Earlier this month, thousands of high school students and their advisers were scheduled to travel to Nashville for an annual spring conference that draws attendees from around the country.

It’s a time when scholastic journalists get an opportunity to come together to share work from their schools, and get access to workshops taught by professional journalists and college advisers who are eager to help the next generation of storytellers.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed how the world lives and works, so organizers at the National Scholastic Press Association / Associated Collegiate Press decided to not only make the workshop digital but expand it by creating a series of national town halls, called Pacemaker Master Classes. The Pacemaker Award is the Pulitzer Prize of high school and college journalism, and Pacemaker winners — including Ball Bearings Magazine and the Ball State Daily News — are considered to be the best publications in the country.

The first week of the Master Classes welcomed nearly 400 students from across the country and featured three advisers, including Ball State’s Lisa Renze-Rhodes, the director of the Unified Media Lab and adviser to Ball Bearings Magazine, Byte Magazine, and the Ball State Daily News, which won its most recent Pacemaker in November.

The advisers shared story and source ideas for newspaper, magazine and broadcasting teams that are still working to produce daily or weekly content, but are doing it while quarantined inside their individual homes.

The goal of the Master Classes, said Laura Widmer, executive director of ACP/NSPA, is to “focus on good practices and showcase excellent examples of strong journalism.”

Week one of the classes looked at ideas for how to cover COVID-19 at a distance, and included tips and tricks for young journalists.

“My go-to tip is to tell storytellers to find a face,” Renze-Rhodes said. “That’s harder to do when you can’t actually sit down and have an in-person conversation with someone, but it’s certainly not impossible, as journalists like those at the Daily News prove every day.”

Screenshot from Pacemaker Master Classe

Screenshot from the first Pacemaker Master Classe featuring Ball State’s Unified Media Lab Director, Lisa Renze-Rhodes.

Other reporting tips included:

  • Know your audience. What are the questions your readers want and need to have answered? Brainstorm those with your staff, then set about trying to find answers that will provide real service to your audience.
  • Source stories via social media. Everyone is in the same situation of being unsure about what comes next. Reach out to people and then move those conversations to email or phone calls so you can capture that information into your piece.
  • Tell stories no one else is — own your beat. As students in a pandemic, you have a unique voice and experiences that others aren’t having. Use this unusual circumstance to your advantage by sharing what your peers are going through.
  • Vary your content — all COVID all the time will fatigue your audience, and your staff, so mix it up a bit. The Daily News team has introduced a fun feature that focuses on how to cook with limited ingredients and while still on a budget.
  • Vary your delivery. Use all of the channels and platforms your team(s) have available to make sure you’re reaching as much of your audience as possible, on the platforms those readers are utilizing. That means in addition to narrative pieces, you should provide videos, photo galleries (sourced from the story subjects when possible) graphics and other storytelling tools.

Free sites to create graphics/visual storytelling elements were also shared:

  • Canva
  • Carto
  • Datawrapper.de
  • Genial.ly
  • Klex
  • Pixlr
  • Timeline.knightlab.com

These tips are important, but there’s more at stake. “It’s about more than helpful tips and ideas,” Renze-Rhodes said. “It’s really about making sure these young journalists know they’re not alone, and they have resources and help available as they set about telling important stories in this critical time. They have a voice, and it’s a perspective that needs to be heard.”


A big shout out to our very own Ball State Daily News and Ball Bearing Magazine teams who just completed the last issue of the academic year while the crews were quarantined away from their newsroom. See their outstanding work here: Ball State Daily NewsBall Bearing Magazine.

Trio of Sports Link Alumni Join Virtual Class For #COVID19 Conversation