When Taylor Blatchford started The Lead, a newsletter about student journalism, she expected only a few friends and acquaintances to sign up. Now, three years after its launch, it has thousands of subscribers, making it a go-to resource for student journalists across the country. It offers advice and skills development for young journalists, covers the conversations happening on campuses about the industry and highlights the innovative work budding journalists are doing.
She created The Lead because she was surprised by how little support and information young journalists were getting. Recent newsletters include:
- “Student journalists ask: Is objectivity becoming obsolete?”
- “From BFF to boss: How to manage your friends when you’re also their editor”
- “How student newsrooms are using TikTok to entertain and engage audiences”
- “Journalism curricula lack audience engagement. Here’s how to make up for it”
- “Personal finance tips: Navigating your first job offer, budgeting and more.”
“I wanted to create a resource for students at any kind of school where they could learn from the work that other students were doing and have the resources to address the challenges they were facing,” said Blatchford, also an engagement editor at The Seattle Times and a master’s student in journalism education at Kent State University.
Blatchford spoke to NBCU Academy about how she started The Lead and grew her audience and how student journalists are changing the industry. She also discussed her views on the future of newsletters as a journalistic medium. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Why did you start The Lead?
After I graduated from the University of Missouri, I had a summer fellowship at the Poynter Institute, where I reported on student journalism. It really helped me see that a lot of the things I had dealt with as a student journalist, and that my peers had dealt with, were a lot more universal at student publications around the country and even outside the U.S. than I realized.
I also realized that there weren’t as many resources for student journalists as you might expect. I went to a pretty large journalism school that had a lot of student organizations and professors with connections, but that’s not the case everywhere, whether it’s a small liberal arts school with a smaller journalism department, or a school that has a student newspaper but doesn’t have a journalism major, where students are then kind of learning on the job. I wanted to create a resource for students at any kind of school where they could learn from the work that other students were doing and have the resources to address the challenges they were facing.
What are some of those challenges?
In the last year and a half, of course, one of the biggest things we’ve seen is how the pandemic has affected student journalism, including distribution methods for student journalists to get their news out to their audiences. A lot of them are still print-focused. The thing about a student publication is that your audience tends to be in the same geographic place, so you can put a newspaper out on campus and distribute it. But suddenly when students weren’t on campus, and schools went to different methods of learning, there wasn’t as much of a purpose to those print publications anymore.
That’s something I think people are still figuring out — what’s the purpose of these student print papers now that people are back on campuses. Have they learned things from the pandemic that can apply moving forward, like using print for bigger, special issues, but maybe they’ve streamlined some of their digital and online distribution and can take those lessons from the pandemic to make things a little more online-first.
Outside of Covid, what are some of the other challenges for student journalists?
Something I try to never take for granted is how much student journalists are doing at once. They’re students, they’re working on their publications often for little or no pay, they might be working part-time jobs, they might be involved in other campus organizations. That balance has always been a challenge for student journalists. Student publications hold themselves to really high standards, but students can’t work on those publications full time. It comes at the expense of classwork or sleep, so time management and balance are definitely universal issues.
It’s also hard for students who are graduating to know how to find their place in this industry because there’s so much uncertainty. There have been so many layoffs, unfortunately, in the last decade, and it can seem intimidating to try to find a job in journalism out of college.
How have you grown your newsletter audience?
It grew a lot through word of mouth for the first year. I started in the fall of 2018, and thought that some people I knew from college would subscribe, or some people who are involved in student journalism that I had met at conferences. And it got a lot more response than I expected. That was really encouraging and made me feel like it was a resource that was needed.
From there I reached out to a lot of student newspapers and journalism schools in the first six months saying, “Hey, this is this new resource, would you be willing to share it with your staff or your students who you’re advising?” And when I featured student journalists — I’d say “Hey, look at this cool thing that this school is doing” — a bunch of those students would usually subscribe. People from their newspaper staff would share it and people love to share things that are about themselves. There would usually be a little uptick anytime I featured a certain school.
Once it reached a certain point and it had been going for six months or a year, people just started being more aware of it and recommending it more. I got an Online News Association fellowship in 2019 to get some support for the project, and that definitely helped bring some more awareness. When I partnered with Poynter in 2020, that helped broaden the audience as well.
How are student journalists changing the industry?
One thing I’ve been looking at in the past few weeks — and I’m doing [a] little series on this — is how student journalists are approaching ethics, and in particular, ideas of objectivity. I think we’ve realized in the last year that standards of objectivity have limited journalists from feeling like they can be their whole selves while still being a reporter. I think student journalists are really ahead of the curve in recognizing the ways we can do good, solid journalism and also be supportive of our staff and focus on diversifying our staff — and not just saying that, but actually putting in place strategies to make that happen. That’s something I’ve been really impressed by.
You started The Lead before the Substack boom — what do you think of newsletters as a journalistic medium?
Newsletters are inherently personal, and that’s a big advantage. Whatever you write is guaranteed to go straight to the recipient’s inbox, unlike social media posts that are at the whims of platforms’ algorithms. One downside, of course, is that it’s easy for less frequent newsletters to be swallowed up in individuals’ inboxes by the massive amounts of marketing emails we all seem to get nowadays.
Substack is just the latest platform for this form of publishing that’s existed in journalism for a while (see: Ann Friedman, who’s been running a personal newsletter since 2013). The way some journalists are using Substack — writing more personal reflections, sharing pieces of their daily lives — reminds me of reading blogs, back when everyone had a blog. I’m interested to see how the future of newsletters evolves and whether individual journalists are able to make a sustainable income through paid subscriptions.