Redefining college journalism

by Cristian Cano | 4/5/17 1:35am

My first exposure to The Dartmouth occurred last summer. I was browsing the newspaper’s website while researching the potential student activities I might want to join in the fall. The words “America’s Oldest College Newspaper. Founded 1799.” appeared then as they do now, a continual reminder of the long history of student journalism at Dartmouth. When I began to write for the Mirror last September, I also became a part, however small, of that history.

When I was asked to write an article about the changing role of student journalism at Dartmouth, I thought back to my excitement at the possibility of contributing to something much greater than myself. I thought about the experiences I’ve had through The D: the friendships I’ve formed, the places I’ve gone and the articles of which I’m most proud. Writing for a student newspaper is certainly not easy, but I can confidently say that I’ve had a great experience as a journalist for The Dartmouth so far.

I also thought of those who do not view The Dartmouth as positively as I do. Last fall, a survey conducted through Pulse, a student-created online survey tool, asked students to rate their opinions regarding a variety of Dartmouth institutions, one of which was The Dartmouth. The scale ranged from very favorable to very unfavorable. From a sample size of 1,196 students, the rounded distribution of answers was: 8 percent very favorable, 36 percent favorable, 39 percent neither favorable nor unfavorable, 13 percent unfavorable and 4 percent very unfavorable.

I’m in no position to evaluate the statistical validity of this survey, but I think it’s safe to make one conclusion: not everyone likes The Dartmouth.

Have students always viewed The Dartmouth in this way? Is this a specific case or a general trend? What might student journalists do to improve the public opinion of their publications? To find answers for these questions, I interviewed both current Dartmouth professors and former staff members of The Dartmouth.

Jeff Sharlet, journalist and professor in the English department, believes that college newspapers should resemble non-student publications in both quality and content. He listed student debt, sexual assault and undocumented students as topics that should be covered in college newspapers.

“Anything that’s in the New York Times or Washington Post should be there in the student paper too,” Sharlet said. “Investigative journalism should be side by side with human interest stories.”

Sharlet continued to explain how student journalism at The Dartmouth is reactionary, in the sense that journalists wait for events to happen or for administration to tell them what to cover. He said that student newspapers tend to include coverage of more controversial topics only in the opinion section when it should be present elsewhere.

“[College newspapers] don’t understand that asking tough questions is not biased,” Sharlet said. “Asking tough questions is the work of a journalist.”

Sharlet also emphasized that student journalists should take advantage of guest speakers that frequently come to Dartmouth. He said that, instead of simply writing reports after speakers have already left campus, student journalists should prepare to interview them personally.

“[Student journalists] have greater access to lots of significant figures than [non-students] because, if they come to visit a campus, they really need to make time for what’s happening on that campus,” Sharlet said.

When asked how The Dartmouth might improve its image, Sharlet said that it is essential for the paper to develop its own voice. He acknowledged that it takes time for a student journalist to improve their skills and write better stories, but eventually that journalist will reach a point where sources will reach out specifically when they want a story to be covered.

One last piece of advice he’d give student journalists? Take a creative writing class – just look at all of the professional journalists who are also published authors.

Mark Williams, a film and media studies professor who teaches the course “U.S. Broadcast and Electronic Journalism History,” said that, by taking courses in writing and journalism, students develop their attention to detail, their desire to ask new questions and their understanding of how discourse operates.

Student in his class produce both traditional written work and multimedia projects such as podcasts and videos. While students may be interested in student newspapers that utilize multimedia in their productions, he warned that a clear link cannot be made between increased technology use and improvements in student publications.

“Technology doesn’t ensure quality,” Williams said.

That said, technology is one of the most significant differences that Toby Benis ’86 and Christian Henrich ’90 found, in separate interviews, between college journalism when they were students and college journalism now. Both alumni were publishers of The Dartmouth when they were students.

Benis, who is currently an English professor at Saint Louis University, remarked on how, with today’s technology, students no longer need to rely on student newspapers as their main source of news. On the contrary, students can both access and produce knowledge through other means.

“Everyone’s a journalist now,” Benis said. “I’m sure that’s changed the way that the paper operates in campus culture.”

Henrich, who now works as an attorney, noted that even the technology used by The Dartmouth has changed significantly. “I remember that we bought the first fax machine, while I was publisher, that The Dartmouth had,” Henrich said. “At the time, that was high-tech.”

While technology has powerfully impacted the role of college journalism, some things haven’t changed much at all. Controversial topics such as American politics and divestment from South African businesses were prevalent in the newspaper while Benis and Henrich were students. Local stories were still important too — Henrich remembers one extreme example in which someone broke into the dean of students’ office.

Both alumni described the personal growth that they developed as student journalists. Benis learned how to work well in a diverse team, as she did with the editors of The Dartmouth, and she also had the opportunity to take a leadership position as a woman at a time when the introduction of coeducation was still quite recent. Henrich carried both the writing and teamwork skills he developed at The Dartmouth with him into his professional career.

After I conducted these interviews, I reflected yet again on the current state of student journalism at Dartmouth. The Dartmouth may no longer be the sole source of news for students as it was decades ago for technological reasons, but that does not mean it cannot still establish its place as an important aspect of student life. Like many other college publications, there is much work that can be done to improve the paper, but with enough motivated, ambitious journalists, there is nothing stopping The Dartmouth from continually approaching its full potential and improving the lives of students along the way.