Future of College Media: How to make editorials matter

This post is the eighth 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 post details the role and value of editorials by collegiate newspapers.

Last month, the Sioux City Journal did something a little out of the ordinary for their front page; they published a full-page anti-bullying editorial after the suicide of a 14-year-old high school boy who was teased for coming out as a homosexual. The resulting paper is immediately attention-grabbing and also a great introduction into the role of newspapers and editorials. In a piece published by Charles Apple, the paper’s editor Mitch Pugh is quoted as saying, “We believe that as a community news organization one of our critical responsibilities is to serve as a strong advocate for the well-being of our community. This page underscores that belief.” The Journal is not the only paper to take this route; in years past, papers as diverse as The Detroit Free Press, The Arizona Republic and the Harrisburg Patriot-News.

While newspapers do have a critical role in any modern community, the continual debate over how much influence should be extended to a journalistic body shows no signs of stopping (especially with public trust in journalists falling every year). Although there is a Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing, media outlets such as Gawker say, “…institutional editorial writing is a worthless anachronism in this modern media age.” It’s needless to say the effectiveness and purpose of editorials has, at least in the eyes of new media outlets such as Gawker, diminished greatly in the past few years.

So where does that leave collegiate newspapers? Most collegiate newspapers publish a staff editorial every week, covering and commenting about on-campus news and events, such as student government elections and other contentious issues. The editorial board has long been a mainstay of college newspapers, especially the Nevada Sagebrush, which famously made the decision in the 1960’s to publish a blank issue after an Editor-in-Chief was removed by the student government. This year’s staff continued with that tradition of pushing editorial content to the forefront by embarking in a six-part series called “ASUN Future,” designed to point out problems with the University’s student government and offer solutions on how to fix them.

It’s a noble goal, and has merit as ASUN isn’t anyone’s idea of an efficient organization. I won’t comment on the ideas suggested in the columns, but I do wonder about the effectiveness of the series. A series which begins it’s first column with, “The Nevada Sagebrush believes there is a big problem lurking on the third floor of the Joe Crowley Student Union,” is immediately taking a hostile position toward the current ASUN government, which leads to an instant tension between the people capable of making the change and the newspaper calling for change.

This isn’t the first time the Sagebrush has attempted to engage in public journalism; in 2008, Sagebrush editors Michael Higdon, Brian Duggan and Jessica Fryman published a ‘public-interest’ issue in response to the then-recent kidnapping of Brianna Denison. The issue contained a lengthy main article, guides to proactive protection and an editorial calling for a more active campus community. Much like the ASUN Future series, these Sagebrush members identified a problem on campus, but rather than publish numerous front-page columns, they actually did investigative and journalistic work. As then-Design Editor Michael Higdon said in a message to Charles Apple, “…We executed our main goal: to give students the tools of the press by providing them with information and access to officials they can deliberately use in order to make a difference by asking questions and offering solutions.”

That’s a lot different than just coming out and identifying a problem. Higdon understood that while members of the paper may have decent ideas about campus safety, change must come from public fervor and pressure, not columns in the paper. It’s a completely different mindset, in a way utilizing many different aspects of the paper to identify areas needing change, and attempting to engage students. Despite good intent, the ASUN Future series seemingly quickly delved into Ben Miller’s ideas of how to fix ASUN, rather than a combined effort with a strong emphasis on student engagement. Rather than only publish opinion articles, why not actually go through and write a handful of stories and guides to understanding ASUN? That way, students who aren’t as well versed in the operation of ASUN have an opportunity to understand the situation more clearly and to identify problem areas themselves.

For editorials to work in a modern media environment, they have to either come as part of a public-journalism package (as described by Higdon) or attract as much attention as the Sioux City Journal. While collegiate newspapers are often bastions of charged and controversial opinions, just writing about a subject usually won’t be enough to change anything prominent. If done in a more efficient manner, however, editorials can be extremely effective ways to hold public and private figures accountable.

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