Journalism students who participated in the 2021 Digital Natives program created digital resources and examples to share with their Georgia newsrooms. The featured work was made by Kate Hester for The Hartwelll Sun, Megan Mittelhammer for The Courier Herald and Alexander Merritt for Hometown Headlines.

New program brings journalism students, Georgia newsrooms together to achieve digital goals

When initial discussions began about creating a new program called Digital Natives at Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t factored into its launch. Despite the unforeseen challenge, program director and academic professional Amanda Bright and eight students jumped into action.

Digital Natives was developed in conjunction with the Georgia Press Association. The program pairs UGA journalism students with local GPA member newsrooms to help them accomplish a specific digital goal, from improving social media to experimenting with video production. 

“Once I heard about the program I was absolutely in,” Bright said. “I know that [newsrooms] need that support, and who better to give that to them than boundless energy college students?”

For 2021, eight students were selected through an application process that highlighted their abilities and interest in community journalism. The newsrooms also completed an application that determined their digital needs, willingness to work with the students and ability to follow through on what they learned. Students were matched with news organizations based on how well their skill sets would meet the newsroom’s needs.

The students spent a month preparing for an intensive week with their newsrooms. They consulted with editors and publishers about their digital goals and prepared a community audit that covered demographics, economic outlook, government, local competition and an analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. 

Starting on Jan. 4, they implemented their weeklong plans to teach the newsrooms using guided practice, feedback and independent practice resources that they made themselves.

The students created synchronous and asynchronous video tutorials, how-to guides and presentations to explain how to get the most out of digital tools like Instagram and Facebook and develop strategies for optimal use based on the newsroom’s goals.

Senior Alexander Merritt worked with his newsroom, Hometown Headlines, to design infographics to embed in their digital content.

Fourth year Alexander Merritt said Grady Newsource prepared him to confidently work with Rome-based Hometown Headlines editor John Druckenmiller.

Merritt and Druckenmiller worked together to include more infographics in daily content, learn to manage and track a Google analytics page for the website and make a YouTube channel.

“Everyone’s thinking of the CNNs and the Wall Street Journals, you know those kinds of big name jobs, but we forget to understand that local journalism is just as important and those jobs are still good jobs,” Merritt said.

The program is designed to enrich the learning experience for both the students and newsrooms, and that sentiment was especially clear for third-year student Livia Geiger. Geiger’s parents own The Herald Gazette in Barnesville, and even though Geiger is a marketing major in the Terry College of Business, she was able to work with her parents’ newsroom.

“My parents kept referring to themselves as ‘dinosaurs’ and they truly didn’t know anything about Instagram,” Geiger said. “I had to create a Google Drive for them and show them how to post on Instagram. I also was able to level with my parents more because I didn’t have to worry about stepping on anyone’s toes.” 

Kate Hester, a fourth-year student from Monroe, Georgia, said the most rewarding part of the program was looking at the Instagram page of her newsroom, The Hartwell Sun, before and after she arrived. By the end of the week, they were implementing what she recommended. 

“It’s nice that both parties got a new perspective,” Hester said. “When you’re teaching someone else, that’s the best way to learn. I realized how much I really did know about my field and what I needed to improve on in my field.”

The feedback from the newsrooms and the GPA was extremely positive. 

“On behalf of the GPA Board and the Georgia Press Educational Foundation Trustees, yes, a truly amazing report and program. We owe a huge thanks to the Dean for spearheading it and to Amanda for taking it and running with it,” GPA Executive Director Robin Rhodes said.

Bright remains optimistic with Digital Natives’ success and growth in a post-COVID-19 environment. 

“I hope one of the outcomes is that more students decide intentionally to do local journalism,” Bright said. “We have now an established understanding that local news is imperative and crucial and it also needs assistance.”

Grady Digital Natives was modeled off a similar endeavor called Potter Ambassadors at the University of Missouri, where Charles Davis was a professor before becoming dean of Grady College.

If member GPA newsrooms have any questions about the application for the 2022 program, please email Amanda Bright at amanda.bright@uga.edu.

Editor’s Note: This feature was written by Megan Mittelhammer, a 2021 Yarbrough Fellow in the Grady College Department of Communication. She was also a participant in the Digital Natives program.

Date: February 2, 2021
Author:  Megan Mittelhammer,  Megan.Mittelhammer@uga.edu