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Campus Papers Can Save Journalism

As media mergers and budget cuts squeeze local papers ever tighter, indy campus journalism is breaking news that the mainstream outlets miss.
 
 
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It might never occur to an average news reader to venture over to a local college campus and pick up one of the free indy papers strewn around libraries and student centers. But if they're hungry for vital, original reporting, it wouldn't be a bad idea. As mergers and budget cuts squeeze local papers ever tighter, indy campus reporting has an increasing role in documenting local news.

Taking their cues from alternative weeklies like the Village Voice and the San Francisco Bay Guardian , feisty indy student papers explore the connections between local economies, politics, social trends and campus life. This year's winners of the 2006 Campus Independent Journalism Awards (CIJA) present the mature forefront of these papers and zines.

Both the official and indy papers usually receive funding through the allocations of student governments (though the budgets of independent papers are dwarfed by those of mainstream dailies and weeklies, which traditionally hire and pay their student staff). The real distinctions between independent-spirited campus papers and the official newspaper -- that is, the publication recognized by the campus administration as the official paper or record -- are those of mission, coverage, style and tone.

"It's not a matter of being better than the campus daily, or their being better than us," explains Kay Steiger, editor-in-chief of the University of Minnesota's the Wake, which won for Best Independent Campus Publication of the Year (with a budget over $10,000). "We have a whole week to plan and carry out stories in-depth, so that means we cover a different kind of story and have a different kind of responsibility as reporters and editors. Someone has to cover the meeting of the board of regents; that's important. But we look elsewhere for stories."

Looking elsewhere has meant investigating issues like racial tensions between a growing Somali immigrant population in St. Paul, Minn., and students, or profiling the work and lives of local graffiti artists.

Occasional crossover of reporters from mainstream college dailies to alternative publications where they can find the time and freedom to work on stories they care about is not uncommon. Many journalists see working at the official paper as a prerequisite for entry into journalism school or a position at a mainstream newspaper.

"If you're working at the daily, you're there because you want to go to j-school or you want to get an internship at a paper when you graduate. You don't do it for kicks," noted Michael Hagos, illustrations editor at University of Virginia's Declaration and winner for best artwork/cartoon. "No one's at the Dec because it's a chore they're doing for their resume. Everyone's doing it for the love of great journalism."

Though that may be so, many past winners of the CIJ Awards have found careers in the independent press at publications like Salon.com, The Nation and Mother Jones .

Substance with style

The drive to report creatively carries over into the design and layout choices at indy publications. Brown's College Hill Independent , winner for best design/layout, uses a mixture of grids and open fields that conveys a sense of freedom and play. "The daily has a more formal, text-heavy appearance that's consistent with what they do. We have purposefully built in space for experimentation," explains editor Ben Mercer. "The designers make choices for each issue, and the editors live with it."

Yale's beautifully designed Environmental Leadership Magazine [PDF], winner for Best Independent Publication of the Year (with a budget under $10,000), aims to do nothing less than use design to reinvent environmentalism. "The idea with ELM was to use design to carry a message about environmentalism: that they can be one and the same."

At its best, the freedom to innovate with style, tone and topic makes for storytelling that's unapologetically impressionistic, yet deeply researched and rigorously fact-checked. Megan Murry, a staff writer for Ithaca College's Buzzsaw Haircut , produced a remarkably nuanced look at her small town's Republican mayor for her winning article [PDF]in the GLBT coverage category.

Murry begins by examining her own family's prejudices against liberals. She springboards from her presumptions about their small-mindedness to an investigation of her traditional, conservative town's unexpected defense of their gay Republican mayor against anti-gay activists. Murry discovers that in a town so small that the mayor knows the names of many of his constituents, distinctions between Republican and Democrat, red state and blue state, Christian conservative and gay rights activist can blur. Murry's work is an example of precisely the kind of counter-intuitive story that students are willing to cover and national indy publications might miss.

Playfulness in design and story topic choices can also leave these often openly progressive publications open to allegations of bias and a lack of objectivity. Every left-leaning publication, whether on campus or not, will face the issue of how to present political leanings fairly and even-handedly. But for publications that also emphasize investigative reporting, the issue can be stickier.

Student publications walk a particularly fine line. They invite submissions from the entire campus and, while editors offer coaching and critiques, most writers aren't trained journalists. The tone of indy student papers is also often sarcastic and snarky, even absurdist at times. Humor is used to make political points and first-person reporting is rampant.

"The question of objectivity is one we wrestle with," says Steiger. "We certainly have the op-ed pages, where opinions are plain. But investigative reporting is different. We don't push reporters to find particular conclusions, and we don't accept stories from people who are too close to an issue." That said, Steiger believes that there's no denying that the choices editors make about which stories to assign, whether about local tax cuts, a homeless shelter, or racism at the local police department, are informed by a progressive, muckraking spirit. "To some degree, investigative reporting itself -- just going out and finding out what's going on at a local level -- can be seen that way," says Steiger.

Public watchdogs

At a more concrete level, alternative publications function as public watchdogs, monitoring university officials, activist groups, student governments, local institutions, and even other campus papers. In his story " More Than Misquoted," Dartmouth Free Press reporter, Carlos Mejia, uncovered practices of repeated stonewalling of activists, misleading headlines and even inserting lines into letters to the editor to make writers appear less creditable at the competing daily paper, the Dartmouth.

Ironically, the Dartmouth Free Press finds itself more accountable to a student government than the Dartmouth, which is not technically affiliated with the college. "We pride ourselves on the quality of our editing and fact checking," says Mejia. "Each story is edited at least three times and we confirm our sources and have a fact checking process in place." Mejia echoed the sentiments of many editors of alternative campus publications, who feel that to some degree they must adhere to a higher standard of accuracy.

Articles like Murry's and Mejia's point to what experts on alternative media see as larger implications of alternative campus publications. John Hochheimer, who is the founding coordinator of Ithaca's journalism program, has long regarded experience in independent journalism as a backbone of an education that leads to full civic participation.

"How do we define mainstream media? How do we define alternative media?" asks Hochheimer. "Mainstream media is entrenched in institutionalized power, while alternative media questions that power and the structures that support it."

Hochheimer treats student participation in alternative media as a means of giving them the skills to question that power. "What I tried to do in founding the journalism program at Ithaca, and what I try do in my classrooms is teach students how to question the world around them, uncover the hidden stories behind what they see and report that information in such a way as to make it relevant to the people reading it."

Incubators of political movements

Right-wing groups have long understood the importance of active conservative papers on college campuses. Groups like the Leadership Institute have for decades funded conservative papers to the tune of tens of millions of dollars annually. Conservative papers also outnumber progressive-leaning papers on campuses. This is in part because progressive papers suffer from lack of funding and thus rise and fall while conservative papers tend to stay stable. Yet most college campuses will always have their independent, progressive papers, especially large state schools and private colleges and universities with substantial endowments. Whether focused on general interests or on particular themes like race or gender, such alternative publications are ubiquitous and powerful. Programs like the Campus Journalism Project and Campus Progress recognize the value of these publications as incubators for future independent journalists, political leaders and community leaders.

The worth of such papers to political movements isn't hard to fathom. Newspapers coalesce disparate campus activist groups by giving them a forum to discuss local and national political issues, mobilize referendums or protests and call out unethical activity. They reach a wide audience of thought makers and can have a huge role in defining discourse on a college campus. They also give reporters, pundits, muckrakers and occasional partisan hacks a chance to stretch their wings.

Their impact has been palpable, for example, in setting the tone around a recent janitors' strike at the University of Miami and calling for support of pro-labor policies at University of Wisconsin-Madison, the State University of New York-Buffalo, and Georgetown. And where papers lead, students and administrations often follow.

Editors at Ithaca's Buzzsaw Haircut have seen articles lead directly to changes in policies about the waste of paper used in on-campus advertising, student organizing around tuition hikes and military recruitment, and better wheelchair access on campus.

Papers also have a unique vantage point from which to see and fill needs on college campuses and to gather students from many different parts of the campus community. For example, editors at the Wake were receiving so many creative writing submissions that they decided to create a new literary supplement, the only literary journal at the University of Minnesota. Editors of Buzzsaw Haircut worked with activists, war veterans and bloggers to organize a series of panels to discuss the war in Iraq. "We forced students to actively engage in a conversation that too many had forgotten, and brought together students from a range of backgrounds and opinions to talk about issues in forums that weren't polarizing and didn't simplify the complexities of our current situation," says editor Kate Sheppard.

As progressives are hailing the rise of a new kind of campus activist, publications are being established as increasingly crucial for creating a centralized forum and identity. Hochheimer also sees them as the perfect place for students who will go on to careers in law, business and nonprofits -- in addition to journalism -- to learn about community engagement. "And that makes for journalism that's more than mere stenography," he adds.

Sara Gruen is the coordinator of the Independent Press Association's Campus Journalism Project.