NewsLab Provides Important Community Reporting Experiences for Students, While Helping Local Newsrooms in Crucial Times

Troy Pierson, '23

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced students and faculty at Kent State to learn and work remotely in spring of 2020, students in the School of Media and Journalism were at risk of losing internships. As a response to the developing situation, the School organized a project called the Collaborative NewsLab to provide students with real world work experience, while newsrooms, hit with unprecedented financial challenges, were resorting to layoffs and furloughs.  

Fast-forward a year-and-a-half, and the NewsLab continues to operate under the direction of newsroom adviser and Professor Susan Kirkman Zake. The operation, housed out of the Franklin Hall newsroom, assists newsrooms across Northeast Ohio through the work of Kent State journalism students. The results have been positive so far, she says.  

“It's a mutually beneficial arrangement,” Zake said. “They get help. But they also are helping us get students relevant professional experiences, and that's getting harder and harder to come by. One of the things we were looking at when we kind of created NewsLab, you know, out of the dust really, was that because of COVID, internship opportunities were just going away; job opportunities were, for that first year, really slim.” 

The NewsLab partners with various news outlets in Northeast Ohio, including WKSU, The Land, The Portager, Cleveland Documenters and Your Voice Ohio. The work is often picked up by other collaborative partners in Ohio — since NewsLab’s inception, more than 20 students have been published in more than 20 media outlets. 

Students working in field

The partnership began at a particularly beneficial time for The Portager, a virtual news outlet founded by journalism alumnus Ben Wolford, ‘11, that covers Portage County.  

When he launched the digital publication in March of 2020, there were virtually no financial resources to fund operations. The introduction of the NewsLab was an opportunity to get stories for student workers while simultaneously producing local content for Wolford’s newsroom.  

“To cover a county the size of Portage County with 160,000 residents in 18 cities and townships, there's just no way we were going to get to everything,” Wolford said. “When Sue Zake approached me about her idea to start a kind of news lab for students in the journalism program, it was pretty obvious that this is something we were going to want to get involved with.  

“I've known Sue since I was in school, so to work with her … I would have done it anyway. But this is genuinely useful for us. They were able to send student reporters to meetings that that simply would not have been covered, particularly like Election Day coverage.” 

Journalism major Owen MacMillan, ‘22, has been working for NewsLab since June 2021. He has worked on several assignments throughout Portage County for The Portager, and has attended numerous city council and school board meetings. MacMillan said this type of experience is broader than his previous work in Kent State Student Media. He said the NewsLab provides opportunities for students to venture into the local community to gain exposure to local coverage.  

“I think that students (should) be involved in their community as a whole,” MacMillan said, “rather than just stuck on campus in a bubble. And having the school be separate from the community it's in is not a bad thing. … I think it's always good to be as involved in that broader community as you can be.” 

Journalism alumna Paige Bennett, ‘20, graduated in the early days of the pandemic and was one of the first NewsLab interns. She covered issues for The Land, a local news startup that reports on Cleveland's neighborhoods and inner ring suburbs. Reporting at a neighborhood level allowed her to develop expert public policy reporting skills. In November 2020, she was hired as a full-time reporter at the Canton Repository. Her experience with NewsLab prepared her for that job. 

“Working for NewsLab provided me with valuable experience that allowed me to use the reporting skills I developed in my classes and Student Media,” Bennett said.

“I covered a variety of issues, ranging from housing development to local government. NewsLab helped significantly in my job search because I was able to show potential employers I had real-world reporting experience.” 

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 1, 2022 - 12:35pm