College media enjoy, endure numerous revolutions, large and small
By Daniel Reimold
University of Tampa
The year began with a bombshell. On the first day of school last August, The Red & Black, one of the largest and most-feted college newspapers in the country, announced it was switching from a daily to a weekly print edition.
The University of Georgia student paper simultaneously rolled out a digital-first workflow and publishing philosophy that made redandblack.com the “main arm for delivering the news of UGA to the masses.” In an announcement message on a popular college media advisers’ list-serv, Red & Black editorial adviser Ed Morales dubbed the whole shebang Red & Black 2.0.
As staffers explained to readers on the front page of a special wraparound section, “Forget everything you’ve ever thought about newspapers, because we’re redefining how it works. Think a breaking news operation, run by the generation which grew up with computers, cell phones, and iPods.” Or as they told readers more simply online: “Welcome to a media revolution.”
The words proved prescient for 2011-2012. Over the past academic year, college media enjoyed and endured numerous revolutions, large and small, satirical and censorious, economic and interactive.
This is a glimpse at a few especially memorable and impacting highlights and lowlights, including those involving a streaking, a shooting, a sexual abuse scandal, hazing, and some bed bugs.
A Kernel of Censorship
In late August 2011, University of Kentucky athletics officials, angry over a story published in The Kentucky Kernel, temporarily barred the campus newspaper from one-on-one interviews with the school’s basketball team.
Officials specifically singled out Kernel sports writer Aaron Smith for his reporting on a seemingly innocuous article about a pair of walk-ons named to the Wildcats hoops squad. As part of his legwork, Smith called the players, using phone numbers listed under their names in the university directory.
That contact violated an unofficial school rule that limits journalists from speaking to student-athletes without the coordination of university media relations. The rule is apparently in place to ensure athletes are not “bombarded with interview requests constantly.”
For failing to follow this preferred method of communication, Kernel staffers were shut out of a preseason media event highlighted by brief private interviews with players. The saga spurred a national media blitzkrieg, including condemnations from major journalism figures and organizations who felt the rule and punishment were overreaching. It also prompted a spirited protest on Twitter, with related tweets employing the hashtag #FreeKernel. The most talked-about and retweeted comment came from Sports Illustrated senior writer Andy Staples. His words: “Until Kentucky agrees to #FreeKernel, I think I’ll revoke SI coverage of their mediocre football team.”
The Front-Page Streaker
Along with the Kernel, controversy ensnared The East Carolinian. In January, East Carolina University officials fired Paul Isom, the school’s student media director, without warning or much explanation. The sudden termination prompted speculation among the media and free speech advocacy organizations that it was in retaliation for controversial photos published by ECU’s student newspaper.
Last November, the East Carolinian published a series of front-page pictures of a streaker racing across the field at halftime of a university football game. At least one of the shots featured easily-discernible full-frontal nudity. At the time, editor-in-chief Caitlin Hale explained that editors “felt that our audience, which is primarily the ECU student body, should have access to unedited and factual photos of the streaking incident [something many on campus were apparently talking about].”
The images rocketed the paper into the spotlight, on ECU’s campus and online. At least 600 copies of the issue carrying the photos were stolen or trashed. Detractors felt the images were overly sensationalist and too graphic for a mainstream news outlet, student or professional. As an ECU senior journalism student told a local television news station, “I understand . . . you want to do big stories and you want to make things that are controversial and I guess make a name for yourself, I suppose, but they didn’t do it the right way.”
School officials also publicly expressed their displeasure in November, promising follow-up conversations with student staff about balancing press freedom with responsible editorial decision-making. Yet, as 2012 dawned, they traded words for action, targeting Isom as a scapegoat– even though he did not exert prior review of East Carolinian content.
The Virginia Tech Shooting
In early December, a midday shooting and campus lockdown at Virginia Tech University brought back memories of the horrific 2007 shootings that killed 33 people. During that episode, The Collegiate Times, VT’s student newspaper, provided tireless, innovative coverage unmatched by the outside media hordes that descended upon Blacksburg, Va.
Nearly five years later, on a late-semester Thursday, the CT again stepped up. As rumors and reports circulated about a fatal shooting and a gunman on the loose, staff turned to Twitter to tell the world what they were seeing and hearing and the trusted information they were receiving. They also interacted in real-time with students and other observers.
The CT’s Twitter followers skyrocketed– from 2,000 to 20,000 in a single afternoon. Additionally, as The New York Times confirmed, “[J]ournalists from ABC, NPR, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and other outlets pointed readers to the Collegiate Times’ account on Twitter, helping the college newspaper gain attention.”
As the paper’s top story in a much-lauded special print edition published the day after the incident shared, “Yet again, Tech is shaken. Two lives are lost. And although life will go on for Tech students all too soon, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the heartache this campus has endured. It is worth taking a moment to think about how we move forward.”
Resignations & Rewards
Looking back, some student journalists and outlets might be wishing for a do-over in 2012.
In late March, the editor-in-chief of The Daily Iowan quit soon after a front-page debacle in which mugshot photos of criminal methamphetamine users and dealers were aligned with a story on hospitalized meth burn victims.
In early April, the editor-in-chief of The Daily Free Press at Boston University was forced to resign following the publication of a callous, poorly-received April Fools’ issue featuring drug use, sexual assault and Disney characters.
And soon after, both the editor-in-chief and managing editor of The Maneater at the University of Missouri resigned after publication of a similarly controversial April Fools’ issue named The Carpeteater that contained content deemed by some readers as offensive to women and the LGBTQ community.
Yet, amid the resignations, this past year did feature numerous feats of rewarding student journalism.
For example, The Daily Collegian at Penn State University distinguished itself throughout the fall, spring, and first part of summer for its coverage of the complex, feral, real-time beast of a news story that is the Sandusky scandal. Online, in print, in the newsroom, and in the field, staffers at the 125-year-old student newspaper exuded “old-fashioned hustle” and presented accurate, comprehensive, oft-innovative stories, features and special editions.
Separately, in January, Daily Kent Stater staffer Doug Brown earned plaudits for uncovering the past legal troubles of an alumnus preparing to donate $1 million to Kent State University and certain school officials’ knowledge of the troubles even while willingly accepting his high-profile gift.
Later that month, a column in The Dartmouth by a Dartmouth University student outlining the many degrading acts he endured while pledging a fraternity in 2010 earned national attention and even a spin-off story in Rolling Stone for its extremely candid glimpse at hazing.
At around the same time, a rash of stories and editorials in The Daily Nebraskan brought greater attention and action to a bed bug outbreak at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln that some administrators apparently at first tried to cover up.
Meanwhile, in March, The Oklahoma Daily led the charge to bring gender-neutral student housing to the University of Oklahoma. On the front page of a regular Wednesday issue, the paper inserted a special editorial calling for the housing policy’s approval. As editor-in-chief Chris Lusk explained at the time in a separate letter from the editor, “While a newspaper must inform, there are times when a newspaper must speak up for what’s right. After much discussion, debate and deep thought, the Daily editorial board decided today was one of those times.”
A “Financial Pinch”
By comparison, times are tough at a growing number of student newspapers. The Daily Illini, The Daily Californian, The Daily Texan and The Daily Campus at the University of Connecticut were among the higher-profile outlets to confirm difficult or dire struggles with their bottom lines during the past two semesters.
Many other papers are feeling their pain. In late spring, USA TODAY called the student media economic downturn a “financial pinch.” To some outlets, it’s been more like a hard slap or a second-degree burn.
Some publications have cut the number of days they publish each week. Others have reduced the number of pages they print or their page sizes. Many are pulling back on staff pay and perks like conference travel. A few have appealed directly to students and alums for funding help through letters and front-page editorials. Still others have aligned with Press+ to request donations from everyone who visits the papers’ websites. A few papers have even gone dark entirely, mostly at smaller schools or community colleges in which related journalism programs have also been shuttered due to state funding cuts.
Students are still reading their campus newspapers in print, by all accounts at a reliable, surprisingly high rate. But advertising is tougher to come by. Related school budgets in some cases are tightening or disappearing entirely. Student governments are getting occasionally restless as they look at papers’ financials. And the seemingly inevitable shift toward dramatic reinvention looms large in many editors’ and advisers’ minds.
“A New Era, the Digital One”
Cue The Oregon Daily Emerald. In a special site that went live in late May, the University of Oregon’s student newspaper announced big changes beneath a bold, one-word header: Revolution. And the tagline just beneath it: “The Oregon Daily Emerald, reinvented for the digital age.”
The paper– best known for its five-day-a-week print edition– is morphing into a more wide-ranging, digital-first “modern college media company.” Among the planned new initiatives that will be rolled out in full force come fall: a print issue that will appear twice per week, with new size, design, and content specs; the creation of an in-house tech startup and a separate marketing and event services team; and a ramp-up in “real-time news, community engagement, photo galleries, and videos on the web and social media.”
In a PBS MediaShift post, publisher Ryan Frank expressed a sentiment accurately describing a larger college media shift, “We’re about to close the book on the Oregon Daily Emerald. After 92 years, the University of Oregon’s newspaper will end its run as a Monday-to-Friday operation in June. Yes, it’s the end of an era, and we’re sad about that. But it’s also the start of a new era, the digital one.”
Daniel Reimold, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa, where he advises The Minaret student newspaper. He maintains the student journalism industry blog College Media Matters. His book Journalism of Ideas: Brainstorming, Developing, and Selling Stories in the Digital Age is being published in March 2013 by Routledge.