists, but it’s not a tradition that I see those around me necessarily appreciating. It’s something we have to set aside, however, as we get the paper together each week.

Click-clack, click-clack. It was the constant sound of typing during the Weekly Ringer’s layout, housed in the UMW Creative Writing House found at 1201 William Street. There was chatter about future articles, revisions and edits for the Weekly Ringer’s publication. This sound was heard deep into the night as the clock strikes midnight. Coffee, Arizona green tea, scattered remains of Chipotle napkins and plastic cups litter the Weekly Ringer’s stationed room. While it might have appeared as a mess to anyone else, I knew it was a productive mess.

As I watched the usual scene, I became increasingly curious about how my fellow editors one night at layout have navigated this challenge. While most were busy, when I engaged her in conversation, Ky Huynh, the news editor at our student newspaper, agreed that “when you don’t see the papers you’ve put out being taken, it’s defeating.” Yet, she also highlighted the silver lining when our work does reach someone, like when someone mentions they’ve read one of her stories. She turned back to her pages for the week.

Ky, just like me, had mixed feelings about journalism as a career path. But she continued on. “I’ve never seen it as a dying career path. It’s about getting real news out there, and when you hear someone has read your work, it feels like you’ve made an impact,” she said, encapsulating the essence of what gave me the drive to continue down the path of a journalist. She is of the same perspective as I am, that the news is crucial, and we have to make it work.

That’s a dissonance I think I have to get used to because of the general fears in the news industry today. When people tell me about the struggles of the industry, I almost don’t want to hear it. It just feels like something that we can’t and shouldn’t let happen. It’s the same thing I feel about college journalism. The challenges of readership, the battle against misconceptions of bias and the quest for impactful journalism are everywhere around us. But we can’t let them stop us from delivering information to people.

I often find myself pondering the future of journalism and our place within it. Disputes over a news organization’s dedication to truth further polarizes the media industry. This multitude of perspectives results in a significant divide in both public trust and believability. Everyone is subject to their own opinion, but to what extent does it start to create a sense of mistrust in once reliable sources of national news? We can’t change society, but we can keep reporting. It’s the work of each individual journalist gathering information that can engender trust.

I want to think about the big questions. How do we, as emerging journalists, adapt to the changing ways in which our generation consumes news? How do we ensure our voices are heard, our stories read, in an era where the written word competes with the changing nature of digital content? But I don’t have time for them. When we’re deep in the semester, there’s always a new edition to put out. In our small newsroom, articles were being made more concise, photos were being lightened, transitions were being smoothened out and Adobe Indesign was being tamed amidst the clutter of coffee cups and the hum of late-night debates. It wasn’t our job to force readers to view us in any particular way. We just had to keep showing up and doing the work.