On one of the first days of my sophomore year, classes were canceled due to Hurricane Ida. While many of my friends rejoiced at having some time off, I immediately ran into Center City with my camera to capture the effects of the flooding that had paralyzed the downtown area. As I wandered the neighborhoods, I thought back to my freshman year, when I was 6,867 miles away from Philadelphia, stranded at home in Beijing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As I watched the surging Schuylkill River from atop the I-676 bridge and Philadelphians treading water in the streets, I felt for the first time since joining the Daily Pennsylvanian that my work had shed light on something.
As my time at Penn went on, I used my camera to bring our bustling communities into sharper focus. I saw the anguish in students’ eyes when they marched down Locust Walk after Russia invaded Ukraine. I felt the tension in the air as I photographed Lia Thomas C22 making history at the NCAA women’s swimming and diving championship. I witnessed people’s wrath as I captured the massive crowd at City Hall after Roe v. Wade was overturned.
Then, last September, I came upon a treasure trove of vintage Penn campus photos dating back to 1899. Looking at what Penn once was in those grainy images, I thought: How cool would it be to layer these photos on top of what the buildings look like today and create an interactive experience? I quickly jumped to assembling and publishing the photo essay, without high expectations for how it would do on the website. It became the second most-read photo essay in the DP’s history, and I received emails from alumni who reminisced about their days at Penn and enjoyed seeing how much things have changed since then.
That was the first time I exposed myself to analytics at the DP, learning our readers’ interests and habits through data on the paper’s website. As a journalist at heart — I worked on the student newspaper at my high school — I think it can be easy to leave the business side to others and focus on writing or photography. But as a marketing major at Wharton, I could appreciate the financial and data-driven aspects of media. For me, it was hard to ignore the enormous pool of information that comes with the digital age and the opportunities it provides the DP. Our analytics department tells us page views over time, which acquisition channels are more effective, keywords that attract the most traffic, and more. These statistics provide me not just with insights that translate into content strategy, but also with a glimpse of our newspaper, not as a club, but as a student-run business. (It’s also fun when we can see readers clicking repeatedly on articles that are particularly flattering to them!)
The Penn community often thinks of the DP as a newspaper but might overlook that it’s a student-run business that’s completely independent of the University. Marketing staffers plan events and social media campaigns to promote our content; business consultants go out into the community and acquire businesses as advertising clients; our finance department assembles our fiscal-year budget and accounts for our properties. This 138-year old startup fully supports itself financially and opens a world of opportunities to students interested not just in journalism, but in all aspects of media business.
My path at Wharton gave me the vocabulary I needed to navigate that business side. In my media industry exploration course, I learned how newsrooms and media companies across the country are innovating and adapting to the challenges of social media and the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the past few years, the DP has become more data-driven, bolder in using our social media to engage new audiences, and more cognizant of the challenges that lie ahead for the newspaper industry. For me, there was also enormous potential to better integrate business and technology with journalism, to redefine ourselves at the DP not only as reporters and photographers but also as young professionals. I decided I wanted to be part of that integration and identity by helping the DP prepare for its 14th decade.
After being elected the DP’s new president toward the end of the fall semester, I walked into my first board of directors meeting in January with a focus on using the technology and information in our hands to better engage and interact with our communities. I am, of course, still a photographer and always will be. On the way to the office, I passed by College Green, where I photographed many protests; the Quad, where I captured President Magill welcoming the Class of 2026; and the towering red sculptures at 38th and Locust, where I filmed many videos. Hustling in the brisk January air, I was reminded that at the DP, at Penn, and beyond, we are never defined by one thing, and the arena for interdisciplinary discourses is limitless. As we weave those disciplines together with the tools of journalism and the digital age, a fabric of new stories appears.
Jesse Zhang W24 is from Shenzhen, China, concentrating in marketing and business economics and public policy. He loves family cooking, live music, and the great outdoors.
Published as “Through a Different Lens” in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of Wharton Magazine.