How this Paper Plane supports student journalism

Dexter McMillan created a platform to give students a paid experience.

Haneen Al-Hassoun  - January 21, 2021

Dexter McMillan has made a paper plane carrying original stories from journalism students across Canada, and is throwing it right into people’s inboxes every other Saturday morning. 

Paper Plane, a twice-monthly newsletter, was founded after McMillan realized he felt unprepared to enter the freelancing world after graduating from Carleton University’s master of journalism program last summer. 

The recent graduate wanted to create a platform where students felt more comfortable pitching their ideas. 

Within a few days of submitting a pitch, the student receives feedback on how to refine it — something McMillan said was lacking from his experience with freelancing. 

Paying students is also a vital part of McMillan’s vision. He said he was one of the privileged students in journalism school who was able to take on unpaid internships for work experience. 

“That influences the kind of journalists that end up working in the field,” he said. “My perspective is not the only perspective that needs to be out there.” 

He said paying the students $100 per article is not going to put them through an expensive journalism program, but he hopes it changes the conversation about the kind of opportunities students have. 

To be able to pay his freelancers, McMillan is asking subscribers to pay $8 per month, which he admits is slightly high for two articles.

How was he successful in getting 30 subscribers — so far — to pay that amount for student work? 

McMillan said it was branding Paper Plane’s subscription not only as a payment for the actual journalism work, but as a donation  “to make journalism a better field, a more equitable field.” 

The first wave of subscribers were largely former student journalists that understand the value of investing in this profession. 

So far, subscribers have received a personal essay about hockey being a coping mechanism during cancer treatment, a story about the pandemic clearing the runway for an electric plane startup and recently, Paper Plane introduced podcasts to the mix. 

For potential subscribers who might be hesitant to pay for student journalism, McMillan had another strategy: for a short period, he made previously published articles available to non-subscribers. 

“I think the best way to dispel any fear that student journalism isn’t good is to just have people read it,” McMillan said. 

For Jensen Edwards, a freelance journalist in Montreal, it was seeing the return on his investment that made him subscribe to Paper Plane. 

According to Edwards, when he subscribes to a mainstream news publication, he knows he’s contributing to something, but doesn’t necessarily know what it is. 

“I can see where those $8 are going,” Edwards said. “I can spend $8 a month on a variety of subscriptions, but I think I am essentially supporting one of my own communities.” 

The newsletter’s lack of niche theme was also a selling point for Edwards, who’s always excited to see what kind of article is sitting in his inbox. 

“I genuinely don’t know what’s coming and that’s what I love most.” 

For McMillan, the transparency and excitement of mystery are just the start. He wants to build a community. 

If there’s extra money from the reader subscriptions, he said he would go back to his subscribers for direction on how to spend it, whether it be an additional article that month or paying for graphics.  

“Building the audience for Paper Plane is also just building a community of people, or at least that’s what I want it to be like,” said McMillan. 

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Opportunities

Have a tip, pitch, question to ask, link to include, or opportunity you want to promote? Send it to me!

And one more thing… 

This story from the Columbia Journalism Review shows how reporters develop skill sets in one beat that transfer to another in surprising ways.

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