The Rotunda is the student newspaper at Longwood University located in Farmville, Va. The paper, which has published for more than 115 years, recently joined the Virginia Press Association as a member. In this interview, general manager Halle Parker talks about the history of the paper, incorporating multi-media storytelling, the challenges of being a college publication and more. Questions by William Lineberry.
Tell me a little bit about The Rotunda’s history. When did it begin publishing and how has it changed throughout the years? Who makes up the staff of the paper? Is it independent from Longwood or under the university?
The Rotunda was founded in 1920 as broadsheet weekly newspaper. Over time, it’s continued to be published weekly but it has gone through different iterations, switching between tabloid and broadsheet style on different materials. Our online presence was established in 2008 on our current website. We have grown to a staff of 38 between 11 sections, including our multimedia branch called Rotunda Studios. Our sections are: Photo, Copy, News, Features, Sports, Opinions, A&E, Business, Social Media, Rotunda Studios, and Event Planning. We allow all years to join the newspaper, so we have everyone from freshmen to seniors. The newspaper receives the majority of its funding from Longwood’s Student Government Association with student activity fees, not tuition. We are a university-recognized student organization, we’re not funded solely on our own advertising revenue.
How and when did the idea for Rotunda Studios come about? It seems like a unique feature for a college newspaper to have its own specific multimedia arm. How do you think having this arm has helped the newspaper overall?
Rotunda Studios started out as a sporadic news show called The Rotunda Show, and that started around 2012, 2013. It was trying to mock and show up a promotional show the university had begun called The Longwood Show. Since its start, Rotunda Studios has gone through different iterations depending on its leadership.This year has been a breakout time for it where it’s been producing a lot of short, social media friendly feature and news clips to appeal to our audience and a relatively weekly short news broadcast (5-7 mins) in the media department’s broadcast studio. I think it’s really helped our organization engage with the community better and draw more traffic to our Facebook, twitter, and website. We really push everyone to try to innovate the manner in which they tell stories because times are changing so I think having Rotunda Studios associated with our news organization has helped everyone to view us less as the printed issue and more so as a multi-platform news source.
Tell me a little about the challenges you face as 1.) a weekly publication and 2.) as a college newspaper with an ever-changing staff of reporters and editors?
As a weekly publication, at times it’s difficult to try cover news in a timely manner for print. We’ve worked to have two deadline days during the week to make our online content more timely, but printing once a week isn’t affected aside from potentially increasing the variety of content. Being weekly does have its benefits by lessening the time commitment for our student staff writers by only requiring them to write one article per week. The eternal dilemma college newspapers face is ensuring that the strides made under each editorial board doesn’t regress upon graduation. I think it requires newspapers to train their successors more intensely in order to make sure the organization continues to progress and build on work of the staff before it. It’s also a little difficult to try to maintain a strong sense of community and togetherness at times because there is so much change, and while people are learning to report, they’re also trying to learn about each other.
What is one of the biggest stories The Rotunda has broke that you, as editor, are the most proud of?
I would say I am most proud of our coverage when our university hosted the 2016 vice presidential debate. We examined the costs involved, questioned if the media value was truly worth the dysfunction it caused and paid close attention to security preparations as well as worked to inform our students on the stances of each of the candidates. We put out special editions recapping the debate and then following the 2016 presidential election. I think that event really showed who on our staff truly cared and wanted to serve the community to its fullest.
Why did The Rotunda decide to join the VPA?
The Rotunda joined the VPA because we wanted to try to make use of some of the association’s educational resources and feedback through contests. We already belonged to the Associated Collegiate press and we wanted to join our state press organization, especially after talking with student reporters from JMU’s The Breeze.
What is on the horizon for the Rotunda? Any special projects, redesigns, etc. the paper is currently working on?
The future of The Rotunda largely corresponds with the future of journalism itself. We’re working on expanding how we use our social media, moving from simply content curation to content generation. We are planning to continue growing Rotunda Studios and have launched a (semi)weekly news podcast summarizing the top stories on campus and in the community. We’re growing – we value newspapers and view them as a symbol for all that is pure in journalism, but we also don’t want to be limited to telling a story in print. We’re really trying to brand ourselves as a multi-platform news source, trying to engage in a variety of storytelling styles. We’re launching a new Instagram account next semester and setting new expectations for our social media staff on Twitter. We’re also working toward developing at least two long-form projects for a few people on the staff to work on, including looking into the socioeconomic diversity at Longwood and the amount of funding Longwood puts toward the availability of financial aid for low-income students.