Future of College Media: Are college publications learning vehicles or actual businesses?

This post is the second in a series of 10 about the future of collegiate journalism, focusing on specific projects undertaken by members of college journalists around the country. This entry focuses on a gray area for collegiate media, between actual, professional businesses and learning opportunities for students.

UPDATE: I’ve removed the first part of this blog post because I felt that it was distracting from the real point of this post. I offer full apologies to anyone I offended or angered.

For reasons that remain unclear to me, Nevada Sagebrush Assistant Sports Editor Michael Lingberg was fired last month. I emailed editor-in-chief Juan López to get his side of the story, but he refused to comment. Now, some people have accused me of being a bitter ex-employee out to smear and insult the Sagebrush, but I don’t want to write anything that I don’t know all of the details about.

Let me be clear; I’m writing about this topic because it’s not an isolated incident in the Sagebrush, but an entire rash of collegiate editors and writers being fired, resigning or being removed from their position. This post from College Media Matters goes over three firings alone this semester, including a cartoonist for the Daily Texan who was fired after an outpouring of condemnation over a Trayvon Martin cartoon. Just today, the managing editor and editor-in-chief of The Maneater resigned after a controversial April Fool’s edition.

This rash of firings deserves to be placed in context. Just about everyone on a collegiate news staff is about 18-21 and has a 1-3 years of prior journalism experience. Often, there’s no advisor in-office to make suggestions, leaving final decisions up to people barely old enough to drink. That’s how it works for the Sagebrush, and for any major independent college newspaper. And that’s how it should be.

For someone not familiar with the inner workings of a college newsroom, this sentiment can seem strange. Why not ask a journalism professional for help, in case tough ethical questions arise? But in my experience, working with a group of like-minded peers leads to the kind of innovation, storytelling risks and general independence that journalism needs to survive. Running features about a student’s abortion or attempted suicide can’t take the same chances and reach the same audience anywhere else in a j-school. Along with a greater level of independence found in these publications, college papers also reach a larger audience than running a single blog or publishing a newsletter. This is the sweet spot for journalists: freedom to experiment, and an active audience that is willing to comment, critique and provide feedback on said experiments.

It’s a romantic picture that I just painted, and unfortunately situations do arise where people either take advantage of the situation afforded them, or fall asleep on the job. Yet overwhelmingly, collegiate journalists are a dedicated bunch, who in their unique situation are able to learn and innovate much more than they would in an actual internship or journalism class.

That’s what irritates me about these recent firings and resignations. Yes, they made a mistake. Yes, they should apologize. But remember that college papers are primarily a learning institution, a place where mistakes happen and lessons are learned. There are certain rules that every journalist has to follow, but I believe there should be additional leeway when it comes to college papers. Should writers who break rules be punished? Yes. Should they be fired and excommunicated from the world of journalism? No.

My first year in high school, I decided to write a column in the school newspaper about why I thought Global Warming was false (I wasn’t very smart back then). Even stupider, I decided to copy and paste a few paragraphs from another article that I had read earlier that year, thinking them to be of a higher quality than what I could write. After the column was published, my journalism teacher took me outside and forced the truth out of me. Now, this man had every right to remove me from staff. If I had worked at an actual publication, I would be fired on the spot. Yet he decided to be lenient, and let a 14-year-old kid have a second chance. Two years later I was editor-in-chief of that paper, and here I sit, nearly six years past, and I have never forgotten that lesson. I will never fabricate anything that I write ever again, not because a journalism professor told me to, but because I actually lived through that experience.

So for the Sagebrush, I offer this advice: take these decisions more carefully. I know that a lawsuit is the last thing anyone wants, but it’s also important to remember the service they offer to the world of journalism in the future. In a blog post about helping fund the Daily Illini, Roger Ebert said, “Many, including myself, would say that they owe their careers at least in part to their experience at Illini Media. It’s now time to give back.” A huge number of journalists in this country got their start at a campus publication, and I’m sure that they made plenty of mistakes along the way. Does it help journalism at all to treat these learning vehicles as actual businesses? The answer to that question is no, and I would recommend to any senior staff on a college paper to remember that mistakes may hurt now, but they will only build you up stronger in the future.

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