It’s early morning on campus. And while many students are hitting “snooze,” a cohort of determined (and yawning) future professionals are filling their travel mugs with hot coffee, dutifully logging onto their laptops or commuting to their offices for the day. For this subset of WVU students, their professional journey began the moment they joined one of the many on- or off-campus student media opportunities in everything from radio to print to broadcast news.
Trenton Straight, a native of St. Albans, W. Va., ’23 journalism, English, and 2022-23 editor-in-chief of the independent student-run newspaper The Daily Athenaeum, says the thing that gets him moving every morning is the sheer unpredictability of his role at the paper.
“I try to get up as early as possible. You kind of wake up not knowing what your day's going to look like,” he said. “I usually have a long list — about 50 things — I know I have to do. And then there's an additional 50 things that morning that kind of come onto my plate, a lot of back and forth communicating with people — editors, writers, other people in the student media building, the advertising side, calls from sources.” Some days, his morning starts long before the dawn. “Sometimes there’s breaking news at 2 a.m. that someone needs to cover. You have a full-fledged publication running all day, every day.”
Straight is typically in the office by 9 a.m., but even on a slow day, his phone is buzzing from the moment he wakes up. Between classes, he’s chasing down stories, working with budding writers to hone their craft, traveling to meetings and putting in long hours to keep this independent, award-winning student newspaper (affectionately known as the DA) a trusted source for breaking news, in-depth coverage and, perhaps most importantly, professional experience for future journalists across campus. “Part of the job is having to make the bigger decisions — should we publish this? Should we rewrite a headline? Should we double back and ask the source another question? It's collaborative, but there's a lot of pressure being the person in the room who has to make that final judgment call. And it's very fast paced, very busy. I don't know where else I would've been able to get all this experience.”
Straight’s daily grind isn’t unusual across campus, especially among the students called to a media profession. For them, the hard work is the reward. WVU students are leaving campus with job offers and killer clips in hand. Thanks to a unique blend of classroom and on-the-job learning opportunities, dedicated students have the chance to dip their toes into nearly every facet of current and cutting-edge media, from podcasts to DJing to sports radio; ESPN-affiliated sports reporting and an Emmy-winning TV news broadcast; and, of course, journalism.
Creativity and collaboration
For more than 40 years, U92 “The Moose,” WWVU-FM has been the pulsing heart of student-run media at WVU. Jakob Janoski, operations manager and master’s journalism student (graduated with his bachelor’s in journalism in 2022) didn’t intend to throw his hat into the world of radio. He wanted to be a manager on a basketball team. Josh Eilert, WVU Men’s Basketball assistant coach, steered him in a different direction, suggesting U92 instead. “He told me that there were no spots left, and that I should join the radio station as that would be more conducive to my career goals.
He could not have told me a better thing to do,” Janoski wrote in his farewell letter as operations manager in May 2023.
Over the course of eight semesters at the radio station, Janoski has been a member of the sports radio staff, a baseball producer, football producer and operations manager. At this entirely student-run station, each role has taught him something different in the most hands-on way, deepening his understanding of social media, photography, podcasting, music, broadcast journalism, recruiting, marketing, public relations, event planning — and, especially, finding his unique voice.
“It’s all experience employers are looking for if you want to get into broadcasting. I don’t think there’s any better way to do it,” said Janoski, who never strayed too far from his love of athletics, getting the chance to work directly with and cover WVU’s D1 sports teams. “This is the only time you’ll encounter division-1 college sports until you get deeper into your professional career.”
A big part of his job as operations manager is recruiting new talent to the radio. He says he tells potential recruits: “the experience is what you make of it and how you want to build it. You can really curate what you want for your professional career here.”
U92 also taught him something about overcoming adversity. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, The Moose nearly ground to a halt. From enjoying staff sports nights on Wednesdays and intramural basketball games with friends to total quarantine, Janoski’s world turned upside down. “Recruitment was essentially cut in half and our retention rate dropped more than that. We were not able to amply recruit as in-person activities were stifled. We had to move from U92’s home in The Mountainlair to the Daily Athenaeum Building so that we could do socially distant broadcasts, which ended up failing tremendously. When we had to broadcast remotely, it was a challenge with us residing in different parts of town and using different calibers of equipment,” he wrote.
The outcome of two years of pandemic struggle was a major culture shift that, he said, actually made them all stronger. From about 29 staff at their lowest to around 80 today, Janoski has slowly rebuilt the station from the ground up. “The news staff is breathing again,” he said. “This is the first time in I don't know how long that we've actually had a staff that's interested in creating something and working hard toward something. That's the thing I'm proudest of.” Janoski will be serving as the news director in the fall for his last semester at the station.
And they’re back to making waves, taking home a first-place award for “Best Audio Sports Show” and a second-place award for “Best Audio Sports Play-by-Play” at the 2022 CBI National Student Electronic Media Convention. Although they’re no longer in their beloved Mountainlair haunts, the new space alongside The Daily Athenaeum and Prospect and Price Creative is starting to feel more like home. These days, Janoski said, radio staff are mingling — even with DA students working at the newspaper — and ideas are flying. Friendships and networks are sparking. Creative collaboration, that essential and yet ephemeral medium, is once again flowing.
“I'm just really glad that people are happy to come in and talk again,” he said. “This is a place where we all come together, we all talk with each other and we all kind of mesh. I remember back at the old station, the news and sports staff would talk, but the DJs would be in their own room. Now the DJs talk with the sports people and the news people. We’re one big staff under one umbrella. At the end, it’s been a good thing.”
Career prep on steroids
Gina Martino Dahlia calls her office Grand Central Station. Pin her down for a few minutes to talk and you’ll see why. Students, faculty, staff — they all pass through to deliver updates, start conversations, share a laugh and even grab a snack from her stash from the moment she opens her door to the close of the day (an unpredictable, at-times chaotic, yet always creative span of surprisingly well-organized time). Even though her daily duties include being the assistant dean of Academic Affairs for the WVU Reed College of Media, managing director of the Media Innovation Center and a teaching professor, she still finds time to mentor any student who shows initiative. She and Ashton Marra,’17, integrated marketing communications, ’12, broadcast journalism, teaching assistant professor and an alum of the program herself, are co-executive producers. But it’s the students who really run the show. It’s their names and efforts on the line every time the camera rolls. And it’s been that way since the very first newscast aired 30 years ago.
Students like Makenna Leisifer, Tolu Olasoji and Lara Bonatesta are among the star performers this year and each already had several job offers on the table at the end of their senior year. These students are part of the intensely hardworking crew of WVU News, an Emmy-award-winning student-produced TV newscast that has swept up more than 150 awards over the past decade and churned out hundreds of successful grads for years. WVU News was designed as a capstone class for journalism students who want to enter broadcast television production, offering hands-on experience producing and reporting news for several outlets including a top 25 TV market-KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh, a statewide broadcast network-West Virginia Public Broadcasting (WVPB), HD Media, which is the publisher of seven statewide newspapers and the City of Morgantown’s Public Access Channel.
Leisifer, as the outgoing producer of WVU News, describes herself as a leader among her fellow students. “I’m the one that puts our show together. I’m the one that takes everybody’s packages and creates the big piece you see on our YouTube channel and media website for the college,” she said. In a nutshell, whenever the student news anchors and reporters step in front of the camera, she’s behind the scenes, a voice in their ear, encouraging, offering constructive feedback and keeping everyone on time. She and her co-producer Olsaoji are also writers, stacking stories into a narrative that flows on camera, checking pronunciation, creating teasers, intros and outros and helping reporters and anchors flesh out stories and improve their narratives. “If anything gets messed up, the credibility is on both of us,” Leisifer said. “So, we take our positions super, super seriously.”
Olasoji’s official title is associate producer, but he’s also the class videographer and technical director. He frequently field produces, working with reporters roving across the state and locally to gather stories. He even picks up the helm from Leisifer if she’s out of commission (like when she came down with COVID last year). He loves wearing different hats, despite the innate challenges of constantly switching roles. “I have to be tuned in, 101-percent,” he said. “As much as what's being said is vital, what you see on your screen is also vital. You can’t waste time. You have to pull in the right graphics and all of that.”
Bonatesta, culture editor at the Daily Athenaeum and the data/visualization reporter/anchor for WVU News, never planned on being in front of the camera, but it was a natural fit with her skills. “I just like to tell stories. And so that's why the reporting side of it is just so special to me,” she said. “This semester, what I do is very data heavy. I’m doing a lot of research for every story, going into these complex topics like insulin pricing. You can’t go out there not knowing what you’re talking about. You think that person is just there to smile at the camera, but there’s so much more that goes into it — the writing, researching, interviewing. It really has been awesome.”
The course was designed to be hands-off, mimicking the way a real broadcast newsroom would run. If a reporter needs help with anything, from directions to finding a statistic to securing an interview, it isn’t Dahlia or Marra the students come to; they turn to their student leaders. “Everything is done completely by students in the field and on show day,” Dahlia said.
And the students aren’t simply producing homework or fulfilling tasks, they have a real impact on the communities they report in. “We don’t limit ourselves to just campus,” Olasoji said. In fact, with an average class size of 15-to-20, they only assign one campus reporter to cover University topics. The rest of the cohort runs the gamut from health to crime to recreation to entertainment. They’ve reported on drug addiction and recovery; the campus carry bill; stem cell research; healthcare in the LGBTQ community; air and water contamination after the Ohio train derailment and more — just in 2023. “They are learning what they are going to be learning in the real world,” Dahlia said. “The biggest sign of success is that every one of these students have job offers on the table and they've not even graduated yet. What more could you want as a student?”
Alums of the WVU News program, as well as Mountaineer Playbook, earn positions in major TV markets across the state and the country every year. “Every news director in the state comes to us because our students know what they’re doing. They want our grads to start working for them. We currently have students not only working in local TV stations, but also at outlets such as Good Morning America, CNN, Radio Disney, ESPN and Scripps Howard, to name a few.”
There is perhaps no better measure of the success of an educational program, whether college-bound or completey independent, than the way alums talk about their experiences. Ken Ward, Jr.,’90, journalism, is just one example.
Ward is an investigative reporter, distinguished fellow in ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, former environmental and investigative reporter at The Charleston Gazette and Gazette-Mail, co-founder of Mountain State Spotlight (a statewide nonprofit civic news organization), winner of numerous awards — a MacArthur “genius grant,” the Scripps Howard Foundation’s Edward J. Meeman Award for Environmental Reporting (three times), the Livingston Award for Young Journalists (and many others). But he proudly says he got his start right here in Morgantown, reporting for the DA. Like many journalists, he stumbled into reporting and quickly felt the call.
“I was just walking around, getting a feel for campus. I was interested in finding out about the DA, and I stumbled past what was then the DA home. Everyone there — the editors, the reporters, sports writers — seemed to be really having a good time,” he said. “I connected with that, started doing some stories, found out, in fact, they were having a really good time. And I did, too.”
Some of Ward’s early stories, investigations into student fee increases at WVU and into connections between the construction of a Morgantown power plant and WVU donors, fueled his lifelong love affair with investigative journalism.
“There was a lot of feeling among people on campus and around the Morgantown community who were concerned, who felt that those concerns weren't being aired in the commercial media locally. So, we did it,” he said. “I think I revealed some things that students didn't know about, that the administration of the University would've preferred they not know about. I discovered that was very fulfilling and fun. And it seemed to be something I was good at — something that could help make the world better.”
Ward moved up from reporter to news editor to managing editor of the DA, which was the top role at the time, over the course of his college career. He also made connections between what he learned in class (such as when professors brought in local journalists to talk about their careers) and his very real job at the student newspaper. He learned “there are a lot of ways to commit acts of journalism, and different things drive different people. For me, journalism was a way to try to temper the power of those who would abuse their power to enrich themselves or harm others.” These experiences shaped how he felt about his future.
As for the future of journalism, Ward believes, while the technology is rapidly advancing (he recalls not even having access to a fax machine during his tenure at the DA), the call and the need for student-run media remains.
“For me, the purpose of student-run media, independent media, on university campuses is not just to help students learn how to do journalism, but to hold powerful institutions on campus accountable for what they're doing or not doing,” Ward adds.
Journalists and media professionals just stepping into the work force today are facing a future full of both challenge and opportunity. And student-run media at WVU, both independent and college-tied, is working to keep pace, churning out alums at the forefront of their fields. Grads like Duncan Slade, ’22, journalism, are poised for impactful careers thriving equally in the chaos of a newsroom and the uncharted territory of the digital sphere.
Slade’s experience in the world of journalism is multifaceted, as any media professional’s must be in the current era. He started in photojournalism in 2017, freelancing for local papers and studios in Frederick, Md. After transferring to WVU from his community college in 2019, he moved into the digital realm, producing video for social media as a WVU intern. He started at the DA in the same year, working first as a staff photographer, then photo editor and news writer, taking over as editor-in-chief in 2021. While at the helm, he helped to modernize the paper, more than doubling the publication’s readership through analytics, audience engagement and a digital-first newsroom restructuring.
On the side, Slade also worked as a reporter at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, an intern at Mountain State Spotlight and a reporter at Politifact. He said his proudest moment was seeing his byline on the front page of The Washington Post. Today, he’s deputy managing editor at Mountain State Spotlight.
“The thing I feel like you have to have most as a journalist is just a curiosity about the world,” Slade said. “Later in your career, you might drill down into a particular beat or particular thing. But you have to be interested in the world, you have to be interested in life, you have to be interested in people. Journalism is a tough industry. It can be really challenging. But it is a very rewarding industry. You get to meet a lot of different people.”
One of Slade’s most important roles right now, he believes, is helping to transform the face of journalism and media, how it responds to and reflects the needs of the audiences and communities whose voices often go unheard. Beyond even the technology chops, the digital reels and the investigative skills, that desire and ability to transform media from the ground up is what his college-age experience has really prepared him for (both at WVU and as an independent journalist).
“A big part of our mission is getting outside those big cities and talking with a lot of different people in the state and asking them, ‘What news do you need and what type of stories can we tell that would be helpful to you?’ I think that's something journalists in the last 10-to-15 years have been doing more of, just getting out and talking to people. Because to be frank, the research numbers for trust in the media are not very high,” he said. “But when people talk to a journalist who comes to their town without a specific story in mind, not just when something terrible happens, I think that can go a long way toward rebuilding that trust.”