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August 20 2012

13:34

Red & Black Lesson: Students Must Balance Business Needs at College Papers

There are no winners in the mess at the Red & Black. But there are lessons.

The Red & Black at the University of Georgia has long been regarded as one of America's finest college news operations. The students' journalism is consistently first class, and publisher Harry Montevideo has a track record as one of the sharpest business minds in the industry. (Disclosure: Montevideo has been a mentor of mine.)

But last week, a clumsy board memo became public, suggesting students focus more on "good" stories and granted more editorial control to professionals. Student editors resigned in protest. And Montevideo scuffled with a reporter at an open house. Montevideo has since issued a written apology for the scuffle and the board member who wrote the memo has resigned.

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How could things go so wrong? And what can the rest of us who work in college newspapers learn from it?

On the face of it, the dispute rests on whether students or professionals "control" the editorial content. Certainly, student control is central to the mission of student media. But the reality of running an independent, self-supporting college newspaper in the digital age is more nuanced than just who controls content.

Boards, editors and publishers must figure out how to evolve from the 1990s model of a journalism lab funded by an advertising monopoly to a 2010s model of a media company fighting in a hyper-competitive market.

"Every paper in the country wrestles with that: How do we deliver what you need to know vs. what you want to know?" said Barry Hollander, a professor at the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

"If I knew the answer, I'd be a consultant ... I have no idea what the answer is, and I have my doubts about anyone who says they know what the answer is. We're all trying to feel our way along."

From lab to business

College newspaper boards and publishers must figure out the business model while still giving students the editorial freedom that they deserve and without compromising traditional journalistic values and ethics. In some ways, it's a more complicated balance than professional newsrooms where the publisher and owners get the final say on all business and editorial decisions.

In the 1990s model, college newspapers offered students and advertisers the only option for news and a local marketplace. That opened up a river of revenue that subsidized student-led newsrooms and provided nearly limitless journalistic freedom. I was a product of that system at the Oregon Daily Emerald at the University of Oregon in the late 1990s. It was the most fun I've had in journalism.

But I will be the first to admit, we occasionally produced some silly, unprofessional and self-absorbed journalism. In that model, it didn't matter. We practiced the skills we learned in class -- writing, sourcing and beats -- and didn't have to bother with advertisers, rates and readership.

But those days ended long before Myspace.

In the 2010s model, college newspapers offer one option among dozens. They compete against Facebook, Google and Twitter for students' time and advertisers' money. For many newspapers, readership and revenue are down 25 percent or more from the peak in the 1990s or 2000s.

Boards and publishers stare at those trendlines and seek solutions. But they also know they have no direct control over the most important piece of the operation: the content.

Different models at different schools

Each independent college newspaper confronts that challenge differently.

"It's the same as it has always been: education, training, persuading, suggesting. Some combination of all of those things," said Eric Jacobs, general manager for 31 years at The Daily Pennsylvanian.

At the Red & Black, the board believed the newspaper needed more professional oversight, especially online. "You've got to have people there to guide these things," Elliott Brack, the board's president, told the Student Press Law Center. "Each one of those takes its own professional."

But the students believed they were being forced into assignments that were more public relations than newsgathering, including "grip and grin" photos during sorority rush week, said Evan Stichler, the Red & Black's former chief photographer. "I think they were looking at it more from the marketing and advertising standpoint of getting viewers," he said.

At UCLA's Daily Bruin, director Arvli Ward is building a digital advertising network completely divorced from the newspaper. So far, his staff has built 60 mobile apps. His goal: to generate enough advertising revenue to subsidize the student newsroom.

"The monopoly that we owned was not on distributing dead tree products around campus, it was the advertising monopoly," Ward said. "That's what we have to regain. When we regain that, we can funnel money to our newsroom and let students do what they do. It's not going to be The New York Times, and sometimes it's going to be off color, but that's what makes a college newspaper interesting."

At the University of Oregon's Emerald, where I now work again, our student editors went on strike in 2009.

Students walked out after a consultant to the board drafted an organizational chart in which the publisher would oversee the student editor. I advocated for and later chaired an Editorial Independence Committee to protect the newsroom's editorial independence.

But my perspective evolved when I became publisher of the Emerald and was accountable for the company's financial performance. I still believe that students must retain editorial control. However, I also see the need to ensure student editors run the newsroom in a way that fits with the company's long-term business goals. It's a delicate balance that is now reviewed at least annually by an Editorial Advisory Committee led by a former Emerald editor in chief and editor at The Oregonian.

The sense of urgency is intense for independent college newspapers. Now, more than ever, college newspapers need tighter working relationships among news editors, business leaders and board members.

Or as Stichler, the former Red & Black photographer, put it: "Stick to your principles. Have some standards between board, editor and staff people ... You have to make sure everyone is in agreement."

Ryan Frank is president of the Emerald Media Group, formerly the Oregon Daily Emerald, the independent nonprofit media company at the University of Oregon. He blogs at thegarage.dailyemerald.com.

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May 05 2010

14:44

Vicious fights and low stakes: the difficulties of covering a student election

Henry Kissinger once remarked: “University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” It is a quote regularly bandied about in the midst of student union elections, which can be bitter. Dirty politics rears its ugly head in university and college election campaigns as often as it does in mainstream politics.

We in the student media are part of the same game. The hunger for news stories which will excite our readers means that controversy created by fall-outs between candidates is often a gift. The concentration on personality involved in a student election is just the same as we have seen during this general election. We are just as likely to publicise the vicious side of a campaign in order to extract exciting stories from a game with stakes as low as Kissinger believed them to be. But is the role of a student journalist the same as those covering and commenting on parliamentary and council elections, or do student publications have different responsibilities? Similarly, is the level of responsibility that comes with unregulated student media something that should be given to student journalists?

Most university campuses in Britain are served by no more than two student newspapers, meaning that we are faced with a lack of plurality. There is very seldom the equivalent of the range of political sympathy we have across the national press. If a student paper decides to show bias towards a candidate in a student election, the effect on the electorate can be significant. Taking sides in this respect can stifle discussion and debate, giving one candidate an unfair advantage.

Student media should be careful to ensure that bias does not suppress fair coverage and debate in these elections. Student politicians standing for office deserve to have their policies scrutinised and should be open to criticism and comment from the press. It is undesirable for the student press to run campaigns similar to those we see in the tabloids, backing one party and smearing others. The media plays an important role in questioning all elected representatives and holding them to account – a key part of the democratic process.

The emphasis should be on balance. It is important for democracy that student voters are given the opportunity to read news about candidates and are given the opportunity to question them. Journalists should be allowed to scrutinise and where appropriate query policy. However, personal attacks are a hindrance to fair elections, they damage the reputation of student journalism and undermine its function.

A number of student newspapers are constitutionally bound to provide fair and accurate coverage by the students’ unions that fund them. Where these unions do have control over the paper constitutionally, they can refuse to allow the papers to be distributed on their premises.

In a recent case at Edinburgh Napier university, copies of Napier Students’ Association funded Veritas were removed from campus because they were deemed to give one candidate in the elections there an unfair advantage over another. This came only days after Edinburgh-wide student newspaper the Journal was almost removed from university buildings because of an article reporting on a motion of no-confidence in the NSA President, who was standing for re-election at the time. The decision was taken by the Association’s election committee, apparently to ensure that no bias towards one candidate was communicated to the electorate. This was an example of ‘impartiality’ becoming an obstacle – the offending article in this case did not take sides and was a standard news report. Students’ right to know the news and issues surrounding the election of their representatives was curtailed.

Student politics often suffers from a lack of engagement. During my involvement in student media, I have seen editors strive to provide the most engaging coverage of student elections, often with little response. However, student media coverage of the political process at universities is one of the ways in which the electorate are given an opportunity to connect with the system beyond the often-cliquey doors of students’ union buildings. Where reporting is responsible and legal, it should not be subject to filtering from bureaucrats who think it may be damaging.

If the students’ unions themselves are to mediate in these cases, it is essential that criticism and questioning of candidates and representatives is allowed. Most adhere to this and would only intervene in the event of a serious breach, but the existence of an independent arbitrator would also be of benefit for disputes between newspapers and unions.

The Press Complaints Commission or the National Union of Students could issue guidelines on reporting and deal with complaints before drastic measures like removing copies of a publication are taken. This would create a set of rules to be followed and give both sides a port of call when things go wrong. Student journalism would have an increased sense of responsibility and reporting would better serve the electorate, helping to curb the kind of vicious campaigning to which Kissinger refers.

Nick Eardley is deputy editor of Edinburgh University student newspaper the Journal.

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February 04 2010

09:39

Currybet.net: Reviewing online student newspapers

Martin Belam is taking a look at the online efforts of the UK’s student newspapers, as part of a series of posts looking at the digital journalism trainees currently in academia and those that have recently graduated.

Some great tips here from a user’s point of view about the design of the newspapers websites – one to watch for student journalists.

Full post at this link…

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