Newsrooms at liberal arts schools tend to reflect the diverse backgrounds of the students
By Lisa Lyon Payne
Virginia Wesleyan College
A recent study of the current state of the college newspapers among liberal arts schools in the Southeast found that fewer than 40 percent of the editors at the Phi Beta Kappa institutions surveyed have a journalism program at their institution. Those students who contribute to their student newspapers come from a range of majors, including biology, philosophy, English, economics, American studies and international affairs.
It’s not uncommon for liberal arts institutions that do offer journalism majors to either require or strongly encourage students to double major.
Miami University, a liberal arts school with about 15,000 students, changed its requirements about 10 years ago, requiring journalism majors to double major.
“We want our students to know a lot about everything,” says Sacha DeVroomen Bellman, editorial advisor to The Miami Student at Miami University, adding that this breadth of knowledge is reflected in the publication the students produce.
Liberal arts students are typically involved in many other activities outside the newsroom, thus broadening the range of experiences from which the students draw. Bellman’s editor from last year, for example, was active in Glee Club, and felt the student newspaper was not providing adequate coverage of the arts. He started an arts section that still exists today.
Melinda Rhodes, assistant professor of journalism at Ohio Wesleyan University, said OWU offers a journalism major, but students are strongly encouraged to double major. And the student newspaper reflects this philosophy.
“It’s broad, it’s deep and it’s content heavy. We want the students to understand the systems in which they operate, to be familiar with philosophical and fine arts concepts, to understand methodologies in the social sciences and the sciences, to be able to learn new material and acquire news skills whenever that might be necessary and to be committed to the concepts of citizenship and service. People should have exposure to other languages and frameworks for understanding collective history,” Rhodes, said.
A recent issue of OWU’s newspaper, The Transcript, included in-depth features of alternative farming and the controversial issue of psychotherapy on homosexual youth in addition to courts, cops and other more mainstream news topics.
The study of newspaper editors at the liberal arts schools found that the newsroom makeup also reflected the diverse disciplinary backgrounds of the students. Of 16 editors, only one said their newspaper’s staff was comprised only of journalism majors. Five said their institution did not have a journalism major. Ten editors said they draw from a broad range of student majors for their newspaper staffs.
William Ruehlmann, professor emeritus of journalism at Virginia Wesleyan College, said this is an ideal environment for a functioning student press.
“The liberal arts school provides a particularly rich background for a dynamic collegiate press, since the variety of student backgrounds and range of instruction there is effectively collected in a dynamic microcosm of the world beyond. A newsroom comprises the eyes, ears and voice of that vibrant academic community. It offers important witness and commentary that effectively prepares students to perform as alert, active, critical citizens after graduation,” Ruehlmann said.
But while multiple frameworks and student perspectives may provide for unique student newspaper content, the downside is that students may spend less time honing industry skills and trends, including technology. Of newspaper editors surveyed at liberal arts schools, more than one-third said their newspapers lacked online editions. Of the newspapers with online editions, the survey found that more than half do not update content on a daily basis.
While journalism pundits have speculated that daily print newspapers may cease to exist altogether within a decade, paper format for the college newspaper is still dominant. Some possible reasons for this phenomenon are the direct relevance of a college newspaper, the free price tag, and the notion that a college campus is one of the few remaining place with high pedestrian traffic and large amounts of leisure time.
Another reason college newspapers may be cleaving to the traditional print form of the student newspaper can be attributed to the difficulty student newspapers have experienced in developing a strong advertising base for the online versions of their publications; with the broader readership of the online newspaper comes the difficulty in convincing advertisers to invest in the medium.
Or, it may be a reflection of the deliberate curricular emphasis of liberal arts schools, which fundamentally resist increasingly specialized disciplines, including a focus on technology.
Rhodes said a liberal arts background should “provide the knowledge base for critical thinkers to enter an industry so often enamored of technology that the calling of journalism is lost.”
Rachel Satterwhite, a graduate of Virginia Wesleyan College, said her double major and her experience as editor-in-chief of the Marlin Chronicle gave her an advantage in her current position as a social media and SEO analyst for Advanced Protection Technologies. It’s important, she said, for liberal arts programs to include ample instruction in technology in order to help prepare students for employment after graduation.
“My liberal arts education did teach me to ask questions, think more broadly, and work to solve problems. In a way, it taught me to be independent and work to get the desired results. In my job, I often have to figure out new situations on my own, so I think it has helped me with that. It also taught me that it’s okay to ask questions in order to learn,” Satterwhite said.
However, Satterwhite also stressed, “Colleges and professors need to combine what they are doing now and the technology counterparts of the field. Employers are expecting fresh-out-of-college students to be tech savvy. So many people talk about the death of the newspaper and how journalism is dying. I don’t agree. It is not a dying field, it’s simply evolved with technology and is now online, in social formats, on mobile and on tablets.”
Lisa Lyon Payne is an assistant professor of communication at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Virginia. She is also the faculty adviser of the VWC student newspaper, The Marlin Chronicle. Lyon Payne obtained her doctorate from the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication in 1999. She has a master’s degree in communication from the University of Tennessee and a bachelor’s degree from The College of William and Mary. She has also taught as an assistant professor of communication at Kennesaw State University in Georgia and has published works on crisis communication, reputation management and public relations theory development. In addition to her academic experiences, Lyon Payne has worked as a public relations consultant, research analyst, editorial assistant and writer. Outside of her academic endeavors, she enjoys tennis, the beach and time with her husband and two sons.