A  Journey in College Student Media

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 Challenges, Opportunities and Implications for the Future

By Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver
Florida International University

Ever since the publication in 1799 of the first college newspaper, the Dartmouth Gazette, and the founding of the oldest college daily in 1878, the Daily News of Yale University, college student media have attempted to mirror their professional counterparts.

Image courtesy of NS Newsflash
Image courtesy of NS Newsflash

With the First Amendment as a cornerstone, student media throughout history have challenged authority, reported the truth about their campus communities, ensured an accurate portrayal of facts, and sought to provide the public with information they need.

And—importantly—they have served as the foundation for the journalists of the future to train, practice and perfect their craft.

A Legal Foundation

A strong defense of and reliance upon the First Amendment date back to 1878, with the debut of the Yale Daily News, which claims the designation of the oldest independent daily college newspaper in the U.S. The ability to produce accurate, fair and responsible journalism, absent the pressure or threat of outside control or influence, has been a concern from the earliest days of the student press. Thus, when the Yale paper commenced publication, editors declared it independent to ensure their constitutional rights and the rights of student journalists to report the news free from outside pressure.

Yet, today—with college media more than two centuries old—student journalists still face challenges to that press freedom.

The landmark Supreme Court Tinker case in 1969 strongly reaffirmed that First Amendment rights to freedom of expression belonged to both student journalists and their advisers. Justice Fortas, in delivering the opinion of the Court, wrote: “First Amendment rights…are available to teachers and students. It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

However, 2013 marked the 25th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier which severely narrowed both student journalists’ rights to freedom of expression and the Tinker standard. It determined that student expression can be censored when there is a “legitimate pedagogical concern.” Earlier this year the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication expressed its concern over the trending of the Hazelwood case, noting that “the primary concern of the Supreme Court in Hazelwood was to permit schools to restrict editorial content ‘unsuitable for immature audiences,’ a concern inapplicable at the postsecondary level.”

The AEJMC board of directors declared that “no legitimate pedagogical purpose is served by the censorship of student journalism even if it reflects unflatteringly on school policies and programs, candidly discusses sensitive social and political issues, or voices opinions challenging to majority views on matters of public concern. The censorship of such speech is detrimental to effective learning and teaching, and it cannot be justified by reference to ‘pedagogical concerns’.” It further called upon colleges and universities to ” forswear reliance on Hazelwood as a legitimate source of authority for the governance of student and educator expression.”

Even though Hazelwood, like Tinker, is a high school case, its shadow was extended over the college press just eight years ago in Hosty v. Carter when the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Governors State University in Illinois did have the right to prior review of the student newspaper. In Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin today, college student media may be censored under the Hazelwood umbrella.

That is the challenge, but today the college press has a champion to educae, to defend and to continue the fight for free expression: the Student Press Law Center. Its work ensures that as much as pressures will be placed on college media, students, and their advisers, they have a strong ally in defense of their rights to continue to practice good journalism. And with an organization like AEJMC willing to support free expression through its membership, which includes the deans and directors of schools of journalism and mass communication, the resulting awareness of what these cases really mean—and do not mean—can ensure more free press advocates.

A Big Business

Student media have become a big business, telling the story of their campus communities. Today, 12 college and university newspapers have operating budgets which exceed $1 million, and another half dozen exceed $750,000. In addition, mirroring their professional cousins, college papers are increasingly supported by advertising revenue, with more than half receiving more than 50 percent of their revenue from ads.

The first survey of the college and university press undertaken in 1983 through the membership of what is today the College Media Association and continuing up to the present has traced a demographic and financial picture of student media on campuses across the country. Three decades later, there have been some changes, but many characteristics remained constant.

There has been little change in the sources of funding for student newspapers over the past 30 years. Most notable has been that advertising as a major source of revenue has increased from 84.7 percent to 98.8 percent, while reliance on student activity fees and student government funding has decreased.   Total revenue has generally increased, as well as the number of staff members and editors receiving salaries. Papers reported to be independent have remained relatively constant over the years at 12 percent. One major difference is that more newspapers have converted to the broadsheet format; in 1983, three-fourths of newspapers were tabloids, while today that number has dropped to half. The percentages of weeklies (39) and dailies (17) has remained constant.

The fastest growth has been in online editions, with nearly all colleges and universities publishing an online edition of their paper; nearly half update them daily as well. However, in 2012, most generated $5,000 or less in revenue.

Yearbooks have seen more of an effect from the economy. They are generally smaller—300 or fewer pages—with reduced revenues and more schools relying totally on sale of books for support. Significantly, over the past 30 years, advertising has more than doubled in yearbooks, with nearly two-thirds relying on this source for revenue. And, of course, we now have digital yearbooks.

Campuses have seen a decline in literary magazines, although they are still the highest percentage being published.  Both television and radio stations have multiplied and become more self sufficient, with advertising serving as a greater source of revenue.

Generally, small media operations have remained the norm nationally over the past three decades. The economy has had an influence in the last 10 years on campus media, especially with, first, the shift from a base of college and university funding support to a larger reliance on advertising and student activity fees, and, second, even with more dependence on advertising, a decrease in ads sold, resulting in smaller papers.  There has also been a significant decrease in funding from student government bodies, with a recognition that this status would lead to fewer attempts at control over content. A greater reliance on advertising by media operations is a positive step in gaining greater independence and a more professional operational mode.

Influence of Technology

Perhaps the biggest revolution in college student media is the evolution of technology and its effect on the product and on operations. The last 40 years have seen a sea change in the way student media are produced and distributed, and in the way consumers access information.

Production skills in the 1970s and 1980s involved operating typesetting machines which involving counting headlines and learning point sizes, counting words and measuring lines of type in picas, working with glue pots, worrying about widows and orphans, reading and pasting up galleys, taking note of line spacing, introducing creativity by using transfer type, hiring professionals to do the typesetting, using pica poles and cropping wheels and T-squares. It required understanding what terms like dingbat, ligature, HTK, ascenders and descenders, justification, flush left and right, kerning and hot type meant. Much typesetting was still being done on linotype machines, although cold type was rapidly coming into use.

The computer age has engaged students and facilitated production, enabling cost-effectiveness and accelerating the learning curve for student journalists. This evolution has not been without challenges, both in the acquisition of up-to-date equipment and software and in the training necessary for both students and advisers to manage and keep up with the rapid changes. Each generation is growing up earlier with technology, making it imperative that campus media operations, especially news media, evaluate how to best reach and keep their audiences. Social media are revolutionizing communication, making it easier and faster to share information and providing opportunities for student media to expand coverage and exchange messages with a broader audience. Campus media can take the lead in developing new applications, ascertaining how to reach mobile phones, and restructuring online operations to reach this technologically-oriented generation.

The Advising Profession

The role of the college and university student media adviser has evolved as well. Advising has become more of a profession. Three decades ago, nearly half (41.2 percent) of the nation’s advisers had spent three or fewer years in their jobs. Today there is greater longevity, with only slightly more than one fourth having been in their current jobs four or fewer years, and more than one fourth marking 15 or more years.

Other signs of increasing professionalism include the fact that more than two-thirds have written job descriptions for their positions, a real gain over the last 30 years when fewer than half did so. And, increasingly, advisers are authors of these documents, with nearly a 300 percent gain over 1984. The percentage of those being hired as full-time advisers has nearly doubled to 40.6 percent, and advisers receiving released time for advising has significantly increased to more than half from slightly more than one third.

Being in positions that lead to tenure is always a benchmark in measuring the recognition of college student media advisers as professionals and in ensuring stability in campus media. The bar has increased from 31 to 40 percent of advisers being tenured in the last three decades. However, there has also been a sharp increase in the number of advisers being in positions that do not lead to tenure, with 47.6 percent in that category today versus 36.8 in 1984. Other issues that have evidenced little or no change over time include those receiving no released time or remuneration for the job of adviser, and those assigned to student affairs and also having student affairs writing their job descriptions.

College media advisers have made some progress as professionals. However, the challenges are still there to achieve greater stature for this career path and greater recognition from all involved of the opportunities that a career-focused adviser brings to preparing students for the media jobs of the future. Obviously, working toward building as much independence into the media operation and into the adviser’s job is the preferable model.

A New Journey

This journey through student media illustrates that editors and advisers have consistently worked hard to uphold journalistic rights, responsibilities and freedoms, faced challenges along the way, including economic downturns, but seized the opportunities brought about by innovation, new technologies and changing audiences. Media, and those who work on them, are constantly evolving, and will continue to do so.

Even though, over the years of this journey through college media,  the economy has evolved and professional media have faced innumerable challenges from both the economy and technology, campus media have indeed met the challenges and engaged the opportunities the challenges offered. And they are continuing to do so.

Over the last three decades student media operations have evolved significantly technologically, from typewriters and hot lead production systems to multimedia storytelling and diverse and multiple digital platforms for the delivery of information to an equally diversified audience. So, too, has the evolution of student media been strengthened by a recognition on many levels, both legally and in practice, that they operate under the same press freedom and First Amendment as their professional counterparts. And, significantly, there is also the realization that, financially, campus media are businesses that produce quality products to serve their communities.

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Lillian Kopenhaver

Dr. Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver is professor and dean emeritus of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University. She is past president of CMA and AEJMC, recipient of CMA’s Distinguished Service Award and was inducted into CMA’s Hall of Fame. She was also named the Outstanding Woman in Journalism and Mass Communication Education for 2009 by the AEJMC Commission on the Status of Women and was the 2011 recipient of FIU’s Distinguished Service Medallion.