Is it time to jettison the college print newspaper?

June 30, 2022

I have had two very interesting conversations earlier this week about possible futures for community college journalism programs. One was with a college administrator and the other with a former community college adviser.

In both conversations I tried to emphasize that I see the future with online publications, especially since there is the perhaps-not-fantastical idea out there that print is dead.

The problem, of course, is that while many programs today have adopted online publications, the print concept is still the driving force. Many online publications, rather than embrace the full advantages of online, simply port print content over to the online publication and give short shrift to the opportunities for online.

The administrator wanted to know more about the pros and cons and effectiveness of each format. My recollections of print included that in an era of college newspaper advertising, print not only carried campus visibility, but actually was a source of income that online may never be able to replicate, given the competition for eyeballs on online.

With print, you put your papers out on various spots around campus, preferably in high traffic paths, and you have instant visbility, sort of. (I still remember all those early polls asking students what they liked about the campus newspaper only to get “we have a campus newspaper?” as your answer; so much for visibility.) While there were some national surveys looking at readership of campus newspapers that are encouraging, the reality was that the only feedback that gave you information on actual readership was in the complaints you received. Otherwise, we simply did not know who, if anyone, was actually reading the publication.

It was exciting when you did something unusual, such as the time we printed all photos as 3-D images and attached cheap 3-D glasses to each copy and newspapers disappeared in record time. But in the latter years, especially, large percentages of the relatively few copies we printed ended up in trash or recycling a week (or two weeks) later. There IS an audience for a print edition, but mostly among teachers and administration. Younger audiences these days may be interested in news, even campus news they cannot get anywhere else, but not through print publications, with the possible exception of glossy color-saturated (expensive) magazines.

An online publication has the potential for a massive audience, but probably doesn’t have one because it is not as visible and has a lot more competition for the reader’s attention. And non-news sites often deliver small amounts of news in flashier, sexier presentations than most professional-looking college student publication webites; websites that are updated far too infrequently. (See below for my theory on why websites are not updated more frequently.)

While analytics can give producers of online sites incredible data on readership, sometimes it can be like drinking from a firehose –so much information you don’t know how to interpet it. And, lets face it, we’re talking numbers and many journalists avoid embracing data because it is numbers. Most faculty and students involved with the publication don’t know how to extract, much less, analyze that data. There may even be some who are afraid to look, fearing that the data shows that readership is worse than they hope it is. More likely, though, they might find that readership is not among the groups they thought they were targeting.

I think the future of student journalism eventually involves the elimination of the print edition, at least as we know it today, and finds salvation through online and its possibilities. The future may not be the online publication itself, but the online edition will serve as the hub for a variety of online delivery systems, which today includes social media sites. Others have speculated that mobile delivery is the future, and it probably is a part. But the core or hub is the online publication. It can serve as its own delivery system, but because stories exisit in digital format there, they can be distributed through multiple platforms not possible when the main product is print; the online site is a database with its own visual presentation.

Two things, in particular, are holding back the growth of online student publications. One is that most of the content is simply repurposing print content. The second is the print edition itself.

There is nothing inherently wrong with repurposing content; the potential audience is overhwelming. The problem is that too often that is where student staffs stop. Online consumption of news is different than in print and sometimes a story is better told using different reporting techniques, such as including audio, video, and interactivity. While some attempts at these are made by many publications, doing so is an afterthought. (Except when multimedia reporting classes turn over their class work to the student publication.)

The print edition itself is also an obstacle in the development of an online presence for student publications. So much effort goes into a print publication that it is easy to simply repurpose print content and do little else. Ditto with the costs of print pubications; the money goes into printing and not into developing online tools.

But related to that is what I call the print mindset. We think of print publications –keep in mind that we are talking about weekly more than daily, every-other-week more than weekly, and, these days, monthly more than weekly– in terms of a publication target of a certain day.

I used to accuse my students of putting out a daily publication once a week. Little would get done until the day before the print publication was due. All deadlines were built around the print publication date; you can’t afterall, insert a story into a print publication if it comes in a day late and who cares if it comes in three or four days before the print publication, because you have to wait until everything is in to design your pages.

That print-mindset of when stories are due ignores the possibility of an online-mindset that says a story can run as soon as you can complete it. Some student publications still obviously repurpose their content (a kind way of saying they “dump” their stories online) around print deadlines.

I’m not anti-print; I like print, but now that I am not involved in the trenches any more, I can see more clearly now that perhaps print needs to die for student publications to achieve their full potential as the future of student publications. Readership is low, costs are high, revenues more and more are non-existent, the time and effort involved in print dominate the agenda. This all hurts online publication development that can save community college journalism programs.

The pandemic, which as disrupted the “business plan” of student publications anyway, provides a pivotal opportunity for journalism programs across the state to embrace change that is coming eventually anyway. Unfortunately, what I hear from my former colleagues around the state, is a return to what we did before the pandemic. Most cannot wait to return to print editions, even if they are willing to accept less frequency. Is a monthly print newspaper really even a newspaper any more?

And while I can get past the thought of fewer weeklies and more monthlies, the problem is that the print mindset still dominates and there does not appear to be a concerted effort to work with a more frequent publication of stories online.

Yes, most student staffs are now posting more frequently, but as a research study I have been working on shows, the quantity of stories seems to shrink along with a print frequency shrinkage. If the story is not for print, why do it at all? It’s as if there is no value to telling th story online only, and certainly no value in the extra work of telling it in a manner that maximizes online opportunties, with rare exceptions. Perhaps it is time to jettison the print distraction. (Stick with me to see my discussion of a possible substitute below.)

My former adviser colleague reminded me that part of that is that telling stories using audio and video (we didn’t even talk about interactity, the next frontier) involve broadcast skills more than the traditional print journalism skills. Advisers today teach those skills, mostly in standalone multimedia reporting classes, but those advisers probably did not learn those skills when they were in school and, as such, don’t treat them the same as lead writing and use of AP Style. Students, who love to consume news through audio and video, discover that doing so well requires a lot more work than crafting stories in print.

Stories using audio and video (and interactivity) do not have to be standalone stories. You can enhance print stories with snippets of audio and video without the hours of work involved in editing a standalone audible/visual/interactive story. Imagine the impact of a snippet of audio of former president Donald Trump saying he thought vice president Mike Pence shuld be hanged on Jan. 6, 2001. You do not need a standalone audio or video story to get that kind of impact; five seconds of audio would be all it took.

And not every reader wants to consume standalone audible, visual, or interactive story. Personally, I think the best example of how to present stories today is National Public Radio, which includes a written version of its audio product as a matter of regular practice. Sometimes that written story is merely the written transcript of the audio story, and sometimes it is a more traditional summary story with an audible option. Most NPR stories today have you wondering why “radio” is still part of the name, even though that is its bread and butter.

Podcasts are popular today, but many student-produced podcasts miss the point. A good podcast is more than sitting around talking about something newsworthy; there is structure to the discussions and the best ones use standard journalistic skills. Interviewing legitmate sources, as opposed to your buddy who has an opinion on something, can be useful. My administrator colleague flatly said he won’t do regular interviews with student journalists anymore because he is tired of being misquoted, even when the student took notes and recorded the interview.

(I could do a whole blog post on that issue. Yeah, I heard that a lot when I was advising. I understand his point of view, but I pointed out to him that he was robbing students of a valuable learning experience, one that is not replicated by his willingness to answer written questions with written answers. I even pointed out to him times when I heard sources complain that they were mmisquoted, so I went back to the tapes to check, only to find that the source actually HAD said what was quoted.) Podcasts could be good antidotes to such reluctant sources; allow their words to be heard directly.

There are three additional advantages to a print product that I’ve yet to discuss: the tactile product, the durable product, and the designed product.

There simply is nothing like touching the print product. I love the heft of even a small print publication. I love the smell. I love the feel of turning pages and the feeling of control that it gives me. I can look at it and feel like I’ve accomplished something, whether as a reader or as a producer. I’ve lived through a variety of changes over the years and still think about counting headlines as I write them –a skill of determining whether a headline will not only summarize the story and attract a reader, but also fit a pre-determined space in the font and size reserved for it; all things that mattered more before the WYSIWYG capabilities of today’s computer programs. I sill understand the processes of typesetting and typefitting even though the computer does it all for me. I understand the principles of cropping and sizing photos, even though the computer does all the calucating for me. A lot of that underlying understanding is not appreciated by today’s journalists, and perhaps it simply does not matter any more. Perhaps emerging technologies, such as virtual reality and augmented reality, will one day replace the tactile advanges of the product.

The product is durable. Its format is understood and easy to store and to retrieve. In earlier research days I always preferred reviewing a paper product over a microfiche (yesterday’s digital substitute) version. Digital formats change often, sometimes even from vendor to vendor, but also just over time as technology is developed. The print product stays the same year after year, even if it eventually deterioates. Its shelf life simply is longer. And it creates a sense of permanency that digital does not, unless you start thinking in terms of George Orwell’s 1984 where a single official record of a print product is replaced with an updated duplicate when the interpretation of news changes. Despite all the code formats out there, the Portable File Format (PDF) document, has, to a certain extent, created a more durable digital product, but there is little confidence that that will be a retrievable format 50 years from now where a paper product will still be there. The digital product, to remain durable, needs reformatting eventually.

And then there is design. Design is a popular aspect of the storytelling experience, though I see some of that falling by the wayside in some print products these days. Students LOVE to design the print product, even if they won’t read the final product themselves. I loved teaching design principles. I still love to read news in page-designed products. In writing I often, though not always, consider presentation design even as I write. Design brought my students together in the clubhouse and gave them a reason to bond. Let’s face it, most online pubilcations have one overall design, often referred to as the theme, and that’s it. Student staffs concentrate on writing and photography and give little, if any thought, to design. I often taught that content dictates design, but with an online publication design ignores content.

During the pandemic disruption of the past couple of years many student publications ceased the print edition, but kept the design in the form of PDF versions of their pubilcation. A lot of energy of print editions these days really is in the pagination (formerly paste-up) stage and the PDF version still requires time and energy. You lose the tactile advantages with a PDF version and the durable status, as mentioned above, is suspect with PDF, but you still get all the advantages of design. You seldom get those advantages with most online publications these days.

I’m okay with continuing to develop PDF versions because of the design aspects, but you STILL have the problems of a print mindset interfering with the development of online publication potential. Save the print costs, save the enviornment of having to recycle (or more and more today the re-recyling of paper) and ditch the actual print. But if you insist on keeping the PDF version, address the other problems; there are legitimate design skills to be learned in audio, video and interactive storytelling, just as there are legitimate design skills (think composition) in photojournalism. We just are not taking advantage of those opportunities because the technology will allow us to ignore them.

I would hate to lose the print edition of a publication I advised, especially if it meant all we did was post our print-centric stories online. But if I approached it as an opportunity to build something dynamic online because now I had time ….

I’m an observer of California community college journalism. The project I mentioned above involves looking daily at the 5,000 to 6,000 stories that California community college online publications produce each semester. I catalogue those stories and categorize them by type –news, opinion, sports, and feature– and localization –campus-based, community-based, or neither. And I share my observations with publications across the state, or at least the ones interested in the data. Spring 2022 saw a huge drop in volume as student staffs experienced burnout and pandemic weariness. And, yet, I hear my teaching colleagues pining for the return to time-and-energy demanding print publications.

One aspect of my research I have been contemplating is also looking at readership data for the publications I monitor daily. I haven’t quite figured out how to do it yet, although I have looked at some costly solutions. One problem is that this project is a labor of love and time. I utilize publications’ RSS feeds to gather the stories and that can be done for free, or with few costs. Mining readership data looks either expensive and labor intensive. I can figure out HOW to do it, but the potential cost is discouraging.

Imagine, though, the power of having data on your own publication that could easily be compared with peer publications. It could show your strengths and opportunities for growth heretofor heretofore unimagined.

My administrator colleague suggested that colleges could find Perkins Grant (federal Career-Technical Education) funds to hire me as a consultant to produce a deliverable report on readership. Not a bad idea. But my retired adviser colleague, who already thinks my obsession with my project is nuts, wonders why current advisers would add the paperwork necessary for those grants for information that they don’t really care about anyway; information they theorectically could garner on their own if they were.


The future of student publications and journalism programs

October 19, 2020
Peering into a possible future

When I was in my 30s and early 40s I was fascinated with the future and how I might best prepare for it. I subscribed to several futurist magazines to learn more.

I’m not talking about crystal ball and tea leaves future, but determining future general directions in society that might affect my lifestyle and my teaching. One of the things I learned from serious futurists is that you never predict THE future, but instead develop POSSIBLE futures based on a look at trends developing today.

I especially found that helpful in my teaching community college journalism students for the next few decades. And it still piques my interest as I sit on the sidelines of retirement watching what is going on in the world around me and how it can affect those still teaching journalism on high school, community college, and university levels.

I know more about community college level than the others and am more in tune with adivising student publications –I loved my career of working with students who found meaning in life by working for the student newspaper– than I do about many other areas of a journalism education, though I respect them as much.

So my thoughts lately have largely concentrated on the impact of COVID-19 to student publications. What long term impact will shifitng to remote instruction, however temporary (or not), have?

I am no longer in the trenches and am not dealing with the day-to-day, but that gives me the opportunity to look beyond my own program and observe more. I do this by monitoring student publications across the state on a daily basis for my Online Elsewhere project that results in my reposting interesting high school, community college stories, on my Online Elsewhere Facebook page and in develioing my five-day-a-week journalsim education newsletter aimed at an instructor audience. As a part of the project I use RSS to review hundreds of student stories each day from more than 150 high school, nearly 50 community college, and a couple of dozen university publicaitons in Calfornia. All that and talking to my colleagues still teaching.

So, what do I see as the possible future of student publications? Well, I have so much more to learn about high school and university publications, so I will focus on the community colleges that I know best.

I see a dire possible future for student publications advised by instructors (like myself) in love with print publications. Print publications are in trouble and long-time advisers, especially, are not doing enough to prepare students for a digital future. Many are talking about it, but most have not infused it in their programs enough and still put most of their efforts to teaching print journalism. The pandemic is going to chew up and spit out print publications and entire programs with them. Only the psychological and legal difficulties of laying off tenured instructors may keep some programs around longer than others.

That’s a tough prediction to make. I admire the work being done by California community college journalism instructors and their students. If I were not retired mine could be one of those programs I’m talking about.

Here’s some backgorund on why I make that prediction, though.

  1. The industry has been slowly making a shift to an onlne-first distribution, with some publications shifting to online only.

Community college programs have almost all created online versions of their publication, but they have not embraced those sites.

a. Some use the sites only as an archive of print stories, posting stories in batchs online only after or just before the print edition rather than recognizing the daily nature of their websites. Besides, websites are so last decade; today they serve as hubs for mobile, social media, and other distribution methods.

b. Even those who make an attempt to publish online first tell their stories with a print-only mindset. They seldom look at how to leverage online tools, such as linking, to their stories, and they often do not pay attention to readability of their online stories. They seldom look at other ways to tell stories, such as with audio, video, interactivity, or other multimedia.

c. Wonderful web templates for student publications, such as those provided by Student Newspapers Online and other professsional web hosts, make it easy to create a publication site and then forget about it except for uploading content to fill in the holes. Once set up, the online sites are pretty much out of site and out of mind for most publication staffs. Few staff members even look at their own websites, much less pay attention to analytics. And faculty are not moving them that direction because they are focusing too much on teaching print. How many faculty include their website in critiques of their publications?

  1. The student publication is a major factor why California community colleges even have journalism programs. There is value in a journalism curriculm beyond the student publication, but the publication is an anchor for those programs. (Remember, half of the community colleges in Calfornia do not have journalism programs and are willing to steer that course without a publication because it requires thinking about a full program. One of my former college presidents once confided in me, “Student newspapers are a pain the ass.”)

Campus readership of student newspapers at community colleges has been declining for years.

Even when I was teaching we’d see half of the print copies we distributed on campus being left on the stands and ending up in recycling. Each year the percentage of leftover print copies increased unless we decreased the print run. This begs the question: What is the role of the print edition?

a. Obstensibly, there are only a few reasons to keep a print edition these days: Campus visibilty, tradition, “pick-up-because-it-is-there” readers, advertising income, the tactile satisfaction of a completed product in the hands of publication staff members, and the family cohesivenss of working long hours to produce that product.

i. VISIBILITY – Campus visibility for your program is important. But these days no one is on campus to see a print product.

Some publications distribute off campus, and there may still be visibility value for them, but if you only distribute on campus, there is no visibilty.

Many hope the current remote instruction that has campuses closed is just temporary. They thought it was just for the end of last school year, only to find that it included the first semester of this school year. Only, it turns out that for most it is all school year. They hope that the 2021-22 school year will be back on campus. That may be wishful thinking. A COVID-19 second wave this winter and next spring, which is quite likely, will result in another school year away from campus.

ii. PICK IT UP BECAUSE IT IS THERE – Even 50 or so years ago when I was a student working on my college publication we’d take polls about what people liked in the student paper only to find that the most common answer was, “We have a student paper?”

California community colleges are largely commuter campuses and the general student population is on campus only for classes and then those students are gone. They are aware of the student newspaper only if you have a good distribution process that places the publication in their sitelines as they enter and leave the campus. Those increasingly leftover issues each week are a sign that the “pick-it-up-because-it-is-there” strategy is a dying one.

iii. TRADITION – I respect tradition. I love tradition. But traditions evolve. And the days of a print product publicaiton are numbered for most. I don’t enjoy saying that, but I believe it. Print products are costly and the pandemic is reaking havoc with college budgets. It is getting harder and harder to justify the cost of print publications when there are fewer and fewer readers of thos eprint products.

Unless new readership engagement strategies are developed, the print edition tradition needs to be changed. Colleges are also printing fewer editions as a result, dropping from weekly to every other week; dropping from every other week to monthly or semesterly. That’s just another way to say that the print edition lacks the value it once had.

iv. ADVERTISING – Gone are the days when half or more of a student pubLication’s operation budget, aside from faculty salaries, came from advertising income in the print edition. The decline of print advertising in commerical newspapers has finally started affecting student publications. Few community college pubications these days have ANY non-campus advertising in it. And with publication cutbacks to monthly or semesterly can you blame advertisers who want to reach audiences in a timely manner?

v. THE TACTILE PRODUCT – The tactile feel of a print product is still very powerful. Students LOVE putting together the print publication, though they, like their own readers, dont’ read the product once it is put together. I don’t know how we replace that powerful force, but am convinced that in a possible future we can if we switch our focus to put more importance on our digital products.

It won’t have the tactile feel, but it can probably replace it with a stronger emotional pride in our digital products.

Some programs today continue to put huge efforts into developing digital versions of their print product. As an enlightened dinosaur myself, I enjoy that because I actually enjoy reading my newspapers as thoughtful packages.

I am not convinced that there is a large audience for a pdf verison of a student publication or even an interactive one as cheesy as issuu or yumpu. They look nice and provides us with something emotionally tactitle, but unless we can create affordable versions with better readability, they will not last. They are merely archives.

Those programs putting effort into pdf versions of their print product in these pandemic times are banking on a return to normal soon. The longer remote instruction keeps students from campus, the more likely these products will fall by the wayside, unless we find a better way to utilize them and market them. They still provide value in the design and team skillsets they develop, but they are not vital to the newspaper’s role on campus.

vi. COHESIVENESS AND PURPOSE – That just leaves the cohesiveness of working long hours to produce that product. This, too, is extemely powerful. One of the biggest joys of my teaching career was seeing students come alive with purpose in working as a team for long hours to produce a product. Students some times would ignore other classes to work on the student newspaper. Students would work late nights to put out the product.

I believe there is a way to transfer that activity and cohesiveness to an online product … if we try. Doing so will be the salvation of programs if the pandemic keeps our campuses closed longer than most hope.

Failure to move that direction now and to develop strategies will find themselves behind when the budget axe starts hitting campuse as a pandemic economy starts to get beyond simple austerity measures. I’ve been on the losing end of that kind of economy when the college I was working on in the 1990s eliminated my program because it was low hanging fruit.

I became an early adopter on my campus of online education. I found ways to adapt what I taught to a virtual classroom in all areas except one: how to recreate the “clubhouse” power of a student publication lab.

Forced remote instruction will be a godsend if instructors will work at it. It actually parallels what many commerical newsrooms are having to deal with during our pandemic times. The power of utilizing possible futures requires you to accept the awkward transitions to get there.

b. The pandemic is showing us that some of the traditional roles of a print pubication are no longer as valid. Programs CAN remain vital if they accept change. What they do is important and a product of some kind is a big part of it. How they create and display our product determines whether their colleges see us as worth continuing.

  1. College programs are being forced to make temporary adjustments. It is hard on students and it is hard on faculty. But there is a silver lining for the future if all will stop thinking as remote instruction as temporary and stop hanging on to unsustainable print publications as the main focus of what they do.
    That is not to say that print publicaitons are dead, dead, dead. There may still be value in them, but not as the main product we teach and aspire to.

It is easier to discontinue programs as an austerity measure by not replacing faculty as they retire, and community colleges have a huge aging faculty base. But if the pandemic economy takes years to recover from, it is just as likely that we will see ugly situations like the one I experienced mid-way through my career. Tenure does not save you if the college decides to start axing entire programs.

• If what programs have as product is no longer considered viable and up to date, they are low hanging fruit. Even the commercial industry is finding that failure to fully embrace the new technologies can lead to the death of the print product.

• Business-based budget decisions are a numbers game; if programs don’t attract students and move them through the system to completion they are low handing fruit.

• The high cost of print, especially for what is gained in return, and the death of a traditional income source, makes programs low hanging fruit. (I’ll explain some other time why a high-cost athletic program is not a good comparison for us. But in short, those programs have higher perceived values than “dying” print publications.)

• Students willing to put in long hours producing a print product and gaining a sense of purpose in doing so is a strength for programs; students not moving through the system because they are ignoring other classes in order to work on a print product that requires huge blocks of time on a regular basis makes them low-hanging fruit. Reconstructing that family cohesion in a manner that eliminates all students working long hours in time-sensitive time blocks may well be the key to sheilding vulnerable programs.

Of course, this is all just a possible future. There are ways to avoid the dire consequences, but only if programs adapt at a more frantic pace. The realities are already here working against them.


It’s the headline, stupid

October 1, 2020

There is a political maxim: It’s the economy, stupid. (Although this year it might be the pandemic and/or social justice.) When it comes to journalistic news sites it should be “It’s the headline, stupid.”

Yes, story content is important, but like the tree falling in the woods and whether it makes a sound, who cares if no one is there to hear it (or read the story).

Each day I review hundreds of California high school, community college, and university student news publication stories, looking for the interesting, unsual, and just plain outstanding student stories to share on my Online Elsewhere Facebook page and at the bottom of my daily newsletter on journalism education.

I often have a difficult time defining what sticks out for sharing. Sometimes it depends on what else is being published that day, the first time someone beats the rest with real news, or something else entirely. I know I prefer to pick campus-related stories or community/national stories that involve original reporting with an effort to actually talk to someone, but I will also pick opinion pieces that stray from the typical.

Occassionally, I bore through a dull headline and find a hidden gem that I think might interest my intended journalism educaiton audience. But mostly it is that first impression of a good headline, which seems to not be much of a consideration for student journalists these days. One- or two-word headlines rarely tell the reader what the story is about. Twenty-word headlines are just sloppy. Weak headline writing is common across all three levels of institutions I monitor. (Is headline writing not being taught any more?)

But most egregious are the headlines (and leads) that miss the real news. Here is an example from this last week or so. California Community College Chancellor Eloy Oakley has been holding periodic press conferences for community college stuent editors. It is common to see headlines like “Chancellor meets with student editors.” Okay, I’ll give you the benefit of arguing that until the last eight months, this was not common; in that sense it is newsworthy that he is doing so. But what he says in those press conferences is more important that the fact that he met.

During his most recent meeting he apparently covered a variety of topics (a weak description that could be used for every once of his press conferences. SO FAR, I’ve seen only ONE community college story about the press conference that told me in the headline something important he said — and what he said was a doozy. Kudos to the East Los Angeles Campus News for writing “California Community College courses stay online to 2024.”

How is this not the lead story in student publications across the state this week? (By the way, he told student editors last May that this entire school year would be online, but everyone seems surprised that the spring will be.)

California State University publications have a similar problem, by the way, with headlines like “Chancellor-select Castro announces plans for time as CSU leader” that don’t say what those plans include, such as looking to see if campus service fees can be reduced while campuses are closed.


Transformation of the club house

August 15, 2020

As I look at the challenges my journalism educator colleagues face these days and having to deal with remote teaching I mostly am glad that I retired from full-time teaching a few years ago, but there are times when I wish I was back in the game.

I still pick up part-time teaching gigs, and I have nearly 15 years of experience teaching online, so I am sure I could adapt to remote teaching, though it has some different challenges than online instruction: for one thing, I’ve long held that online courses are not for every student or for every teacher and now everyone is having to adapt ready or not. And while the spring semester could be chalked up to an aberration, an accident of time, it does not look like returning to the classroom will be the norm for at least another year.

I’ve often been an early adopter of technology, but one aspect of teaching journalism and advising student publications always eluded me: the clubhouse effect of the student newspaper classroom. It is a powerful tool for teaching journalism and engaging students and now it has been ripped away for the time being. As I was teaching online classes I often pondered on how to transform the camaraderie of staff meetings and late production nights with a solid, tangible product of a newspaper (or magazine or yearbook) at the end. With no one on campus to pick up a printed paper why print one?

Oh, sure, fewer and fewer people on campus were picking them up any way, and online/mobile/social media sites have been scratching at the door for years industry wide, but there was still some powerful magic in the student newsroom and the final product. Over the years so many students found their calling in life “working in the clubhouse.” Today, the clubhouse is virtual and scattered and my colleagues are working like mad to recreate the magic.

And it is not just the newspaper that is affected by this new trend. I remember consoling my radio-tv teaching colleague years ago as he saw his student radio station being forced to give up its clubhouse. He, too, hung on to his college days of working all night alone at his college radio station and learning so much. He more or less gave up and waited out time until he was eligible for retirement.

A part of me is glad that I don’t have to figure it out these days. Leave it to younger, sharper minds. But there is an inner voice in me whispering, “Wouldn’t it be cool to transform that clubhouse; today you’d HAVE to do it. Stop thinking and start doing.”

Another thing that dogged me for so many years was how to get students to stop setting all story deadlines to the day before the print edition came out. I used to say often that “might students put out a daily newspaper once a week.” We had a strong online site and even that was years behind. Students had a hard time embracing it as the primary deadline driver..

The print edition, while exciting to put together, was anachronistic. I still like reading newspapers in the old page layout format, but I rarely pick up a print version any more. I am a digital edition subscriber to most publications, and even read their online editions more than before.

And funding the print edition was getting more and more difficult as advertising dried up and fewer people were picking it up. COVID-19 and remote teaching just might force students to do what the industry has been facing for years and put more attention to a daily. Some programs have gone to putting out fewer and fewer print publications: imagine what that means when you still use the print deadline as the deadline driver!

What got me thinking of this today especially was an article I read online about the New York Daily News announcing the shutdown of its newsroom and the writer’s lament. After the pandemic is over, the newsroom/clubhouse will not come back. Technology has rendered it anachronistic.

Journalism education, especially at the community college level, needs to work harder at preparing tomorrow’s workforce for tomorrow, not for yesterday. If I were still advising student publications that would make me sad, but the challenge would excite me.



Correlation≠ causation

January 16, 2020

My wife shared this photo with me today. It is part of an opinion story that appears in the Orange County Register and presents a good lesson for editors about correlation vs. causation.

What’s wrong with it? Well, note the sentence in the cutline:

The county says that people who receive county services are most likely to become homeless.”

It is probably an accurate statement in that someone from the county –though I would like to know who or which office– said. But it certainly is misleading. The average reader would look at this and say that maybe the county should not be offering services or that the county is somehow culpable in creating homelessness. The fact is not that those who receive services become homeless, but that those on the road to homelessness often end up seeking services from the county. Good editors would catch the correlation vs. causation error. Weak editors would not pay attention to what the words REALLY say.

Oh, and by the way, the opinion story does not even make a direct connection with the cutline, but it does support the misconception.


Christmas memories

December 24, 2019

I heard a feature on KPCC the other day about favorite Christmas memories. Then last night I awoke in the middle of the night and could not go back to sleep because I was thinking of Christmas memories.

The FAVORITE Christmas memory was easy. I’ve known it for years. But dwelling on it brought other fond memories of Christmases past. I often cannot remember much of my youth, but then something like this tickles the gray cells and I suddenly remember snippets.

The favorite memory? Well, it was about 25 years ago when my son was somewhere between 9 to 12. I was sick with a bad cold that Christmas –that happened a lot when I was teaching; I’d make it to the Christmas break and then get sick for Christmas. I had seen a doctor and he had prescribed a codeine-based cough syrup.

So I sat on the couch at my in-laws’ house all spaced out. Rich and his cousins Alexander, Matthew, Jason were all about the same age, given or take a year or two, and after all the packages were unwrapped they pile up all the wrapping paper and had the best time leaping on to it like a pile of leaves. The combination of being stoned and listening to their glee as they leaped and leaped made it a special memory, despite the cold.

As my in-laws’ family grew and kids had kids we morphed into a different kind of Christmas. Everyone got huge personalized stockings. Instead of presents adults got stockings filled by 15-20 family members. (Of course, almost everyone bought 20 of the same thing so everyone go the same or similar thing, but that’s okay.) Since I was among the oldest, my mother-in-law had made mine and my wife’s stocking early in the process. It was special, but not personalized. One year Susan fixed that by quilting a copy of my students’ newspaper atop a three-foot stocking.

The other thing that was special was that my mother-in-law would take the youngest generation to the bookstore in the afternoon and they could each select a book of their liking and she’d pay. We lost mom a little over fur years ago, but continued that tradition Christmas 2015 in her memory. I even copied the idea with a family connected to my mother for a couple of years.

Of course, once we lost my mother-in-law we all knew that the huge family gathering of 30 or more in one house was an endangered tradition. It was already getting harder and harder to schedule such a great get together as generations started establishing their own family obligations.

This is the first year since I got married that the in-law family did not get together. It was bound to happen, but I miss it.

How about memories with my family. They are less clear in my mind, but I do have photos in the scrapbook my mother kept for me that remind of some Christmases.

I remember as a young kid living in a small two-bedroom duplex apartment on 15th Street in Reedley. There were at least three of us kids, maybe four, before we moved to the “big” three-bedroom house on Palm Avenue in Reedley.

There is a photo of one Christmas where I am in my pajamas and wearing a cowboy hat while playing with a toy truck I got as a present. What is it with young boys and trucks?

But most Christmases in my family seem to have been held at grandparents’ homes. I have memories of the adults all sitting around at my mother’s parents house, but the fondest memories there were using the “big” feather bed in the basement like a trampoline. It probably was only as big a as a double bed and a8-24 inches deep, but it seemed SO MUCH BIGGER. Maybe that is part of the reason my kids’ experience jumping on wrapping paper stands out.

I remember one Christmas at my father’s father’s house where “Granny Bea” had bought a boxed set of magic tricks for my brother and something else for me. I wanted the magic tricks so much and made a fuss until she simply traded the gifts between us. Six months later my mother found a woman in town who was selling a lot of magic show equipment and bought it and lessons for me. That next year I did magic shows for a couple of the service clubs in town and one for my grade school as a special school-wide assembly.

Perhaps the best Christmases, though, were at Merdikee’s (Aunt Mary, but I never called her that) house. She had a color TV. She was always extra special to me; she essentially raised my dad after his mother died when he was young. Merdikee was really his aunt, but to me she was like a grandmother.

Christmases in the 80s through the present seemed to always mean that we were traveling to the Fresno area where the biggest concentration of both mine and Susan’s families live. Christmas time at my mother’s includes enjoying the hundreds of Santas she has peppered around the house, though each year now she puts out fewer and fewer.

Our immediate family has adopted Christmas traditions of going out to a movie together on Christmas Eve and sharing Christmas breakfast together at home before hitting the road. Only a couple of times over the years did the rest of the family come our way. One was when Susan was pregnant and could not travel. Another Christmas I guess at least my mom came our way because my son Rich got some red suspenders as a gift and was “so ga-cited for his red bus-spenders.” (He hates it when that is brought up every Christmas.) Another was last year because we were the ones with a house big enough to hold everyone. But many of the family did not travel for that one either.

At 67 I still enjoy Christmas, but more as a spectator. Watching my adult daughter Rachel decorate the tree and the house and bake all kinds of goodies for friends is a different kind of special. This year we get to share part of the day with a one-year-old whose mother is sharing the house with us.

That may be the closest I ever get to having grandchildren to share Christmas with, but I will take it.


Citing sources, especially online

December 10, 2019

Including sources in stories was a priority teaching tenet when I was teaching community college students to be journalists. I made it part of the grading process for the student newspaper and hammered attribution in my news writing instruction –after focusing on leads, of course.

To earn full credit for an article written for the student newspaper there had to be a MINIMUM of two sources. When I marked issues of the paper for critiques I marked the first use of a source in a story with a special colored marking pen to make it easier to count sources. (When I switched to PDF-marked critiques and had fewer color options I started including a “stamp” option of a person’s head to make them stand out.)

Along with the PDF critiques I included a “By the Numbers” page associated with each issue; acclimating students to numbers and news was another priority. A major part of the effort was not only to count up numbers of sources used each week, but overall average sources used per story. Opinion stories, for instance, often did not contain sources, so non-opinion stories needed to make up the difference if we were to meet the goal of an average of MINIMUM of two sources per story for the issue.

In short, forcing students out of their comfort shells and out talking to people was important in their development as journalists. But some students tried to skate anyway by quoting not from sources they talked to, but written sources from other publications, such as The New York Times and the Centers for Disease Control website.

For a while I referred to these as bogus sources, an inaccurate moniker, for sure, as these secondary sources often added credibility to the story. A student got me to change my terminology to indirect sources. I also made a distinction in critiques between direct sources and indirect sources with an aim to limiting the latter to more than 10 percent of all sources per publication.

As I monitor student publications around the state for my Online Elsewhere initiative I continue to look for sources. Are students being taught to emerge from the comfort zone of aggregating indirect sources? Mostly yes, but often no; to be blunt, some of the publications are terrible at it. Most work direct sources well into their news stories, sports stories and personality profiles. In some features and in most opinion stories, though, they don’t.

I understand it for opinion stories, though if students focused more on campus/community issues and less on national and cultural issues, they could definitely turn some opinion columns into nice reader-related features. For instance, I recently saw a Saddleback Lariat feature on vaping that included student sources commenting on vaping. Most other publications talking about vaping only quoted statistics using indirect sources.

And when indirect sources are used in stories citations are vague: The New York Times or the Centers for Disease Control. Such vagueness would never be allowed in the academic writing talk in college composition courses. Papers written for those courses would require much more bibliographic detail in footnotes/endnotes or with in-text citations. Writing for journalistic publications are not as academic in presentation than papers for composition, though, and rightly so. There are space and readability considerations. Long URLs –and usually we are talking about web sources– would interfere with the readability of text in narrow columns and short paragraphs. Footnotes/endnotes also are not the norm for newspaper publications, though they COULD be included.

Student reporters need to understand the purpose of bibliographic detail –not the least of which is that online sources can change, so dating the access point is important. They need to understand that “The New York Times” is a big complication of material. In fact, it is likely that somewhere else in the archives of the New York Times might be an article that includes conflicting information. To be fair to the reader you need to be more precise. Even “according to a Dec. 10 article in the New York Times” or “according to a Dec. 10 article by Rich Cameron in the New York Times” is doable an much closer to linking the reader to the source, should the reader need to confirm the quote or want to know more. Speaking of links, a shortened weblink from a site like bit.ly could even be used as an in-text citation without creating problems.

But what I find truly a failure in teaching students journalists is when I see stories added to the publication’s website. Almost universally it is clear that students are merely archiving their stories onto the website without paying attention to the unique properties of web pages over print pages. On websites you have another option for citations: You can link your “The New York Times” to the specific article. A recent good example is a story I noticed on the CSU Long Beach Daily 49er website. If you look at this story you will find the kinds of links I am talking about.

I don’t know if the Santa Barbara City College Channels has or enforces the same policy it had several years ago when it transitioned to online only, but the policy required each story to contain a minimum of two live links. That meant that reporters often had to go an extra mile in citing sources. Not only were links added, but sometimes those links led to campus documents the students also had to digitize and/or store online. Keeping the reader in mind and offering more than vague summaries is such a wonderful next step for student journalists to learn!

Make the publication website a learning tool rather than just an archive. You will be preparing students better for the journalism world they are about to enter.

The unique properties of an online site extend to use of use of unordered lists for bullet lists, perhaps reformatting stories to use numbered lists instead of first, second, etc., and more. How about recording interviews and extracting/attaching relevant audio snippets linked to quotations to allow the interested reader to assess context? (See the NPR websites to see the value of that.) And most, if not all, online versions of articles will attract more readers if images are attached; there are not the space limitations faced with print.

First teach students to be better journalists by talking to people rather than hiding behind indirect sources, then teach them to respect their readers with more thoughtful online presentation.


Using the Northwestern issue in class and unpublishing stories

December 8, 2019

Seldom does a college or university student publication do something that garnered the nation attention the Daily Northwestern got last month when it redacted photos from its website and retroactively changed how it originally covered a campus story.

Mainstream media and bloggers across the country leaped on to the decision –the decision, not the story– like fleas on a dog. Most pilloried  the students for their decision while others allowed that the decision was similar to ones publications make all the time.

Stories like this make good discussion points for student journalism courses when they happened. I wondered both whether California community college instructors were bring it up in their courses for discussion and how prevalent the call to redact stories were and how student publications deal with requests like that.

I polled California’s community college instructors about both questions. Most did not respond. I only received about a dozen responses to each question. As a a result, it is hard to characterize the extent of those discussions or how often reaction requests occur, but below are some responses I did receive.

I also shared, via my Online Elsewhere newsletter sent to instructors, an array of the the mainstream and blog reactions I had culled from the RSS feeds I monitored those first few weeks:

When I was teaching it was sometimes difficult to add discussions on current issues like that in my mass communication courses in real time because I had the whole course mapped out ahead of time. If we were talking about movies, for instance, it is difficult to reference the Northwestern situation without disrupting the plan for the course. Now, if our look at print media was going on, it was easy to fit a current topic like this in. But what happened if we had already covered and gone beyond out look at print media?

My newswriting and student publication courses were different. It was always much easier to take a class period or two to talk about it in the newswriting course. I could call attention to the newspaper staff in real time and we could take a time out in production to discuss it.

As for calls for redaction. Yeah, because of digital media we got requests all the time. I specifically recall a former college president calling me up several years after she was forced out of the college and asking that we remove a story about her troubles at the college because it kept showing up first on Google when people searched her name; it was getting in the way of her finding new president jobs. The editorial board voted NOT to remove the story.

But in my last few years at the college the student editors DID decide to remove or alter stories when sources they had interviewed appropriately came back and said they were afraid their ex-relationship was stalking them and locating them because their name showed up in the story. The print version could not be changed, but it was more difficult for the ex to search print. Like many of the pundits who pilloried the Northwestern editors, I felt they made poor, non-journalistic decisions.

So what happens at college publications I surveyed these days?

First, only seven instructors said they had shared the Northwestern story with their students within the first few weeks after it occurred. Only one said she had shared it in a mass communications course and one in a newswriting course. All said they had shared it with their student publications editors. And in almost all cases, the students disagreed with the decision made by the Northwestern editors. In one case, the students had no reaction. One instructor went a step further in sharing the story and shared this:

“I first shared their (the Northwestern editors) mea culpa. At first the staff really identified with the statement, as they are all very, very new, literally first-semester students.

“Then I gave them the original article, and they, of their own volition, began to push back on the apology.

“Finally, I shared the dean’s statement. By that point, the students were quite organically coming to some of the same conclusions as the dean.

“I used the opportunity to reinforce some journalistic expectations and standards.”

About the time I was monitoring the Northwestern decision stories Nieman Lab published an article about the coming wave of requests to unpublished stories. I decided to ask community college advisers about requests from readers to redact or change stories that had already been published.

Again, only about a dozen advisers responded. A larger response would have given some insight into how common the problem was, but only two of those 12 instructors responding indicated that the issue had not come up in the last two years. Most of those who did indicate that the publication had been asked said that student editors rejected the request, but there were some instances where changes were made. Here is a sampling of the answers I received.

  • A former editor asks to remove rape opinion +3 other opinions. It was second time the request was made. Policy says staff votes. Both times staff vote to keep. Meeting with VP in a couple of weeks to discuss further. (We had) crafted an unpublish policy the first time request to take down came. Gave her option to add comment to original. She said OK, but never got back until recently when she asked to take it down again.
  • Did change a misleading headline to something more appropriate.
  • It happens with old stories when people Google themselves. We tell them it is our policy to not remove articles
  • Years ago we were asked to remove an article. A faculty member regretted talking about drunk band mate. The EIC made the decision after discussing with others. The article was not taken down.
  • Staff and faculty threatened with blackmail by yet to be identified person. Students and adviser discussed it briefly and agreed the answer was no.
  • An employee in a photo we took during a lockdown situation asked for the photo to be removed, saying she didn’t give her consent for the photo. The EIC made the call with discussion with the adviser, as the employee reached out to the adviser rather than the EIC staff.
  • A writer for our magazine reviewed a local arcade. After publishing, the owner of the arcade brought up several factual errors in the story and asked for its retraction. The new magazine EIC, in discussion with the adviser, elected to take down the story until it could be rewritten without the factual errors.
  • Former student didn’t want abusive, threatening ex to find her or her children. She wanted her articles removed. Student editors agreed to remove her opinion pieces but kept her restaurant reviews. They did change the byline to Staff.
  • The subject of a profile feature was unhappy with how she was portrayed in the story. It was an extremely positive story about an alumna who had broken barriers in her field. She demanded that the reporter take down the story and even went so far as to rewrite the story the way she wanted it and ask that the “new” version be posted. The student reporter felt intimidated and thought because an adult told her to remove the story, she needed to do so. She did. She then requested that I read the story. I found nothing wrong with the story, and strongly urged her to reconsider her choice (very little time had passed since the story was removed.) In consult with the editor in chief, the story was restored to the website. We did not notify the subject.
  • A former reporter who did excellent work asked that we take a video piece she did down because she was going into a different field (I’m guessing). The adviser contacted former student to tell her why that is not possible.
  • A former ASCC wanted a story in which he was quoted taken down. Staff did not take the story down. They made the decision. They did want advice from me about it, but honestly, they were already thinking about it how I was.

The other half of sports reporting

November 8, 2019

Sports pageCommunity college has long been the oft-ignored child when it comes to sports coverage. Caught between rabid high school fan bases and national alumni bases for four-year college and university sports teams, “professional” newspapers often ignore most community college sports.

Community college teams even seem to get short shrift from their local campus publications. As I review California community college student publications for my Online Elsewhere initiative I see a lot of half coverage of even the most popular sports –football, basketball, and baseball– much less coverage of other campus sports. And when it comes to sports columns, college journalists are more likely to comment on professional sports than programs that they should give a damn about more than those elsewhere.

Shrinking space in print publications and staff shortages make it difficult to cover campus sports in the detail sports reporters should be cutting their teeth on. But even with major sports I see far too much past game coverage than perspective coverage.

I get it. I started my journalism career off as a sports reporter, both for my high school newspaper and for the local weekly paper. I was hired by the weekly Reedley Exponent while I was in high school to write “as much sports as I wanted for $10 a week.” One story, $10. Two stories, $10. Three stories, …. I was thrilled. But even then most of my efforts were to cover sports as if all that mattered was what happened last week.

(One excellent piece of advice the local editor game me, though, was to read stories elsewhere on sports other than football, basketball, and baseball so that I learned more about them. I mean, what are you going to do when you are suddenly asked to cover a field hockey game and you have no understanding of the sport. As a newspaper adviser one of the most-often heard complaints I got from campus coaches was that the reporter assigned to cover his or her team was that the reporter had no understanding of the sport.)

There certainly is a role for game coverage for beginning reporters. You develop the ability to take notes, evaluate game statistics, interview coaches (and players), and create a running narrative. Defining pivotal moments in a contest in any sport is important to critical thinking development.

But even back in my early days of sports reporting my reporting was always past tense.

When I teach mass media survey courses, one of my lectures talks about the roles of the media. Ask someone, for instance, what is the role of a newspaper and the answer in invariably is “to report the news.” Ask the respondent to then define “news” and most often you will get a definition of reporting on something that has already happened. I call that the Record Keeping role.

But my lecture points out that the role of the news media goes beyond simply reporting what has happened. I talk, for instance, about the Watchdog role, where media serve as a watchdog over government, and the Marketplace and Opinion Leader roles, where the media serve as conduit for community discussion. (Other important roles include an Economic role, a Social role, and an Entertainment role.)

Similar to the Watchdog role is the Sentry role, where the media serve to tell us what is happening or likely to happen BEFORE it happens. Community college sports reporters do little to inform their readers on what is coming up. If they do, it is likely a paragraph tossed in at the end of a game story or in the form of a sports calendar; there is little detail beyond time and place.

This was a problem I fought unsuccessfully for most of my four-decade student publication advising career. I could not get sports reporters to seriously cover pre-game stories.

Rabid high school sports fans will gladly read a game story for several days after the game as they re-live the experience. And they will show up for the upcoming game as readily as they will watch their favorite show on TV. And they already know when they are facing a perennial rival.

University-level fans will read a game story the next day, but by mid-week, when most weekly print publications are printed, they are ready to know more about this week’s opponent. How good is the team? What is its record? What should we expect about the team and how does our team stack up? Are there any common opponents results that should give us a clue? How are we doing in our conference and what is the importance of this game?

Community college readers will read last week’s game story mid-week because that’s usually all they get. And because they likely were not at that week’s game or match.

Game stories have a place in community college publications, but that should be just the beginning. Since most community college publications have an online presence now, that coverage should come within one or two days online. If the publication has a mid-week print publication, then in addition to recording history it should start to play sentry and emphasize the upcoming opponents both in print and online.

(And I still have not even addressed the importance of covering the non-major sports.)

The sooner community college sports reporters take that next-level step, the sooner they will evolve into the sports reporter they desire to be at a university or professionally. One day they will be covering professional sports with credibility. Note: They should even be developing their podcasting skills by covering local sports, where their opinions are likely to make more of a difference; there is already too much noise about professional sports for them to stand out at this level of their careers.

Developing upcoming stories requires a student reporter to reach out beyond the silo of his or her campus. It requires researching and understanding of other teams and talking to sources with whom you are unfamiliar. And out helps you better understand the game in front of you.

– – – – –

Now, should we talk about covering those minor sports? After all, if you add up all your school’s athletes, you’d probably find that the number of minor sports athletes nearly equals or exceeds the number of major sports athletes. They deserve coverage, too.


Hiring and firing editors

November 6, 2019
How is a student publication hired or selected? More interesting than that, how do you fire one?
The latter question was the gist of a conversation I recently had with one California community college student publication adviser. The adviser was getting subtle pressure from the college administration to fire an editor, who, by the way, appears to be doing the job just fine.
The adviser wanted to know
  1. If he/she could be pressured to fire an editor,
  2. Who has the authority to fire the editor, and
  3. Under what grounds can an editor be fired?
Over my 40-plus years of advising community college student publications I “hired” upwards of 100 editors, both newspaper and magazines. Twice I had to fire an editor and at least two other times had to replace editors mid-semester because their life circumstances changed and they had to step down. (And I had the painful circumstance of losing one recent editor –from the semester before– who perished in a tragic off-road vehicle accident.)
I’ve always operated on the policy of the one who hires needs to be the one who fires. And I always felt that part of the reason the college hired me as the student publications adviser was because of my experience and expertise of what the job of editor required and how to train editors as leaders. That meant that the decision to hire fell in my lap.
I know that other California community college advisers have a variety of ways of making editor selections, so I specifically asked them in a SurveyMonkey poll and have summarized some of the results below. Fifteen responded and I have included some of their responses below. Bottom line: All but a couple indicated that the adviser is the one who hires. Several do so with the help of an advisory committee –usually former editors of the publication. Almost all indicated that editors are hired for one semester. I also know from another Journalism Association of Community Colleges initiative that about a third of the programs hire co-editors.
But sharing others’ responses, let me talk a bit about my experiences and policies over the years, especially since I had to actually fire two editors
The adviser I mentioned above was getting pressure from college administrators to fire the editor, who was actually doing his job. But that job included running a series of sensitive stories that for various reasons upset the administrators. That is the wrong reason to fire an editor; it flies in the face of freedom of speech and press.
California Education Code for high schools and colleges protects advisers who defend their students’ First Amendment rights.
And because both school administrators and the adviser at public institutions technically are government employees, I consider it to be illegal to fire because of content decisions. A trickier question has to do with the role of the adviser vs. the role of the adviser in editing or influencing content.
I remember one community college publication –not mine– where the editor(s) of the student newspaper were Holocaust deniers and used the publication to promote that view.
In another case, I heard of a student-written anti-Holocaust editorial being rewritten by the adviser to say exactly the opposite. That example was one I used to justify my hardline policy of not even reading stories before publication unless specifically being asked by an editor –the reporter had to go through an editor to get me to sit down and review a story. Once you start looking for spelling, grammar, style and factual errors where do you stop?
It is important that the adviser realize that he/she is NOT the editor. There is case law that addresses who has the right to act as publisher of a student newspaper at public schools and colleges. Even though the institution “owns” the publication, the institution and its administrators, as government employees, do not have the right to control content. It seems that the student editor is to be the final arbiter. (I recommend that you check with the Student Press Law Center at http://www.splc.org for specifics.)
I often pointed out that half the college –including many administrators– think as adviser I controlled content of the student publication, the other half thought I OUGHT to control content. And because so many of us are math challenged, I then said that the other (third) half knows better. Advising required a constant education of the college community as to the role and rights of a student publication and moving people to that “third half.”
But back to the topic of hiring and firing editors.
The two editors I fired were let go because they stopped attending class and running the publication in a manner consistent with a college class. (I was the adviser in charge of the class, but the structure we established a structure where the student editor ran and made content decisions for the publication.)
When a student editor has stepped over the line of missing class and doing his/her job is an individual decision and should be considered deeply. Give the errant editor ample warning and opportunity to correct the situation before taking the serious step of firing him/her.
When I started as an adviser selection of an editor was a seat-of-the-pants process that occurred in the first week(s) of a new semester when I saw who enrolled for the staff class. Over time, though, I discovered that a better process was to identify and train leaders the semester or school year BEFORE. And then I hired editors in a proscribed process spelled out by our written policy. To be sure, in a “two-year” community college (students often were there longer), there were still times when I had to draft an editor at the beginning of a semester, but most of the time after refining my process I had multiple qualified applicants each semester for the next semester.
Believe me, selecting a qualified editor toward the end of the previous semester is FAR SUPERIOR that last-minute drafting of an editor.
I also felt that even when there was only one candidate for the job, a proscribed process not only helped me make a wise decision, it helped the candidate develop a mindset to be editor. It also helped ward off interference from the college administration.
This is the process I used:
  1. The interested student submitted a simple letter indicating an interest and explaining why he/she wanted to be editor. I actively encouraged students to apply, even if only to get interview experience from the next step.
  2. I then assembled a committee of former editors to interview the candidates using a list of questions developed over the years to explore the thoughts and plans for the candidate toward editorship. It was constantly tweaked as the publication evolved and was designed to get the candidate to think about being editor. I sat in on the interviews*, but mostly tried to be a fly on the way rather than a participating member, though I sometimes intervened with followup questions based on some of the answers I heard.

* One semester I was so ill I should have been home. The medications I was taking to stay lucent caused me to fall asleep and snore during one interview. “I’m so NOT getting this job,” the applicant mused. I was embarrassed and apologized. She did not get the job, but not because she was boring. It was a difficult to make a final decision, but I believe I selected the better candidate.

  1. The committee made a recommendation based on the interviews. I mostly accepted the committee’s recommendation, sometimes against my own judgment. Occasionally I overruled the recommendation.
  2. The editor must then commit to signing up for the newspaper class the next semester and if he/she hadn’t already taken our beginning news writing class –it happened from time to time– to sign up for it, next semester, too.
  3. The editor can then select page and other editors. Because the editor hires/selects them, the editor can fire/dismiss them in consultation with the adviser. Even though the other editors are also enrolled in the class the editor cannot kick them out of the class and it is up to the adviser to make sure they get a fair shake in contributing to the publication.
In other words, the interview itself became an important learning experience for the candidate. It was important, too, to engage former editors who had gone through a similar learning experience; one’s job of teaching does not necessarily end when the student graduates.
As I mentioned above, there ARE other ways of selecting editors. My way worked for me and I believe was sound, but I respect other advisers’ policies as well. And I asked for feedback on what those polices involved.
Here are the responses I received from the advisers who responded to my request for a quick summary of their hiring process:
  • Adviser recommends EIC. EIC is interviewed by former EIC(s). EIC and ed board recommend and select section editors.
  • According to the student manual, the adviser selects the editor-in-chief
  • At the beginning of the semester, the EIC chooses likely candidate as front page editor or online editor or other positions. Toward the end of the semester, the EIC and I look at the performances. Usually, it’s obvious. This semester we had two good candidates and the EIC couldn’t decide. So we brought in all the former EICs for a consultation and the decision was unanimous.
  • Often there are bot multiple students vying for EIC so if there is only one, we go with it. If there are two or more students, I have then fill out an application and I and two other colleague interview them. I’m the tie-breaker vote but my colleagues always select the person who I would have chosen on my own.
  • Until last year, we had a formal process with letters of intent and interviews by advisers and outgoing editors. In the past year, we’ve adopted a less formal process because we have fewer students. Advisers will talk with promising students about becoming editors.
  • Three editors and two advisers select the EIC.  Candidates turn in a letter and supporting documents.  The EIC selects all other editors.  Again, candidates turn in a letter and supporting docs.
  • The adviser selects the EIC
  • Select with input from instructional assistants and current/previous editors.
  • Students run and prepare a platform with a slate of editors/staff. The candidates are interviewed by a panel of alumni/professionals (job interview). Advisors are in the interview as resources but non-voting.
  • Selected by the adviser. Students apply, the adviser decides. (In reality, we have not had a competition in year. We usually get only one applicant or get zero and have to beg a student to take on the role.)
  • We have an advisory board of five members. All are former editors-in-chief of the newspaper who work in the media industry. At the end of each semester, they choose the incoming editor-in-chief for the following semester.    Applicants fill out an application followed by a platform statement that outlines their vision and plans for the upcoming semester — the kinds of stories they’d like to do, who they are considering for section editor positions, how they see the role of journalism on a college campus. Those applications and platform statements are forwarded to the advisory board a week before the interviews. The board interviews each candidate, with the advisor(s) joining in a supervisory role but not asking questions. After all candidates are interviewed, the board makes a selection, and then brings each candidate back in for a debriefing and discussion about the selection.
  • Students are apply for editorships the last week of the previous quarter. EIC candidates are interviewed first by a committee of at least one reporter and one editor and the adviser, who has a vote and a veto. Section editors are then interviewed by EIC and at least one editor and one reporter and adviser, who does not vote but can veto.
  • I try to identify the potential EIC or Co-EICs at the end of each semester. Often times this is not possible because students haven’t yet registered for classes.  If this isn’t possible, I have to wait until the start of the semester and then just basically ask who is interested in being the EIC. Typically no more than two people volunteer, so those are the ones selected more or less by default.
  • Seat of the pants – whoever is left standing that will return next semester. Advisor chosen at this point.
  • Students apply, interview, and tested. There’s a committee.