The problem of institutional memory at the Argosy
For the first few months I was the news editor at the Argosy, most of us on staff were under the impression the office scanner was broken. In reality, it worked fine but no one knew how to turn it on. I think it’s largely because of the turnover rate of graduating students who often occupy senior positions, but most student organizations have extremely short memories.
The Argosy is no different, and I think that because of the technical, specialized nature of news writing and reporting in general, student journalism has an even greater problem with retaining knowledge than most groups. Even things as straightforward as covering Mount Allison Students’ Union meetings become complicated when a new reporter has to learn the bylaws, the nature of the positions within the union, and some of the basics of reporting.
Some of the managerial problems which could be quite serious, such as turnover in the business manager and advertising manager positions, are somewhat mitigated by the fact that commerce students are partially prepared for the job by their coursework. In the absence of a journalism program at Mount Allison, we can’t say the same thing about any of the other positions.
A particularly important example is that the crisis environment brought on in the newsroom by a faculty or staff strike can be unfamiliar and pretty intimidating for new reporters. When I was the political beat reporter during the 2014 strike, I certainly felt overwhelmed by a lot of the details because I had never seen a labour action from so close before, and I still didn’t really understand how the university is governed. A specifically developed strike coverage manual would be especially useful, given that further labour action is extremely likely in the coming years.
The problem of institutional memory at the paper is actually quite a significant one, as it puts those organizations with strong continuity of membership – the town, the university administration, and faculty associations – at something of an advantage when student reporters are asking questions, because they know the history of a given issue much more thoroughly than a student journalist ever can.
Our biggest strategy right now is the practice of transition reports, in which departing staff members are required to type up what amounts to a job description in which they explain what they do and how they do it. It’s also important to get staff to review old Argosies. There are always story ideas and examples of strong reporting, as well as some cautionary tales. In fact, we should probably encourage new staff to focus in on the corrections and work backwards as they peruse old issues.
I’m recommending a somewhat gimmicky and definitely partial solution to these problems. I think the staff should use one of the final editions of this year to create a short film that acts as an introduction to the paper and its production process. It would both be useful to incoming staff members, but also demystify the work we do at the Argosy.