A song to read by: “Kingston” by Faye Webster
What I’m reading: “Team of Rivals,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Happy Friday, Lyte ones, and welcome to another edition of my bedroom’s single most valuable export: this newsletter. To paraphrase the esteemed University of Texas professor Matthew McConaughey, “That’s what I love about Medialyte, man: I don’t move, but it keeps reaching more people.”
Speaking of Professor McConaughey, today’s missive has a decidedly collegiate feel to it. As controversy rifles through the media world, a number of talking heads have blamed much of the nation’s intra-newsroom acrimony on a growing generational divide. Younger journalists, the argument goes, are likelier to interrogate concepts that have long been considered sacrosanct, such as the idea of “objectivity” and whom exactly it serves.
Rather than pull a “How do you do, fellow kids?” and try to address the issue myself, I had the privilege of speaking with Megan Menchaca, the soon-to-be managing editor of The Daily Texan, the student newspaper at The University of Texas.
In addition to her work with The Texan, Megan has also worked with such venerable Texas institutions as The Austin-American Statesman, The Austin Chronicle, The Texas Tribune and now The Dallas Morning News. If you can find a more impressive student journalist, I’m all ears.
In addition to addressing the differences in opinion between younger and older journalists, Megan also spoke to the challenges she anticipates facing as she and thousands of others return to university campuses this fall under radically different circumstances. The semester, Megan predicted, will likely be “the weirdest of [students’] lives, and maybe in the university’s history.”
You are interning on the audience team at The Dallas Morning News for the summer. What appealed to you about the position, and what will your responsibilities be?
I’ve lived in the Dallas suburbs my whole life, so I grew up reading the paper, from the comics section to the actual news. I always wanted to work at The Dallas Morning News. I’ve also had an affinity for social media and sharing the news on different platforms. Figuring out how to reach different audiences on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and beyond is something I’m really passionate about, so I do a lot of that.
I also manage the homepage and work on the evening and morning roundups, as well as their newsletter on the coronavirus. I’ve never worked in a newsroom this big before, and it was almost overwhelming to see how many people were contributing to the wider coverage of the Dallas area. But it’s been really incredible to get to work with so many journalists I respect and contribute to such great work.
You are currently an undergraduate at The University of Texas, so first of all congratulations on your great decision-making skills. But, the fall semester will look unlike any before it: Masks will be required in classrooms, thousands of classes will remain online-only and the semester will end after Thanksgiving. Did you consider taking the semester off? What was your thought process on the matter?
Once I got selected as the incoming managing editor of the Texan, not coming back was not really an option. I wouldn’t abandon the paper even if I wanted to. One decision that I did make pretty early on, though, was that The Daily Texan was going to have to have a more digital approach to our coverage, especially when it comes to reaching people remotely, because campus is going to be less active.
However, it’s hard to imagine what the semester is going to be like, because it’s never happened before. You can read press releases and news articles about what social distancing in a classroom is going to look like, or what 20% online classes are going to look like, but it’s going to be a major shift for every student there. It’s just pretty hard to picture that while we’re all sitting at home, miles away from the university.
You are also the managing editor at The Daily Texan. I imagine that the return to campus under the rain cloud of Covid is probably going to be the story of the semester. Have you already begun thinking about coverage angles?
I won’t lie: I’m constantly thinking about what role The Texan is going to play at the university next semester. It’s going to be more important than ever to make sure that we’re telling everyone’s stories on campus.
We want to make sure we’re providing complete coverage for the tens of thousands of students and staff who are going to have the weirdest semester of their lives, and maybe in the university’s history.
Is there any one narrative that you think will be the most intriguing to follow? How social distancing affects the educational experience, or how it upends the social component of university life, or how it renders large sporting events basically impossible?
It’s hard to plan out coverage because everything changes each week, but I think the student stories — of how they’re going to approach classes, socialize, and grapple with all of this change — are going to be the story of the university.
Already people are facing massive inequalities and working almost full-time to keep up with other students, and now we have this pandemic that has forced so many people to lose their jobs and worsen that inequality.
As a student and a journalist, is there any part of you that’s excited to live through this historic period? To be one of the shot-callers, in terms of how The Texan covers university life during this unprecedented time?
I don’t know if I would describe it as “excited,” especially after going through the past few months when people were kicked out of their dorms, fired from their jobs and lost access to campus resources, all while having to take on the additional responsibilities of caring for their families.
There may be some journalists who look forward to bad news because it can lead to good clips, but as students, we’re not excited about it because it affects us too. No one wanted in-person classes to be cancelled. No one wants things to look different. I’m honored to lead the coverage in this upcoming semester because it’s an important job, not because it’s exciting.
In recent weeks, issues of newsroom diversity have brought several prestigious publications to their knees. But as a student newspaper run by young people, who are generally more sensitive to issues of race and inclusion, what steps has The Texan taken to ensure it’s hiring a staff that represents the diversity of its readers?
About a year ago, The Texan established its first diversity and inclusion board, where it invited journalists of color to have a role in overseeing its coverage to ensure that it not only reflects the diversity of our campus population, but to ask if we are doing things right.
Are we being fair? Are we using outdated language? Are we covering all angles of the story and giving fair credence to truth, rather than “both sides-ing” things?
That board has played a lot of different roles and really evolved in the past few semesters. That was a big step for The Texan, but we have a long way to go. Like many newsrooms, The Texan has always been majority white. So we have to figure out how to reach campus communities who not only have not been served by The Texan recently, but who haven’t heard of The Texan or feel like it’s not welcome to them.
We’ll be working on a lot of those issues come the fall, as well as self-reflecting on the things we’ve done right that we should continue to do and the things that we can do better in the upcoming semester.
You actually touched on another one of those generational issues that I was curious to ask about, which is the concept of “objectivity.” Younger people, the argument goes, are less interested in “both sides-ism,” or in giving credence to ideas that they consider dangerous. What has your experience been with that issue, and how does that reflect the coverage that y’all are going to provide?
The Dallas Morning News reporter Cassandra Jaramillo was talking about this to the Dallas Morning News intern class about this, and then she tweeted this quote:
"If someone says it's raining, and another person says it's dry, your job is to look out the fucking window and find out which is true."
That is also my approach to journalism. It’s not judging what I believe is true, or what I’d like to think is true, but what is the actual truth? And how are we presenting that to the public? Of course, there are a lot of decisions that journalists have to make about how to share the facts: How do we frame this lede? Who do we quote first? Who do we quote second? Which parts do we highlight on social media?
But it’s making those decisions to fairly represent what’s happening. That’s what we strive to do at The Texan. We’re not perfect; we never will be. But that’s why we have people on staff who work to create an environment that allows people to speak out when they think something’s not right, and we welcome criticism from other students too.
Journalism seems to be rapidly iterating, to the point that what was considered canonical a year ago might be outdated now. How is that addressed in journalism school? What do your professors say about the state of the journalism industry and what you need in order to succeed?
I’ll admit: I’m majoring in the student newspaper. I spend a lot more time in the newsroom than I do in classes, which my professors might be hurt to learn. So, it’s been a couple of years since I’ve taken a journalism ethics class, but I think that journalism school definitely at least teaches students at UT about the failures of journalism in the past.
We’ve learned how journalists failed to investigate the administration’s claims during the Vietnam War, and how we failed during the Civil Rights movement in amplifying the voices of the protestors and assigning the correct news values to those stories. Not that I’ve seen this from professors, but anyone who hears that and thinks that journalism doesn’t need to be constantly evolving hasn’t been paying attention.
What’s one trend in media/journalism that you predict will gain in popularity this year?
One thing that I’ve been working on as a student is engagement journalism. I think that as journalists become more physically distanced from their audiences due to public health recommendations, we’re going to have to figure out how to engage with people digitally and build that relationship.
There are a lot of people who don’t have Twitter or Facebook, or who don’t turn on the nightly news. How do we reach those students? What are they doing to get their news, and how can we be a part of that conversation?
As we face a very different fall semester, and news organizations face wildly different circumstances, they’re going to have to figure out how to engage and listen more to their audiences now that they can’t necessarily walk into a coffee shop and talk to them.
What’s a project of yours that you were especially proud of?
It wasn’t all me, but I worked with one of my former college editors to launch a project that invited questions from the campus community to see what they wanted covered that we weren’t necessarily thinking about.
That project has evolved since it launched a year or two ago, and when the coronavirus hit, we relaunched it and got more than 100 responses. That was something that people at The Texan had never really done before.
I think answering the community’s questions is essentially what journalism is supposed to be. I’m proud of that project because it’s led The Texan in a direction that’s more focused on serving the people it’s supposed to.