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Black, white and read all over: The fate of student papers

Published: March 7, 2013, 1:03 am ET
Graphic by Andy Miller
Opinion Editor

Thank you. By reading this article you are not only liking or hating my attempts at writing, but you are supporting student journalism. For almost 100 years, this newspaper has nurtured new generations of editors and reporters at the University of Richmond.

Student newspapers serve as training grounds for the future’s Nick Kristofs and Katie Courics. I would like to tell you that the prospects are bright for these institutions, but they are not.

It’s almost trite to say it now, but newspapers are struggling in America. Small and mid-size publications nationwide have been forced to close or downsize, and even America’s biggest and most respected newspapers have been forced to lay off hundreds of employees in the past decade.

Nimble online news sites simply beat newspapers in speed and efficiency at first, but now websites such as The Huffington Post and Slate have quality writing and reporting that routinely surpasses print journalism. With both of these sites being free of charge, it’s no wonder newspapers are suffering.

Student newspapers face all of those issues, but even more intensely. The targeted readers of college newspapers are young people — the most likely group to get news mostly from Twitter and Facebook instead of a newspaper or outdated website.

College newspapers must push their presence on social media and have well-designed websites to keep connected with students, all while absorbing the loss of print advertising as a primary funding source.

In recent years, student newspapers have faced not only outside hardship, but also internal threats to their freedom and vitality.

A case at the University of Georgia is an extreme example of the latter. Writers and editors with The Red and Black, the college’s independent student paper, found themselves constantly under pressure from their publishing company to avoid writing about “bad news” and to take more posed photos. The staff was only able to end this censorship by resigning en masse, an act that made national news.

Most of the cases of student press interference are not that extreme, and some even result from good intentions by a professor trying to improve an article, or an administrator wanting to protect the school’s reputation.

Although every student-journalist benefits from the wisdom and advice of his or her professors, when those professors coerce their own edits into student newspaper stories, or impel editors to assign a certain story to a particular person, the student reporters, editors and copy editors are deprived of their chances to learn and grow.

The buck should stop with the editor-in-chief of a student newspaper, not its faculty adviser. And university administrators who try to clamp down on their schools’ newspapers to avoid scandal should instead follow Aesop’s advice: Honesty is the best policy.

Online news sites do an excellent job of covering and analyzing major events in the nation and world, but a student newspaper fulfills a niche with its narrow, but often varied and thorough focus. The Huffington Post hasn’t been there to dig into the ongoing sports cuts controversy, but The Collegian has.

The forced resignation of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan was covered well in The New York Times, but The Cavalier Daily wrote numerous articles breaking down the situation and including student and faculty voices.

I may be preaching to the choir with an article that appears in a student newspaper, but I hope you will encourage your friends, professors and family to read The Collegian and other student newspapers.

We are passionate about what we write, edit and design, and are grateful for the opportunity to share it with you every week. For that opportunity to persist, however, we need your help.

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