As a fledgling managing editor at The Maneater, Sydney Lewis often learned on the fly. Now the junior is connecting college newsrooms nationwide to build a novel network of support
March 6, 2023
Contact: Marcus Wilkins, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sydney Lewis never doubted her determination. An academically accomplished daughter of parents who made careers at universities, Lewis entered the University of Missouri with an extraordinary understanding of communication in and around higher education.
But when the Missouri School of Journalism student landed a coveted gig as managing editor of The Maneater — in May 2021 as students returned to in-person activities during the COVID-19 pandemic — she felt occasional pangs of imposter syndrome.
“It sounds lame when I say it now, but I thought, ‘This is really hard,’” said Lewis, a junior strategic communication major from Eden Prairie, Minnesota. “Maneater students have an advisor, who is awesome, but she doesn’t have editorial control over the staff as we make big decisions. It’s a hands-off philosophy — which I love. But then I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had a community of student journalists facing similar issues nationwide?’”
Such was the genesis of the College Media Innovation Coalition, a now growing network of 41 newsrooms in 25 states collaborating and trading recipes for success. Lewis conceived of the idea when she noticed challenges common among student-led media: limited staff hours, the trials of balancing full-time coursework and struggles to incorporate innovative technologies, to list a few.
“Student newsrooms are the perfect incubators for innovation,” Lewis said. “None of us have been doing this for 30 years, so we’re not stuck in any old ways. And often innovation revolves around new ways of reaching young audiences.”
Like so many great ideas, Lewis’s coalition concept seemed so obvious at first that she assumed it already existed. But after digging and coming up empty, Lewis knew she was onto something. She proposed her idea in an application for a prestigious Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) Fellowship. Although she wasn’t a fit for a fellowship, the impressed administrators offered her a student innovation staff position — which pays for her project.
Lewis rolled up her sleeves and reached out to campus newsrooms nationwide. Soon, eager contemporaries joined her Slack channel to share ideas and ask questions. Those yielded follow-up Zoom meetings and helped to focus her research on three topics: college newsroom staff turnover, funding inconsistencies and divesting in print. Lewis is also compiling a Student Journalism Innovation Playbook, to be launched in May of 2023.
Kat Duncan — RJI’s director of innovation, assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Lewis’s mentor — credits her student’s intrinsic motivation and entrepreneurial spirit for her early successes.
“Sydney is independent and driven, and she doesn’t let assumptions get in the way letting the research and community feedback guide what she is building.” said Duncan. “She’s also very passionate about student-led media and its potential to find creative ways of doing things.”
Paw print journalism
The College Media Innovation Coalition is only the latest project on Lewis’s rapidly expanding résumé. Last summer, she was an RJI Student Innovation Fellow at NOLA.com where she launched a pop-up newsletter promoting the regional news giant’s evergreen content. She also serves as the general manager for Mizzou Student Media, the umbrella organization that oversees The Maneater, KCOU, MUTV and a podcast network.
“I wouldn’t have had any of my journalism experiences without the Missouri Method. That’s it. That’s the thing,” Lewis said. “Without the professional newsrooms that students work in as juniors, we couldn’t have sophomores running other campus outlets — and I wouldn’t get to pitch something to RJI. I have an amazing support system, but ultimately, it’s my own hands-on project.
“That couldn’t happen anywhere else but Mizzou.”
Still a year from completing her bachelor’s degree, Lewis is already a highly sought prospect in her field. For the time being, she plans to build the coalition into a sustainable entity and eventually pass the leadership baton to another ambitious student.
“I would like to see college newsrooms be even more connected,” Lewis said. “One of the reasons this can work is, unlike professional newsrooms that are competing, we are all confined to our geographic areas and campuses. We have no reason not to share information and help each other solve our problems. So that ultimately, when one of our newsrooms gets better, all of student journalism gets better.”