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#SaveStudentNewsrooms highlights college journalism challenges

(Front row, left) Melissa Gomez, Caitlin Ostroff and Jimena Tavel (right) hope that #SaveStudentNewsrooms starts a conversation about the challenges student journalists face and works as a tool to connect student-run newsrooms across the country. | Courtesy of Melissa Gomez

In response to the changing dynamics of student-run newspapers across the country, editors at the University of Florida’s The Independent Alligator organized #SaveStudentNewsrooms, a nationwide call to action on April 25 aimed at highlighting the work of student journalists and reaffirming the need for independent, student-run newsrooms.

Melissa Gomez, editor-in-chief of The Alligator, along with managing editors Caitlin Ostroff and Jimena Tavel, knew they had to act when they learned the fate of The Daily Campus at Southern Methodist University, which was forced to halt print and now faces re-affiliation back into SMU’s journalism program.

“At that point, I felt hopeless,” Kylie Madry, editor-in-chief of The Daily Campus, said of a January board meeting that chose a dissolution plan over another to save the paper. “It felt like they didn’t really care and they had just given up.”

Madry, who sits on the board but doesn’t receive a vote, felt a need to find other avenues to avoid losing the paper, but said it felt like she was fighting back alone. One thing that surprised her in the weeks after the decision was the number of alumni who rallied to provide financial support even while expressing discontent over not being notified that the paper was in trouble.

An issue that affects all student journalists is impartiality in the face of growing concerns internally, Madry said, but she knew it was right to take on an activist role to advocate for the paper and a free press. The same issue arose for the Alligator’s editors.

“It occurred to me, ‘Wow this could happen to us’,” Gomez said. “Then I realized this could happen to any student newsroom. We’re in such a vulnerable position, in terms of financing a student paper, that it can easily fold the next day.”

Madry said she felt betrayed over what she called “a failure to innovate.” When she had the opportunity to look at the Campus’ finances herself, she saw years of losses, which she attributes to mismanagement that is now being used as justification to punish students.

The organizers recognize they don’t have all the answers. Moreso, they want #SaveStudentNewsrooms to connect newspapers across the country and kickstart a conversation. Ostroff wants #SaveStudentNewsrooms to educate non-journalists on the necessity of having a student-focused, independent newspaper available in their communities.

Editorial independence is a concern shared among all the editors because of the freedom to pursue the stories that matter, Tavel said. She transferred to UF from Florida Gulf Coast University, whose paper is university-affiliated, so she has first-hand experience with feeling the content that she published was vetted.

A story about an Oscars drinking game landed Tavel and her editors in the dean’s office facing a reprimand, and because of that incident, she felt as though her newsroom could never expect to report with true editorial freedom without administrative overreach.

“The whole point of the First Amendment in this country is to have freedom of speech and freedom of the press, so it does feel like they push back a lot, even with dumb stuff like a drinking game,” Tavel said. “But if they push back on that, you never feel truly encouraged to go after the things that matter most, like injustice and discrimination and investigating those kinds of issues on your own campus.”

Madry worries that SMU will step in at troubling points to dictate coverage. She was told first-hand by an alumni organizer at Texas Christian University, whose paper is university-affiliated, that on numerous occasions, administrators have successfully pulled stories from the paper’s archive, effectively erasing them from history.

The organizers hope #SaveStudentNewsrooms showcases a similar level of their own ambition and energy from student journalists nationwide.

Trey Strange, former editor-in-chief of The Cougar and UH alumnus, took a winding path up through the ranks of the newspaper, which allowed him to experience all different aspects of the operation, even founding and editing Cooglife magazine.

“Professionally, The Cougar gave me all of the training tools I needed to be a successful journalist in ways that class really can’t,” Strange said. “It gives you this sense of a deadline and a responsibility, and in mimicking a real newspaper, that’s really helpful for understanding the way a work environment will operate.”

Strange believes having a student paper allows students to have a voice, especially marginalized voices that have traditionally not been the focus of major publications.

The organizers of #SaveStudentNewsrooms maintain that journalism is as foundational as any other pillar in public life for holding power accountable and want future student journalists to reiterate that significance.

“If we start at the college level, hopefully that’ll expand overall,” Tavel said.

Strange wants student journalists to take their role seriously as one with a responsibility to the student body and to recognize how important the task is daily.

“Student media can help give narrative to connect people,” Strange said. “Telling the stories of your community and of your campus helps people find connection across disparate groups that they wouldn’t necessarily interact with or think to interact with.”

Madry wants people to recognize the vital role student newsrooms play in thriving universities, she said, and to value the “hyper-local” nature of the service student journalists provide to their communities.

She reiterated the impact that student journalism has on the people and stories it tells, and wants people to value the institution in much the same way she values the affect its had on her life.

“On a personal level, student journalism has been so influential in helping me be passionate about something,” Madry said. “I not only found a home, but something that I was able to own.”

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