Making the most of milestones for college media

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The Pioneer turns 60; alumni reflect on changes

By Carolyn Schurr Levin and Maxime Devillaz
Long Island University

Sixty years doesn’t make The Pioneer the oldest college newspaper. Not even close.

The Dartmouth was founded in 1799, and The Miami Student in 1826. In 1871, The Bowdoin Orient debuted, and two years later, in 1873, The Harvard Crimson began publishing.

But the challenges, obstacles, and successes faced by The Pioneer, the student newspaper of the LIU Post campus of Long Island University, over 60 years are emblematic of enduring college newspapers, no matter their age.

The Pioneer debuted Sept. 21, 1956; experienced ups, downs of today’s college papers

The first edition of The Pioneer came out Sept. 21, 1956, as a four-page publication produced by four student editors.  By the second issue, however, the editorial board had more than doubled and close to two dozen staff members worked on the weekly publication.

Howard Schwach, The Pioneer’s managing editor in 1962, with one of the editions he helped produce.

“At that time, everything was new,” said Howard Schwach, The Pioneer’s managing editor in 1962, referring to the fact the university, like the student newspaper, was in its formative years. “There was plenty of opportunity, but no tradition.”

Edmund Miller, The Pioneer’s features editor in 1965, who is now a professor of English at LIU Post, recalled the difficulty of retaining editors in the paper’s early days. Some staff could not successfully manage Pioneer job responsibilities and classes, Miller said, adding, “Our first editor didn’t make grades, so he needed to be replaced.”

The Pioneer’s focus in the 1960s, according to Miller:  How to fit as many words as possible on a page.

“We often wrote too much, and had to cut down on words to make it fit,” Miller recalled. “I don’t think that these old newspapers are artistically admirable. But there’s certainly texture in them; we’ve got a lot to say.”  

Pioneer source of hyper-local news in 1960, evolved to include more opinion

Miller believes The Pioneer today has become more aesthetically pleasing, with color, photos and graphics, but also more subjective.

Student writers seem to want to be “experts” on topics as varied as sports, social tips, and politics, and to have a say on everything, Miller said—a contrast to a time when Pioneer staff members focused on reporting campus news.

Giving space to too much off-campus news has caused The Pioneer’s readership to fluctuate in recent years, according to Miller.

The Pioneer’s spring 2016 editions, for example, featured student opinion pieces on fashion, abortion, mental health and popular apps–all topics that students can find all they want about elsewhere in print and online. Because student writers want to write about these topics, the editors continually grapple with whether the Pioneer is the right forum for such coverage.

It was easier, Miller said, during his time on The Pioneer for the campus newspaper to be the source of hyper-local campus information that students wanted.

“The Pioneer was [in the ‘60s] regarded by undergraduate students generally as the voice of the campus. Many people, maybe I’m wrong, but certainly a large proportion of people picked it up.”

Fast-forward 25 years and former Pioneer Editor-in-Chief Raymond Jasen (’88), recalled a more cutting-edge approach to coverage that some might call sensationalistic that he adopted for The Pioneer—but which he thought necessary to boost readership. One of the front pages under Jasen’s editorship featured a completely black background and an image of a condom to accompany a story about new contraceptive machines on campus.

Schwach, now 77, who has been a professional journalist since 1970, seconds the idea that the sensationalism that is taking over today’s media landscape finds its way into student media.

“If it bleeds, it leads is still true today,” he said. “So you have to, not make up stories, but go with the more dramatic and sexy stuff.”

Technology Changes The Pioneer

Technology has changed The Pioneer drastically since its founding 60 years ago. Debbie De Louise (’89) worked on the Pioneer in the mid-1980s, as both the features editor and the newspaper’s first staff secretary, hired by then-editor-in-chief Adam Pardanek (‘83).

She was hired to type articles for other editors before the process was computerized. She recalls that she typed both her own stories and the stories of other writers. De Louise, who works now as a librarian at the Hicksville Public Library on Long Island and is also the author of two novels, said that The Pioneer started her on her path as a writer. “I got my experience from the Pioneer,” she said, her words echoed by many former Pioneer writers and editors.

Stories, of course, are no longer typed as De Louise did. Layout is no doubt faster and easier today with high speed Mac layout computers and InDesign and other software programs. Files are more easily shared, sent to the Pioneer’s outside printing company, and posted online. The Pioneer’s website, www.liupostpioneer.com, which relaunched in 2010, is an attractive alternative to the print paper, especially for alumni, parents and others who have no access to the print edition on campus.

But while some advisers push for social media usage and an online-first presence, the mindset of college readers, especially in smaller schools, remains rather print-centric, according to a 2012 Washington Times study that found college newspapers are more extensively read in print than online. The Pioneer’s own unscientific research in 2016 concurred with that result.

Although some former Pioneer editors argue for an online transition, there are significant unknowns about such a change. And, still, the question of whether enough students pick up the print paper at all has been ongoing for years. What do students want to read, what are they interested in on their campuses, and how far can student newspapers appeal to their audiences without diminishing their mission statements?

What’s next for The Pioneer?

Student activity fees cover the printing bills of The Pioneer, which operates as a student club, and advertising sales supplement the budget.

Allocation of student fees is an ongoing concern, as enrollments tighten, student activity fees shrink, and increasing numbers of student clubs vie for a portion of those fees.

The concern of The Pioneer’s current staff is that going solely online, where students have so many other, competing pulls for their attention, will make The Pioneer essentially invisible.The print edition, the staff said, has the strongest readership.

Former general manager of “The Daily Tar Heel,” Kevin Schwartz, sums up the sentiments of the 2016 Pioneer staff:  “To give up on print is to kiss your newspaper an eventual goodbye, unless a school is willing to provide 100-percent adequate funding to a digital-only model, and even then much would be lost.”

Relationship between The Pioneer and administration is complex

It’s not only funding concerns that The Pioneer grapples with today.

The relationship between The Pioneer and the university administration has, throughout The Pioneer’s history, been a complex one.

In recent years, increasing numbers of administrators and staff members, even tenured faculty, have declined to provide information or interviews, or respond to even the most basic questions. Employees in the admissions office, facilities department, public safety department, and campus performing arts center, among others, have said, off-the-record, that they could not speak with The Pioneer.

Inquiries are increasingly forwarded to the university’s public relations department, where answers are drafted and sent back to the person the reporter initially approached. Their names are then being stated in the story, even though it may not be their words.

“The biggest problems we faced,” said Dorianna Valerio, the Pioneer’s editor-in-chief from 2013-2014 who is now the chief news desk associate at CBS Radio News, “were getting sources to go on record. We were college students pursuing big news stories, but we were also journalists.”

As student journalists working in a newsroom that upholds true journalistic values, “not being able to get quotes or affirm the validity of a claim was often frustrating,” Valerio said.

According to Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, this practice, which has become more common at universities, undermines reporters’ abilities to submit stories by deadline as well as the paper’s mission of reporting with fairness and accuracy.

This was different in years past.

Schwach referred to the mid-‘60s as “very loosy-goosy,” when things were open and transparent.

“You could walk into the President’s office (and) his door was open,” Schwach said. “And if you wanted to get a quote from him, you didn’t have to go through anybody, just say to his secretary, ‘Linda, I’d like to talk to the admiral.’”

Even more recent LIU administrators have had an open door policy for Pioneer reporters. Danny Schrafel, The Pioneer’s editor-in-chief from 2005-2008, recalls having “a very nice, wide-ranging and comfortable chat” with David Steinberg, the university’s former president, “at least an hour, just he and I.”

Twice a year, Schrafel and another editorial board member would also meet with the university’s Provost and other high level administrators in “kind of an official catching up meeting,” Schrafel recalled. “We’d discuss the current state of the paper, they’d pitch stories, we’d have a window” to ask them questions.”

Pioneer alumni cite long-lasting friendships, excellent work experiences

Despite the challenges, The Pioneer has, for the last 60 years, provided student writers, photographers, copy editors, artists and others a comforting home on campus, creating bonds of friendship as well as contacts among the larger campus community.

“One of the best things about working on the paper were the bonds that began as working relationships and then developed into friendships outside of the newsroom,” Valerio said.

Schrafel, like other former Pioneer editors and staff members, concurred.

“The Pioneer pointed me in the direction of actually figuring out what I wanted to do. I started as a history education major, set to be a high school history teacher,” the current journalist said.

The “tipping point” for Schrafel was when The Pioneer broke the “Duckgate” story about a rubber ducky being taken hostage by resident assistants in the dormitories– a story that was picked up by professional news organizations.

“That was the moment that I was convinced that I was good enough to do this for a living,” Schrafel said. “The Pioneer gave me actual evidence that I could do it.”

For Olivia Wicik (’13), The Pioneer’s editor-in-chief from 2012-2013, working on the newspaper shaped the beginning of her career “in more ways than one.”

Being the editor-in-chief “was essentially running a small business,” she said. “It really taught me how to work effectively and efficiently. Looking back, I always feel an equal sense of accomplishment and wonder because I ran weekly staff meetings and managed day-to-day operations without really having any experience, except intuition and our newspaper adviser’s guidance.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the amount of time they devoted to The Pioneer during their college days, The Pioneer’s alumni are fiercely loyal. Many routinely check the newspaper website and social media pages to keep up with The Pioneer’s progress. Some shrug their shoulders or shake their heads at the paper’s current challenges, noting The Pioneer always faced one obstacle or another but found ways to rise above them for more than 60 years.

When asked what he sees the mission of The Pioneer will be in the future, Schwach takes a deep breath. Whether published in print or online, whether funded by student activity fees or some other source, journalism is extrinsic.

“Whether people like it or don’t like it, you’ve got to do the news,” he said. “Otherwise you’re not a newspaper anymore.”


Editor’s Note: CMR seeks articles about student-run media observing significant anniversaries.  For more information, please call Debra Chandler Landis, editor, 217-206-7717, or e-mail dland2@uis.edu.


Carolyn Levin

About the Authors: Carolyn Schurr Levin has been The Pioneer’s faculty adviser since 2010. Maxime Devillaz  was editor-in-chief of The Pioneer from 2014-2016. The Pioneer is the student newspaper of the LIU Post campus of Long Island University. It celebrated its 60th anniversary on campus on Sept. 21, 2016.

 

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