Journalism is an ecosystem.
Journalists work their way up from internships to paid jobs, from small community publications to big-city papers, from news briefs to investigative reports. And for many professional reporters, their first journalism experience was in their newsroom of their college paper.
But just like professional newspapers, student media is under threat. If campus newspapers can’t thrive, it hurts the entire journalism industry, leaving young reporters ill-prepared to enter the field.
That’s why a coalition of more than 100 campus newspapers across the country are holding a “Save Student Newsrooms” campaign today, telling their stories, asking their communities for support and sharing why student journalism deserves protection.
Below are three of the most damaging problems for student newsrooms, as told by their reporters:
1. Shortage of interested writers
When a group of student newspaper editors from across the country was asked to name the most pressing issue in their newsroom, the overwhelming majority of them named “a shortage of interested writers.” Even in large colleges and colleges with journalism departments, papers often struggle to attract interested writers from the student body and end up short-staffed. This leads to gaps in reporting, difficulty with turnover and a lack of institutional memory.
“One thing I have never understood is why, if you are a journalism major, aren’t you part of your college newspaper?” said Jozsef Papp, editor in chief of The George-Anne, Georgia Southern University’s newspaper.
Papp said many GSU journalism students are interested in broadcast journalism but fail to realize they need to have strong writing skills for TV news as well.
“At the State Press, we represent the largest single student body in the country and our biggest challenge is still getting enough interested writers to cover everything we need,” said Arren Kimbel-Sannit, managing editor of The State Press, Arizona State University’s independent newspaper. ASU has a student body of more than 70,000 at its five Phoenix-area campuses.
2. Problems with funding
Student newsrooms (like all newsrooms) struggle with how to stay profitable. Some receive funding from their college administration or journalism school directly, others from their student government or student fees, while others are independent and try to make money from advertising.
Despite providing a vital service to their campus, many newsrooms are facing funding cuts from their universities. Newsrooms that receive funding from student fees are put up for review every couple of years, as students often get to vote on whether to renew this source of funding. Meanwhile, papers that are funded through their student government run the risk of having their funding cut if they publish articles critical of the organization.
Whitney Elfstrom, managing editor of The Crow’s Nest at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg said the situation would being like “if Donald Trump controlled the New York Times’ funding.”
Students constantly struggling with their university to hang on to their funding is a stressful situation, and it takes away time that could be used for reporting. Publications that stay profitable through ad revenue are in a better situation, but that business model is precarious as well, and many universities are in already-saturated media markets, making it hard to find interested advertisers.
3. Lack of university support
Universities can fail to support their student publications in other ways than denying funding.
Some schools, such as the University of Southern California and Arizona State, have journalism school publications that compete directly with the independent student publication. Often, journalism students are required to spend time writing for the college-run paper, making it harder for independent publications to recruit writers.
Universities will sometimes delay media requests to student papers until their campus PR outlet or journalism department publication has had time to report on the story, making it harder for publications to report on the news accurately and quickly.
Additionally, universities can deny other resources such as AV equipment, visibility and recognition in campus promotional materials and newsroom space. For instance, my own publication, the CU Independent at the University of Colorado Boulder, had our newsroom cut in half several years ago to make space for more staff offices. Now we have trouble fitting everyone in the room when we have our all-staff meetings.
Newspapers thrive when they have the support of their universities and their journalism departments, and when they don’t, it’s difficult for them to succeed.
If student newsrooms suffer, journalism suffers. I encourage everyone to support their local student journalists, whether that’s by reading and sharing our articles, donating money or other resources (hint: college kids will never turn down pizza) or stopping by the newsroom to share a skill you have, such as FOIA requesting, video editing or coding.
We need your support, and as our reporting grows stronger, so will your community.
Carina Julig is a journalism and political science student at the University of Colorado Boulder and managing editor of the CU Independent. Follow her on twitter at @CarinaJulig.