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The Alternative Student Press

September 24, 2007

“What would students do,” one journalism researcher wondered, “if they got to create a media by them, for them -- to create whatever they want, and not have to worry about what’s always been?”

Undergraduate staffers at an increasing number of alternative student publications, largely online-only endeavors that students started from scratch, are “changing the very definition of what it means to be a college journalist and revolutionizing how news at colleges and universities is provided and produced,” Dan Reimold, a journalism Ph.D. candidate at Ohio University, wrote in his recent paper, “‘Tantamount to Starting a Rebellion’: The Shifts in Staff Structure, News Production, and Content Presentation at Online Campus Newspapers and Magazines.”

By offering “a more cultured, real-time take on news that would affect younger people, and from an online-only perspective,” these alternative student publications seem to be “going beyond what the mainstream, professional press was addressing,” Reimold said in an interview.

“It seemed to be an area that the campus media was leading the way on.”

Content Management

It's hard to make generalizations about the alternative campus media, with some extensive organizations posting new stories daily and other smaller outfits publishing once or twice a semester. The publications vary dramatically, with some, like Michigan State University’s blog-bogged SpartanEdge (motto: "The Future of Online Campus News is Now") embracing aspects of multi- and new media that journalism schools have been slow to adopt. (Hear a Spartan Podcast conducted with the publication’s faculty publisher, Bonnie Bucqueroux).

Others, like another member of Michigan State’s Alternative Media Alliance (MAMA), The Big Green , serve primarily as a venue for longer-form, magazine-style feature writing and creative nonfiction where students can write about what they’re passionate about (read: not student government meetings) and -- this is a key point -- experiment with writing in their own voices as opposed to objective news-speak.

“I like how magazines are able to be a little more subjective in their writing…. Writers are able to have their voice come through a lot easier. Not necessarily in terms of being biased or anything like that, but you can insert some of your personality into your writing,” says Jessica Sipperley, a Michigan State senior and Big Green’s editor-in-chief.

Student staffers are also re-envisioning how to present their content. For instance, the College of New Jersey's unbound "is a place where the purpose is to figure out how to exploit the Web,” says Kim Pearson, an associate professor of English (including journalism) at the college. The once-a-semester student-run publication grew out of a journalism class she taught way back in the Web’s weaning years in 1996. “We were beginning to understand what it meant

  • to see text as a visual object,” Pearson says.
  • “We were really understanding what it meant to have hypertext,
  • that someone could come into the middle of the publication literally and leave without having the experience of the magazine...there wasn’t a front of the book, middle of the book, back of the book in the traditional sense."

The content tends to be built around feature stories, soft news, sex columns and music reviews, although at unbound, the editor tries to temper reviews of "my favorite album" (or MP3 track?) a bit. “We mostly rely on students coming up with ideas that they think they want to write about or want to pursue,” says Sharon Tharp, a senior at the College of New Jersey and unbound's editor-in-chief. unbound doesn't even have a news section on its site (though it used to, Pearson says), and the alternative newsmagazines in general tend to opt for the occasional investigative news piece and a flurry of features in lieu of the event-driven, breaking news that's traditionally been the campus newspaper's domain.

Ohio University’s daily Speakeasy Web zine, for example, recently featured stories on "remembering 9-11," celebrity babies ("from Apple to Zahara"!), local charity music concerts, the costs of services for sexual assault survivors and "skydiving for dummies."

“We say we’re alternative because we like to find out who’s affected by the story. We try to go beyond the officials,” says Hana Bieliauskas, a senior at Ohio University and assistant managing editor at Speakeasy.

Writing (and Publishing) on the Edge

These publications run on tight budgets. Matt Cohlmia, editor of NUComment at Northwestern University, for instance, says the publication's budget is $50 a year, and all that goes toward paying for the Web site. Without printing costs, staff sometimes eschew advertising either largely or altogether. ("We want to just write and publish and do what we do, and not become a commercially, financially driven kind of organization," says Cohlmia, a fifth-year industrial engineering student).

Although some, wealthier publications offer occasional print versions, most operate almost entirely in the online arena when it comes to production and publication alike. Without centralized newsrooms, staff tend to plan for upcoming issues at regular meetings and communicate with one another via e-mail and messaging systems in the content management systems that undergird their Web sites (although Bieliauskas of Ohio University says they’re trying to encourage more phone communication these days, too).

“Students are extremely appreciative of the fact that they can work on these sites on their own time” and in their own space, says Reimold, the journalism researcher who undertook an ethnographic study of sorts of alternative student publications. Students, he wrote in his paper, work from their dorm rooms whenever it's convenient.

He adds, though, that the biggest benefits the students mention -- the freedom to choose what they write about, the flexibility to schedule their reporting around other commitments and the lack of a bureaucratic hierarchy many students see and loathe in the traditional student newspaper -- are also some of the biggest drawbacks. “It’s such a loose grouping from a staff structure perspective that students can get lost in the mix,” Reimold says.

Meanwhile, from an administrative perspective, the rise of sites with varying levels of journalistic rigor is emblematic of the increasing number of outlets aside from the local daily and the college newspaper offering news and opinions on campus happenings -- and the need for college public relations officials to respond to volleys from any number of directions.

“The world is changing so much that I’m responding to a blog or a chatroom or a message board like I used to respond to a wire service story or a major metro daily [newspaper article]," says Terry Denbow, vice president for university relations at Michigan State. "The marketplace, you have to have faith, will take care of it," Denbow says -- adding that it's not just homegrown publications, but media outlets "near and far that don’t have the same rigors that our student newspaper would."

(It's important to note, however, that many staffers at these publications, while at times experimental, take journalistic standards quite seriously -- unbound, for instance, has fact-checkers, making it fairly unique among campus publications in general. Some, like unbound, originally grew out of journalism classes, while others began as student organizations -- and still others, like NUComment and SpartanEdge, continue to operate outside of the registered student organization umbrella entirely).

“You’re going to have campuses with different dynamics on them – a lot of students who want to write in whatever way they can with perhaps limited spaces to do that," says Ron Spielberger, executive director of the College Media Advisers organization and an associate professor at the University of Memphis. “If they have the desire to do these things, then this is a great outlet for them to do it, but maybe in a much freer form." With "newspapers running scared," Spielberger adds, these students might find themselves well-prepared for careers in a changing, Internet-oriented news environment.

“A school of journalism, its job is to take students who are pretty good writers and teach them the journalistic ethics of objectivity and fairness and completeness,” says Bucqueroux, publisher of Michigan State’s SpartanEdge and coordinator of the university’s Victims and the Media program. “There’s nothing wrong with that model,” she says, with campus newspapers and journalism programs typically geared toward preparing students for (yes, more structured) jobs in that vein.

But, she says, there’s also a thriving alternative media in which strong points of views are common. “Even the most staid and stolid lady like The New York Times, some of the online elements are a bit edgier,” Bucqueroux says. At SpartanEdge, students opted to publish the controversial Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad last year, a popular blogger (the Spartanette) recently observed that, "Well, despite the fact that I rarely drink, all my recent posts are about drinking," and the site's "StyleEdge" crowd proclaims that they're "so close to the edge were practically falling off."

“I wanted them," Bucqueroux says of her students, "to get the message that they can be edgy if they want to.”

 

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