Lessons in saving your student paper, before it’s too late

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

The independent student newspaper that gave both of us our start in journalism is now gone—its board secretly voted to dissolve the paper after years of waning advertising revenue. Now, as alumni of The Daily Campus at Southern Methodist University, but also journalism educators, we’re left with a deep sense of loss and personal failure.

In April, alumni were informed that the board of The Daily Campus had voted to dissolve just three months earlier. The last issue would be in May. In less than a month, a dozen of us mounted a frenzied and emotional campaign to save it, writing a new business plan and raising about $40,000. The board rejected our efforts and our money, and the journalism school offered no help in keeping the paper independent. We were told it was “too late,” and the paper would be absorbed into the journalism school and go totally digital. The board may have made their decision in secret, but there’s still a lot of stinging truth to that statement: Had we rallied around the paper years ago, we wouldn’t have had to attempt resuscitation in its final moments.

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The Daily Campus’s quality had declined significantly—a far cry from what it had been when we were students in 1992 and 2009, when the paper broke news of campus sexual assault and school mismanagement, winning dozens of awards along the way. There are many reasons for this devolution: a lack of consistent, dynamic leadership; board members with no journalism experience who served short terms; a student body showing more interest in “fashion media” (the actual name of a new minor brought into the journalism school) than hard news; and a long-running feud between the journalism program and the paper that no one stepped up to fix. The current students who we worked with during our last-ditch effort to save the paper were talented, dedicated reporters—they simply had no support system.

A student-run and independent press is integral to journalism education, and we hope our failures can help educators and alumni maintain thriving independent newsrooms—or, if a newsroom has already lost its independence, give students as much freedom as possible.

SMU is an opaque institution with a long history of attempting to stifle student voices; we both experienced it as former editors of the paper, two decades apart from each other. But the type of accountability reporting that irritated administrators has been on the decline. A feud between faculty and students had bubbled over, funds were low, and it seemed to all responsible parties that the paper would be better off in the hands of capable journalism school professors. The threat of censorship seemed distant to the board of the paper, and the benefits seemed obvious: better leadership, no more bizarre feuding, and fewer money problems. As alumni who had shirked involvement, it was hard to articulate a case to the contrary.

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It’s easy to imagine that, if alumni had been united behind the paper all along, things might be different. The Daily Campus never had a united alumni base, unlike many other student papers across the country. We mostly discovered each other online, brought together by our shared goal of saving the paper.

Author Jessica Huseman interviews former President George W. Bush for his library’s groundbreaking as politics editor of The Daily Campus, 2011. (Photo courtesy Jessica Huseman)

An alumni group could have enthusiastically staffed the board with appropriately experienced journalists, provided student reporters with mentorship and taken responsibility for fundraising. As alumni of both the journalism school and the paper, we also could have bridged the divide that existed between the two. Our dedication was simply never harnessed.

If your student paper is one of the few remaining truly independent newsrooms, a lot is at stake if that independence is lost. Censorship is an obvious problem—when schools hold the pursestrings, it’s easy for them to step in to quash coverage they don’t like. When university administrators are in charge, as we have seen, unflattering stories about employees are ordered to be deleted from the archives, or overly cautious university lawyers require takedowns of harmless content in the face of bogus legal threats. Independence matters.

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But independence is far from the only loss. Student-run papers provide a learning laboratory that it is extremely difficult to properly run when professors are in charge. When these newsrooms are at their best, students learn to be reporters, editors, graphic designers, and business managers—all in a space where it’s okay to make the mistakes that are necessary for learning. In real newsrooms, reporters have to sell their stories to editors—they do not receive automatic publication because a professor assigned them a story in class. Student newspapers can and should function in the same way: Reporters should pitch stories and learn to work with editors who may disagree with them—editors who might even be wrong. And students should also learn to be editors. They should be given the authority to make hard choices about which stories work best for their outlet. And now that entry-level jobs at local newsrooms are dwindling, this experience is even more crucial. Students will fail, and they will fail a lot, but this failure is necessary. As the College Media Advisers’s code of ethics demands, “There should never be an instance where an adviser maximizes quality by minimizing learning.”

So what can you do as supporters of the student press?

  • Assume that your student newspaper is failing. Even if it seems healthy from the outside, revenue is always a problem, and as we discovered, a century-old institution could be on the verge of permanent closure before you know it. Don’t wait for it to run a “Save the Newspaper” campaign. Give money and support, and ask leadership how they are doing and what they need to be sustainable long-term. A few thousand dollars a year could be the difference.
  • Connect with current students at the paper. Follow them on Twitter and promote their work. Congratulate them when they do well, and when they break a big news story, brag about it. Help them make connections to the professional world. Use your platform.
  • Ask how you can help. You have a ton to offer student media operations, and journalism types can be a bristly, independent sort who are often bad at asking for that kind of help. Can you run a workshop or a pre-semester bootcamp? Skype into a newsroom meeting? Volunteer to review student portfolios and packages before they go to awards competitions or apply for jobs? Serve as a student mentor?
  • Is there an advisory board for your newspaper, journalism department, or college? Get on it. No advisory board? See if you can start one. One of the most disheartening things about our rescue effort was that we had dozens of alumni wanting to help, but because we hadn’t been in touch, nobody in a position to make a difference cared what we had to say.
  • Be willing to use your political capital, and not just at your alma mater. When student newspapers are being shut down, or when student voices are being censored by administrators, be loud. Put pressure on administrators and donors to show they value the free press on campus. Give to student free speech and press organizations such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the Student Press Law Center, who regularly step up to fight these battles.
  • Remember that your allies aren’t just old student newspaper geeks. Our last-ditch fundraising efforts included big donations from a hedge fund manager with no journalism ties, a film professor, and an anonymous student media fan who wasn’t even an alumnus and offered a bitcoin. (You know who you are, and thank you!)

Our attempts to save our independent student newspaper were frustrating: We were told we were too late, that we were just acting out of “nostalgia,” and that journalism is better off under the guidance of college administrators and professors than in the hands of the students themselves. We may have been too late, but we think the value to student learning, and to the university community as a whole, is greater when students have more control and more freedom. It may be dangerous to the university’s brand but—as media lawyer Frank LoMonte pointed out the other day—real journalism tends to do that sort of thing. Our efforts may have failed at our alma mater, but we will continue to stand with the students and faculty across the country who still believe independence is the hallmark of great student journalism.

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Jessica Huseman and Daxton Stewart are the authors of this article. Jessica Huseman is a national politics reporter at ProPublica and teaches data and investigative reporting at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where she earned her master’s. She was on staff at The Daily Campus between 2009 and 2011. Daxton "Chip" Stewart is a professor of journalism at Texas Christian University and associate dean of the Bob Schieffer College of Communication. After his undergraduate career at SMU, he went on to practice law and earn a doctorate in journalism, and he now teaches and writes about media law. He was on staff at The Daily Campus between 1992 and 1994.