The College Journalism Question

by Erin Landau and Hayley Adnopoz | 10/17/13 10:00pm

**Note: This is the first in a two-part series examining the role of journalism on college campuses.*

I am a college journalist, but I consider myself light-years away from being qualified to write professionally. My vocabulary isn't extensive enough, my knowledge of political and world issues isn't broad enough and I've yet to fully get over my fear of harsh criticism (read: rude online comments). So, in the Venn diagram of college and professional journalism, it's pretty easy for me to fill in the two opposing sides. The overlapping center, however, may have just as many bullet points. And, I would argue, more substantial ones.

This may seem painfully obvious, but college and professional publications both strive to inform their readerships. No matter how they are structured, how often they publish, what bells and whistles they employ or how broad their readership, there's a fundamental goal of information distribution and analysis. Papers yoked to colleges can cover a broad range of topics, but usually all connect back to some element of campus life or the college experience, from the effect of the government shutdown on campus finances and fall fashion features.

Charlotte Bilski, a deputy managing editor for Brown University's Blog Daily Herald, echoed this point.

"Blog's role is to be the go-to news source for all students from all walks of campus life," she said. "The idea is that if you are a student at Brown, you should be able to find your news on Blog. We also live tweet and live blog events such as the housing lottery. If it's relevant to any student on campus, it's something we would cover." While events or issues at a specific institution might get coverage when they are particularly sensational or newsworthy, the trends, lectures, protests or notable students that seem fascinating within a college community are rarely enough to garner national attention. Within these micro-universes, priorities shift to focus on the day-to-day news of the institution, rather than the country or world at large.

English professor Alexis Jetter, who also works as a freelance magazine writer, emphasized the investigative purpose of her profession.

"[Professional newspapers] inform readers and hopefully there still are some about what their government and large corporations are doing behind closed doors and investigate how people's daily lives are affected by the dizzying forces of economic, cultural, environmental, political, sexual and religious change," Jetter said. "College newspapers, too, can tackle these larger ideas. But often, they serve a different purpose. As a former college newspaper reporter and editor, I think that the purpose of a college newspaper is to capture the human landscape of the college through spirited, engaged coverage of culture, politics, sports and music, never shying away from covering difficult or confusing stories that college administrators might prefer not be addressed."

Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, said that the biggest difference between college and professional journalists is that college students have less experience, and are mixing their journalistic work with classwork, which leads to a more challenging environment.

"On the flip side, they are focused in on the specific interests of students in a way that professional journalists aren't typically, bringing their own unique perspective to the paper," Benton added.

The end goal of both publications is to inform their readers based on their own strengths, but how this goal is achieved also varies across organizations. Most professional news organizations are run by privately owned companies, so the business structure is much more important, Benton said. The American newspaper business is in a difficult state, dealing with rapidly declining resources and a shifting editorial process with the domination of digital media.

College news organizations are protected from some of those issues because they have a different funding model and a much more captive audience.

"I've talked to a lot of hiring editors at professional news organizations about being disappointed," Benton said. "There is a lot of change going on but they expect the 23-year-olds coming out of college to be fully versed in a digital-oriented, digital news world."

It is difficult to gain what Benton calls a "digital first mind set" when you have an unpaid, part-time staff already focused on conventional news production. It can also be difficult for college papers to take on long-term projects, since a paper's leadership often works for a truncated tenure.

"We haven't seen much in the growth of sustainable student-driven online news media and I would love to see the next generation of sustainable long-term online news organizations at individual campuses," Benton said.

Jetter succinctly sums up the major differences and similarities between college and professional journalism.

"The goal is the same vibrant, page-turning and compelling reporting and writing," Jetter said. "The scope is different hopefully regional, national and international journalism has a wider lens."

Benton agreed, citing commonalities such as a desire to inform, to see the growth and health of one's community, to see one's name in the paper and even to have an excuse to ask people questions.

"All those things are in play when you're a freshman covering JV soccer or a professional covering the White House," he said. "I think a good college news room would seem very recognizable to someone who works in a professional newsroom."

Jacques Steinberg '88, a former education writer for The New York Times (and former editor-in-chief of The Dartmouth) described the paper's niche on campus.

"At least from where I sat, The D was the closest thing that the Dartmouth community had to an independent paper of record," Steinberg said. "We tried to report stories fairly and accurately, being sure to provide multiple points of view. We were financially independent of the administration and felt our allegiance was to giving readers the fullest sense of the issues of the day on campus."

Benton said that the American journalism profession, which generally prioritizes experience over a degree, should give hope to young writers. Steinberg echoed the point.

"My involvement with The D set the tone for much of my Dartmouth experience, and influenced the work I would do for the next 25 years after I graduated from Dartmouth," he said. "I will always be grateful that during my freshman fall, Esther Schrader '87, a sophomore who lived across the hall from me in Mid Mass, fairly dragged me to my first D staff meeting."

Schrader herself would later serve as the Pentagon correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

Journalism everywhere is changing, both at the collegiate and professional level. The question now may be less of what differences exist between the two breeds, but rather how each will adapt to stay relevant in a new landscape of information.

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