by Sophie Hurwitz
WELLESLEY, MA — Jimena Tavel grew up dreaming of working for the Independent Florida Alligator, the University of Florida at Gainesville’s editorially and fiscally independent student newspaper. The paper, where Tavel is now the print managing editor, has been independent of the school since the 1970s, when the editor in chief chose to print a list of abortion clinics in the state. According to Tavel, this violated the law at the time and the school severed contact with the Alligator, which has been independent ever since.
But the Alligator, like many other independent student newspapers, has been struggling financially. “In the professional field, you can charge for subscriptions, but not on college campuses,” Tavel says. And on-campus ad revenue has been going down, while -just like at other local newspapers that serve small populations -campus newspapers must contend with online advertising.
This has hit independent newspapers-harder than those which are financially dependent on the colleges and universities that house them. The Student Press Law Center reports that only 30 such independent papers exist in the country. More and more college papers, like the Daily Campus at Southern Methodist University have been forced to re-affiliate with their universities, losing their editorial independence in the process.
Tavel, Caitlin Ostroff and Melissa Gomez, both seniors and editors at the Alligator decided to do something about it. “We knew we wanted to connect with other student journalists,” Tavel said. So over Twitter and Facebook, they began to build a network of student journalists across the country, and settled on April 25 as their Day of Action to Save Student Newsrooms. Student newsrooms and professional journalists responded across the country. They wrote editorials on why student newspapers matter, and got the attention of major media outlets such as CNN.
“We didn’t expect it to blow up as much as it did,” Tavel said. Professional journalists, many of whom did not realize the budgetary issues plaguing journalism as a whole also extend to student newsrooms, were particularly moved to help however they could. “We’ve got a lot of feedback from professional journalists across the country, who are reaching out and asking how they can help.”
Often, that help came down to one thing: figuring out how to get more money. “I think on college newspapers, we saw an increase in funds, especially on the day of action, April 25th,” said Tavel. Though the #savestudentnewsrooms organizers currently don’t know how much money was raised in total, they say that “some campuses have raised as much as $6,000, just on April 25th.”
Though this amount doesn’t seem like much, it can be a lot for a struggling campus newspaper. And the student journalists and their allies in the professional sphere don’t intend to stop there. One goal of the movement, Tavel says, is to gain the recognition of larger, national organizations such as the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the National Association of Black Journalists, or publications such as ProPublica.
While raising awareness has been critical, Tavel says that she hopes that this movement might lead to more partnerships between professional journalists and student newspapers, or to grant-funding from nonprofits.
On social media, dozens of former undergraduate journalists talked about how student newspapers had been good for them,and how their administrations’ control of their finances led to editorial control. Kirk Bado, a current journalism graduate student at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, is one example of someone whose career was both formed by a student newsroom and was profoundly frustrated by his school’s censorial control over issues ranging from controversy within the student government to sexual assault on campus. When he saw people telling their stories on the #savestudentnewsrooms hashtag, he said, “I’d been wanting to tell this story for a while now. So I just got fed up, and started tweeting.”
Bado spent his undergraduate career at Belmont University, in Nashville. At Belmont, he learned how limited a newspaper without editorial and fiscal independence could be. Since Belmont is a private university, “They had pretty wide lateral in controlling information and what we could write about,” he explained.“My sophomore year, we published a series of stories after an investigation that shut down the student government,” Bado recalled. “Like, the administration pulled the plug on it, because we found out that the Vice-President was trying to impeach the President, and was like promising political favors to people, like, real house of cards stuff. And I think that kind of woke them up to what we could do.” After the incident, the Belmont administration kept a close eye on their paper. At one point, they even blocked them from publishing a story on a sexual assault accusation on campus,which was a matter of public police record. The students used the local Nashville paper, the Tennessean, to help publish the story.
Bado believes that student newspapers need to function as outlets that hold accountable their administrations, as practice for holding power structures such as governments and corporations accountable in the future. He sees the trend towards news outlets that are totally dependent on their administrations as something that needs to be fought, to preserve American journalism as a whole.
“The biggest threat is not like, the fake news, it’s not the waning trust [in news media], although those are huge,” Bado said. “The biggest issue is that we have a generation of new journalists coming in who might not really know what journalism looks like. So it’s up to us to play the mentor role that we always wanted when we were student journalists. That’s how I see my role.”
The student journalists in the #savestudentnewsrooms campaign are reaching out to each other, and to professional journalists like Bado, and sympathetic donors, to help keep them independent a while longer. But they don’t know how long that will last. Many student journalists are turning to online outlets like Medium, Odyssey Online, or even The Contemporary, to find ways to hone their writing that might be paid and where they might be able to say the things their administrations don’t want them to. But Bado believes that student newsrooms are still the training grounds for the journalists of the future.
“We all came from student newsrooms,” Bado said. “We all know what it was like when we had our first tough interview. We all know what it was like when we had a good idea but didn’t know how to pull it off, or when we got our first sternly-worded email. We didn’t know how to react to it. What needs to happen is these student news organizations should be treated as a training ground. You know, everyone’s concerned about the future of newspapers, everyone’s concerned about the future of media. But the future of media’s in these newsrooms right now, and we need to be doing our best to be reaching out to them, and helping them learn.”
Sophie Hurwitz is a rising sophomore at Wellesley College. She is also a writer for the St. Louis American and The Wellesley News. The photo above is courtesy of The Wellesley News and the author.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion. However, the Editor-in-Chief expressed his personal opinion on Twitter and announced The Contemporary‘s plan for paid (academic) year-long correspondent fellowships for aspiring journalists to report on critical issues on their campuses and communities.