On August 15th, the full staff of The Red & Black, the student newspaper at the University of Georgia, walked out of their offices to protest new editorial structures and guidelines. In a formal statement, Editor-in-Chief Polina Marinova said the paper had been ‘feeling serious pressure from people who aren’t students’, citing incentives to take ‘grip and grin’ photos and publicise student initiatives. Since the beginning of August, some ten non-student staff members had been hired by the board of the paper to ‘assist’ in the production of The Red & Black, and a number of staff members claimed their stories had been edited, re-written, or censored altogether in the interest of improving public perception of the university. The paper itself receives no support from the university, financing itself primarily through ad sales.
The strike itself was interesting, but not particularly newsworthy. The story had only been lightly covered by a couple of media blogs when Ed Stamper, the former Chairman of the Red and Black’s board, recently promoted to ‘Editorial Director’, sent a memo to all student staff outlining the ‘expectations of editorial director at The Red & Black’. Stamper laid out the criteria for acceptable content thus; ‘The newspaper needs a balance of good and bad. BAD content that catches people or organizations doing bad things. I guess this is ‘journalism.’ If in question, have more GOOD than BAD.’
Allowed to function as true newspapers with no prescribed allegiance, student media is incredibly important. Student journalists and their editors too often make the mistake of trying to copy national media, which fails on two levels; students aspiring to work in newspapers don’t learn to research and develop stories on their own whilst student papers, devoid of stories interesting or relevant to their readers, fail to serve the interests of colleges and universities as a whole. I’m very proud to be on the staff of Trinity News, but I don’t care about their coverage of the American election, because CNN will tell me first. The stories of value to me as a reader are college-based with information I won’t find anywhere else. As a writer, writing an article that paraphrases the BBC News Brief is of no practical benefit. Student papers function best when they’re scaled to the colleges that produce them and are allowed to function as real, provocative news source.
Student journalism will never be perfect, or infallible. We’re students, we’re learning, and sometimes we screw up. With far more frequency than we’d like to mention. In our heads, we’re writing the stories that will change the world. In actuality, we’re half a deadline away from libel and inclined to mix our metaphors. Responding to a Facebook post, Red and Black board member Charles Russell suggested the changes were an improvement to training student journalists, stating ‘What we’ve done at the board level, is authorize significant new expenditures from reserves to more fully deliver on our training mission, by providing the support staff to help the students learn how to juggle multiple media initiatives successfully—all while staying focused on why they’re in Athens in the first place: to get their education’. Suggesting that students would benefit from being more detached from their news sources and stories displays a profound misunderstanding of the importance of college newspapers; they serve a deeper purpose than CV-building and teaching students to ‘juggle multiple media initiatives’, whatever that means.
On August 17th, Ed Stamper tendered his resignation from the board of The Red and Black, citing in part the embarrassment of the circulation of his memo to editorial staff; they were just internal editorial guidelines, he thought, and didn’t need much thought. ‘I’m a businessman’ he explained ‘not a journalist’. Newspapers, physical or digital, are valuable and should be defended, but shouldn’t be popular by virtue of being easy to read. The Huffington Post’s column on cute animals has phenomenal website traffic, but GIFs of snoring puppies should not have higher front page billing than Supreme Court justices. Editors need to provoke intelligently and challenge their readers, and if college newspapers are to fulfill both of their much-needed functions, they need to confront existing prejudices and measure the results.
Measuring is significantly harder when you have nothing to measure. Both UT and TN have published controversial stories in the last month, and they’ve generated outrage, disgust, and, generally, profound inaction. We want a better college press. So do you. Please, write letters to our editor, comment on our stories, and write to me at [email protected]. Both this column and my blog at trinitynews.ie are outside the jurisdiction of our editorial staff and will never be censored, altered or edited. I answer to the Publications Committee, and not the Editor-in-Chief of this paper. I’m here to give your reactions to our stories more airtime and higher visibility, functioning as a link between this paper and its readers. I want to question the stories we run and the standards we do or don’t uphold. Help us write stories that matter and hold the college to account. We look forward to hearing from you.
Questions, complaints, and responses good and bad to any story published by Trinity News can be addressed to [email protected].