Archive for March, 2019

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What is the role of the campus newspaper?

March 9, 2019

What is the role of a student newspaper in California community college journalism? Or, a better question yet: what are the roles of a student newspaper?

How one answers this question is important in how we teach our student publication courses. 

Most advisers could give relatively quick and simple answers to the question, but once you compare those answers across the state  you would find that the question doesnt generate simple answers.

For instance, one of the first definitions you must face is whether to emphasize camps news vs. community news. Almost all California community college newspapers, whether print-based or digitally based (you may notice that I did not say online-based, which is rapidly becoming an outdated term), cover at least some campus news, but increasingly I am seeing publications include community news. Some are even focusing on national and international news.

If you asked college officials the question they likely would say one of the — if not THE — roles of a student publication is to cover news of the campus.

I see some publications doing an outstanding role doing that — one of the best is Santa Barbara College — while others cover little campus news beyond campus sports. (Even then, college sports columnists show a fondness for discussing professional sports rather than dissecting their own sports teams.)

There are good arguments for covering community news as well as national or international news. For instance, if the campus publication is the only news students look at then letting them know what is going on in the world is important. And it is certainly more appealing for columnists and editorial writers to comment on national and international issues than delving into campus issues. Student voices and engagement in the world outside the confines of the campus is good.

And the borders around a campus are artificial when community news occurs. Off-campus community news, done right, requires students to look for local angles and provides opportunities for students to seek out sources beyond the familiar fellow students and campus officials. Pushing students outside their comfort zones, arguably is another role of the campus publication

One of the disturbing trends I see in some California community college publications that is rampant in opinion pieces, but even news coverage, is simply digesting news from other publication sources and not including original reporting. 

When I was teaching and advising student publications, a major teaching emphasis for me was encouraging students reporters to reach out to primary sources rather than secondary sources, which I sometimes referred to as “bogus sources.” (Calling them bogus was inaccurate because there legitimate uses of secondary sources, but my point was that students should not rely on them exclusively.) I see some student publications over-relying on secondary sources in non-campus stories and personally see that as a weakness in what we teach. On the other hand, when covering national and international news it is difficult for students to cultivate primary sources.

Is rehashing/curating news from other publications journalism? Yes and no. Much of what we see in broadcast news, both on and off campus and distinctly aside from “breaking news,” is summaries from other publications. I remember a term from my college days studying broadcast news: rip and read. Even when broadcast news journalists deliver original stories it is often the local newspaper that led the broadcast team to the story.

The shift from covering campus news to off-campus news correlates strongly to an emphasis in digitally distributed news. It is easier to re-tweet from other publications, for instance, than to produce and promote local/campus news. And without emphasizing the need for primary sources students lose an important component in journalism education they need to push beyond comfort zones.

Once the regular production of a print edition wanes it is easy to forget one of the original missions of the student newspaper: to cover the campus. As journalism educators, we easily see a broadening role for journalism programs in our colleges, but college officials often see the journalism program mostly as a means to a student publication that covers campus news. Stop covering campus news in favor of  community, national, and international news and college officials MAY start questioning the need for a journalism program.

They would be wrong, of course, but unless we educate them they may not consider the greater contribution of journalism education.

Hence the need to go back to the original question and be clear what the roles of student publications are.

Another answer many advisers would give would be that we are training future journalists. This can seem like a weak answer if college officials don’t interpret the evolution mainstream media are experiencing correctly. All that they will see is a retrenching of the traditional media workforce.

I would argue that the skill sets we teach transcend simply training students to enter the workforce of traditional media. This always hounded me when I had to produce program reviews and Career Technical Education reports and had to include job outlook data. What we teach students in our programs overall and in our student publications in particular transfers well into a variety of careers that don’t fit into traditional CTE paths usually associated with our discipline.

But that is a whole other discussion. In our student publications we teach communication, information gathering, storytelling/information sharing, team work, leadership, and more. Other disciplines do the same — just ask an athletic coach, a student government adviser, a speech teacher, a business teacher, a plotical science instructor, or just about any discipline teacher on your campus. 

So why do we need a student publication? Distributing campus (hyperlocal) news is one thing are we can do better than most programs.

What I like best with a strong emphasis on campus news is that it is harder for student journalists to do without getting out there and talking to primary sources.

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