The Making of a Real Student Newspaper
Ron Feemster describes his efforts to help community college journalists learn their craft. (Spoiler alert: He's no longer employed there.)
During the past two academic years, I taught print journalism and advised the campus newspaper at Northwest College in Powell, Wyo., a public residential community college in an agrarian corner of a conservative state. In addition to its natural beauty and remote location -- the campus lies 85 miles from Yellowstone National Park and, in another direction, 80 miles from the nearest interstate highway -- this college with fewer than 2,000 students boasts a 16-page weekly student newspaper. A tiny staff of freshmen and sophomores puts out 27 issues of the Northwest Trail every year. It’s a wonderful setup for training young journalists. I gladly moved from New York City to take the job.
When I started at Northwest, I expected to pour much of my energy into teaching the craft of reporting and writing hard news. What I did not see coming was a battle to uphold journalistic values that I had taken for granted since graduate school, if not earlier. I would lose my job in the fight to publish a newspaper that covered the real news on campus, but I would gain something greater. In two years, I experienced again how journalism energizes young people, and how young people trying to write the truth can change their community.
I write here because what I learned may prove useful to other colleges struggling to find the right role for a student newspaper. It is unlikely that there is an easy, comfortable place on campus for an empowered student press. Good student journalists, like the ones I advised, will uncover facts that make a college administration squirm. But if a strong press is sometimes a nuisance for administrators, a timid, self-censoring student paper is an educational fraud.
The Founding Fathers wrote the First Amendment knowing full well that the press and government would be at odds forever. The same healthy battle between leaders and the press must play out on campus, too, if students are to receive realistic training in journalism. If a college can’t allow a student newspaper to operate under the same rules as the professional press, it should shut down the paper and let students learn journalism elsewhere.
My first year at Northwest began auspiciously enough. In one of our early conversations, the then-vice president for academic affairs, Sher Hruska, asked me to help train journalists who might one day work outside the Big Horn Basin. She said she saw too many Northwest alumni choosing comfortable jobs at familiar newspapers. Four or five former Trail editors worked at papers within 25 miles of campus when I arrived at Northwest.
I remember reassuring Hruska that this was an attainable goal. Students I helped train as an adjunct professor at three City University of New York colleges work at television stations, magazines, newspapers and websites in New York, Chicago and Seattle, among other places.
But I am not sure I told my new boss exactly what I meant. I expected that students who covered real conflicts on campus for two years would be ready to play a big role at a major college paper. Major college newspaper experience can lead to a job almost anywhere. I think I said all of that, but I wish I had more firmly emphasized that my students cover real conflicts.
By midpoint of my first year, the students were well on their way. Even with a freshman editor and only one returning sophomore writer, the paper was breaking some big stories.
During the presidential campaign in the fall of 2008, student journalists asked how the school could prohibit political posters on campus. Not a single Obama or McCain poster was allowed outside students’ dorm rooms. Was the college inhibiting free political speech? The college cited a state law forbidding campaign posters on state property. Student journalists read the law and discovered that it makes an exception for community colleges, subject to the approval of the board of trustees. The paper held the college trustees, not the state law, accountable for the ban.
Later, relying on public documents shared with the paper, students inquired into the distribution of salary increases among non-faculty employees on campus. A college human resources document strongly suggested that top earners and certain favored individuals at the college were getting bigger percentage raises than the rank and file. A few people seemed far underpaid for their contributions to the college.
When the Trail ran the story, campus administrators claimed that the paper had manufactured a controversy. In fact, a bitter conflict had simmered beneath the college’s placid surface for more than a year. The Trail elevated unspoken resentments to public debate. Northwest’s leaders blamed the messenger. The Trail -- not the facts of the story -- became the issue.
I wish I could report that the Trail’s stories swiftly helped create a new culture of open public discourse at the college. But that would not be true. Few people wrote letters to the editor during my first year as Trail adviser. Instead, most campus critics conferred quietly among themselves and condemned the Trail in a whisper.
By March, the paper had become more controversial than the stories it covered. Hruska -- who began a new job in July as vice president for learning at San Juan College, in Farmington, N.M., changed course. She suggested that I just give Northwest students “the basics,” that I teach “small town journalism.” Whenever the paper broke a big, critical story, Hruska said, administrators howled in protest. My vision for student journalism seemed inextricably at odds with the administration’s view of the college paper. A deep, mutual distrust set in.
I argued that the newspaper needed to cover real issues. I tried to equate journalism with equine studies, one of Northwest’s flagship programs. Students learn horsemanship on the backs of real horses, dangerous animals that hurt people when they are not handled safely. No one would expect an equine student to saddle up a rocking horse. Journalism students can’t learn their craft on a toy paper, either. Although most of the college administrators smiled at my analogy, they seldom treated the student newspaper with the same respect they show a horse.
Administrators often adopted a patronizing attitude toward the Trail. More than one student returned from an interview with little more in her notebook than a condescending brush-off. One administrator asked for written questions via e-mail before an interview, which the reporter painstakingly prepared. Then the administrator printed out the e-mail, penciled “confidential” next to the questions, and stood up the reporter who wanted to speak with her. Instead of an interview, the reporter received an e-mail printout with only a word of quotable material.
I never mind sending students into a fight with their sources, but I hate to see them treated like children rather than adults.
Most of the other obstacles the students faced were all too typical and realistic. Trail reporters were stonewalled for good reasons and poor ones. Like too many colleges and universities, Northwest tries to hide uncomfortable information behind FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. When I asked one student about her interview with a top administrator, she told me, “She just said ‘something, something, something FERPA.’ ” That remark became a running gag in our newsroom.
The Columbus Dispatch did a wonderful piece about the perils of the too-broad interpretations of FERPA last year. FERPA was clearly intended to protect students’ academic records, not their identities when they are called up on campus alcohol or drug charges. But it serves as a convenient smokescreen for administrators who believe they have a right to operate behind closed doors, as though they were not subject to the same scrutiny as other public officials.
When the Trail wrote stories despite the fact that college sources refused to talk, usually citing a questionable reading of FERPA, the administration said the newspaper was biased.
The cardinal sin of the Northwest Trail as a student paper was not the fact that it broke big stories. It was the paper’s failure to be “positive” and to “support the college.” I heard this criticism from faculty members, vice presidents, administrative staff and the men’s basketball coach. The coach, Andy Ward, complained in writing to my division chair that the paper wasn’t “on the same team” as his players. At Northwest, a critical story was a disloyal story.
Teaching students to practice journalism under this “positive” paradigm would all but kill off their chances to make the staff at a good four-year college paper, much less to succeed at an internship or job at a significant regional or national publication. We would be teaching students to censor themselves before they type the first word of their stories. Journalists evaluate newsworthiness in categories like timeliness, conflict, and impact on the community. “Positive” and “negative” don’t figure into any professional’s news judgment.
I tried and (for the most part) failed to argue at Northwest that students don’t learn by publishing innocuous stories in a “lab” paper. Their stories must make an impact on their readers. Their work must have consequences. If not, we unwittingly teach students that journalism is a harmless diversion. It is not enough for student journalists to mimic the work of professional journalists. They can’t merely learn the theory of reporting and practice the empty mechanics of writing a news story. They must go out into the world to report and write about issues that matter. And on a college paper, that can mean holding the administration’s feet to the fire.
As journalists, students must learn to challenge authority. They must develop and maintain their own critical viewpoint in public and face the public consequences when they make errors of fact or judgment, or even mistakes of usage and grammar. A real newspaper written and edited by students can change staffers’ lives in the special way that early journalism experiences changed mine. Journalism gave me a voice, but it also made me publicly accountable for what I say.
The Trail persisted in covering real campus news. By the end of the 2009 spring semester, much of the Northwest campus was aligned against the student paper. Serious mistakes in a few stories -- falsely reporting that the owners of the nearby junior hockey league team might put it up for sale; naming a former student in connection with a drug raid without official (police or college) confirmation of his involvement; getting most but not all of the story right when a popular resident assistant lost her job -- allowed the Trail’s critics to dismiss stronger stories as the biased work of a shoddy newspaper.
This, too, was a learning experience for the staff. Getting a fact wrong on a history paper hurts a single student’s grade. Getting a fact wrong in the newspaper diminishes an entire staff’s reputation.
At Hruska’s suggestion, we took an anonymous e-mail survey of our readers. We sent out nearly 2,000 questionnaires and received 142 responses. A third came from people who had read the paper for 10 years or more. People who had read the Trail five to nine years submitted another 21 percent. Northwest is a two-year school. It was clear that administration, faculty and staff had weighed in more heavily than students. (It didn’t help that too many Northwest students rarely check their college e-mail accounts.)
Although the Trail received kudos from a few readers for unearthing stories that were not well known on campus, the anonymous comments weighed heavily against the paper. The news staff was accused of biased, negative, even sensationalist coverage.
Readers, especially those who had read the paper for a number of years, blamed me. “I feel like the Trail has turned into a tabloid newspaper,” one typical critic wrote. “I believe this to be a direct reflection to the new adviser and the leadership ethics he brings to the position.” Asked what the Trail could do to improve, more than a few readers suggested firing me.
I forwarded the survey results to Hruska and my division chair, and I asked the students to write a story. They put it on the front page and quoted some of the strongest criticisms of me. They were not defensive, nor did they justify or rationalize their own errors. The Trail’s coverage of itself surprised many people. Several longtime readers complimented us on the story. One told me that he was glad to see the Trail engaging in “self-reflection.” Another said the Trail’s courage to publish a story critical of itself won the paper some new fans.
In a surprise to me, readers also argued in survey comments that the student newspaper had no business covering the finances of the college. On the opinion pages of that same issue, students defended their right to cover the spending of public money at a public institution. I was proud that they stood up for their role as a public watchdog.
Even so, by the time fall semester began in 2009, I was less than eager to pursue open conflict with the college. My reappointment review was coming up. My superiors worried that I spent too much of my time on the newspaper. (This I saw as a necessary evil in my first year, since the paper was the key tool for teaching print journalism. All my other classes fed the paper.) They said I was a poor online teacher. (That was true. I began to improve when I received training in Blackboard-WebCT after my second semester.)
Hruska, in particular, was also concerned that too many students were critical of my courses in the anonymous surveys she uses to evaluate faculty for tenure. Even on the newspaper staff, some students gave me the highest possible marks on anonymous evaluations while a few -- presumably the ones who quit in frustration when their work didn’t meet standards -- gave me very low marks. It was a bathtub curve. Almost no one in the class was indifferent about my performance. Hruska also pressed me to publish fewer issues of the paper, perhaps going biweekly, which I declined to do.
The attrition itself didn’t worry me. If students discover they don’t like journalism, that’s as important as discovering that they do. (Ask me sometime about my experience in college theater.) But the idea that my classes somehow had to gain widespread approval from students distressed me. I was not interested in popularity contests.
In the newspaper course, as well as the writing, reporting and editing classes, I tried to keep students focused on the printed final product. It’s wonderful when students feel good about themselves and good about the course. But I could never let my students forget that we go to press every Wednesday. We could afford little time for self-congratulation. We had deadlines to make. If students didn’t do their jobs, the paper would not get to the printer. If the paper did not appear, or was unreadable, we eventually would have no newspaper or no readers.
In that first year, in particular, I pushed Trail staffers well beyond their comfort levels. Many students resented this. But a group of very young people who had never written a published word produced a fairly strong paper every week. Not every student on staff liked it every day, but I’m thrilled about what they achieved. I’ve been a journalist for 25 years, and I’m as proud of that first year’s Trail as I am of my best stories in The New York Times.
Unfortunately, in my third semester I started to feel pressure from the administration. I became fearful of the consequences of stories, which is one of the fatal flaws I teach my students to avoid. Journalists need to follow the facts wherever they lead, write the most complete and fair story possible, and let the reaction to the story take care of itself. If the reaction is newsworthy, they can write another story about that.
That’s the standard in professional journalism. Any standard less rigorous would be a flaw in the college journalism curriculum.
I regret that in fear for myself, I did not push the students as hard as I could to do some controversial stories. The biggest story we let slide was one we decorously referred to as “the appearance of nepotism on campus.”
The husband of Dana Young, then vice president of student affairs and now the president of Treasure Valley Community College, in Ontario, Ore., was hired as an assistant men’s basketball coach. Paul Prestwich, the president of the college, approved the hiring of Jeff Young, an assistant coach on the boys’ high school team in town, on May 12. The college athletics director resigned on May 13. When students tried to cover the story, the administration did not merely stonewall them, it intimidated them. The human resources director sat in on the interviews. Students had to interview some of the sources in groups.
After conducting a number of long interviews without getting many straight answers, the students concluded that they had no story. This was almost certainly not true, but I did not lay down the law and force them to keep reporting. I just grumbled and threatened and pleaded a bit. Eventually, we moved on. My rationalization: It wouldn’t hurt to avoid conflict now and live to fight another day. No other papers in our area covered the story, either. We could come back to it. But we never did.
Looking back on it, I think my attitude caused another, more serious setback than missing an important story. Some of the returning students were gun shy after suffering heavy criticism in the survey the previous spring. My inaction fed their fear.
One of my strongest students asked me, “If we do this [nepotism] story, will people hate us?” I told her the truth. People could easily hate us for reporting what happens on campus. Then I gave her the professional answer: “Our job is to report the best stories we can find as well and fairly as we can. The public’s opinion of the Trail is none of our business.”
My own actions were not as professional as my advice, however. I was too willing to drop the controversial story. And as usual in teaching, my actions spoke louder than my words. Writing the story would have dispelled the fear. Doing nothing reinforced it. The Trail became a softer, feature-driven paper in the fall. It was not a bad paper. But it was not the scrappy, combative paper that it could have been.
That said, the paper was less than tame. On one front page, the Trail ran a story about former Sen. Alan Simpson’s speech dedicating the new wing of Simpson Hall. Next to it was an account of a marijuana bust in the same dorm just hours later. The students also covered the successful attempt of an expelled student athlete -- many called him a persecuted student -- to fight back and be readmitted to school. But too often, the paper played it safe.
The Trail improved quickly in the spring semester, in no small part because my contract was not renewed. Hruska disagreed with the recommendation of my division chair and asked Prestwich, the president of the college, to end my employment in May. Prestwich handed me a termination letter at the end of January. I felt it was a terrible decision and told both of them so. But, in the end, I did not contest it. If leaders never made bad decisions, I would have starved as a journalist long ago.
(Seven months later, after the essay you are reading was edited, I sent it to Hruska for comment. Here is her complete reply: “Every story has more than one perspective. Teaching excellence throughout a faculty member’s teaching load is what I and the college expect of all faculty. The newspaper was a lab for courses and each year the paper produces various comments and reactions. I don’t believe the content of the paper was the issue as presented by Mr. Feemster, and I find Mr. Feemster’s analysis to be missing the true feedback that was delivered to him by me.”)
Back in January, the Trail had 14 issues left, and I hoped the staff would make the most of them. I looked for another job and found one. Oddly, I landed at a private graduate school in India that reveres the same traditions and values of American investigative journalism that Northwest found controversial.
In retrospect, I think my firing shocked the Trail students into action. My dismissal was paired on the semester’s first front page with the more pernicious firing of the student activities director under the common headline NWC Firing Squad. Instead of avoiding conflict, as I fear some students had done under my leadership in the fall, the reporters went looking for the biggest stories they could find.
A couple weeks later, someone leaked the paper a copy of the now infamous Mormon recruiting letter. Prestwich had used college funds (later repaid by an anonymous donor) to send a recruiting letter to about 1,000 high school students in his own church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In the letter, the college president identified himself as a member of the church and listed the advantages Mormon students enjoy in Powell. Publishing that letter kicked off three of the most exciting months of journalism I have ever experienced.
Inside Higher Ed covered the story the Trail broke. Its story was picked up nationwide by the Associated Press. Within a week, student journalists were covering a series of public forums on campus, at which students and employees demanded answers of the president. The president, as one student later observed, spoke at great length but had little to say. Two weeks after the story broke, Prestwich gave up religious recruiting. The Trail ran it on the front page.
Before the recruiting controversy died down, another event rocked the campus. A group of 12 staff members, who called themselves the “Peace Movement” and representatives of the “silent majority,” sent out an anonymous e-mail “survey” to all staff and faculty. The survey had but one softball question and was prefaced by a diatribe against the faculty. On the anonymous comments page, people who would never sign their name to a letter to the editor blamed the faculty (and the student newspaper) for every problem on campus. The Trail ran the survey and comments online.
By this time, the Trail had some fans. I remember a faculty meeting where a senior professor bemoaned the sorry state of communication with the administration. “It’s gotten to the point where people are getting their information from the Trail,” he said.
I have to say he was right. The Trail was not just the best news source on campus. It offered the best coverage of the college in the region. One week the students read “first reported in the Northwest Trail” twice on the front page of the Powell Tribune, the local paper, and once in the Billings Gazette.
I was proud of the students’ investigative work and very happy with the paper’s impact on the community. But most important, I observed that doing the big stories, not avoiding them, had quelled some students’ fears. Becoming a trusted voice on campus taught them, better than any lecture or term paper or laboratory exercise, what it means to be a journalist. Succeeding just a year after they published intense and often unfair criticism of themselves on their own front page was sweet vindication.
At semester’s end, the Trail covered a drunken brawl between three varsity basketball players and a 125-pound All-American wrestler, who was stomped senseless. Hours after that front-page story appeared, two staff members sent me nearly identical text messages at almost the same moment: They walked into their respective dormitory lobbies and found a half-dozen students silently engrossed in the paper.
The Northwest Trail enjoyed a spectacular semester for two reasons that I hope do not soon repeat themselves. The college administration made very poor decisions that spawned very good news stories. Journalism is a reactive discipline. The students didn’t create the news events. They covered them. Our staff could have learned as much by covering a freewheeling, open and healthy debate about the issues dividing the Northwest campus, even if none of their stories made the national news. But that choice was not open to them.
The Trail was also strong because it was radically free, even though it was free for the wrong reason. One of the main constraints that the college imposed on the student paper -- besides whispered attacks -- was pressure on the faculty adviser. The paper had its moment in the sun after I was fired. I was immune to pressure because I had that special freedom Kris Kristofferson called “nothing left to lose.”
Firing the adviser is not the best way to produce a strong student newspaper. The difficult and mature choice is to learn to live with a free student press the same way the government must live with the professional press. In other words, the administration and student press should learn to live in healthy conflict.
If a free and inquiring press on campus sounds threatening, consider the alternatives. I thought of Northwest when I read a New York Times story in June about news management in China, where the government is legally entitled to withhold, spin and stage manage information to burnish its image. Xinhua, China’s national news service, and CCTV, the national television network, play along.
I might still have a job at Northwest if I taught the Xinhua philosophy of reporting. In fact, if I made it my mission to be “positive” and “support the college,” I’m sure I could work at many colleges that regard the student newspaper as a friendly housecat or the paper version of the athletics mascot. But I would not be teaching journalism in any of those jobs. I would be committing fraud. My work would undermine my students’ future professional careers, even as I certified them for journalism degrees.
I can sympathize with college administrators who do not welcome into their midst a tough critic with a printing budget. But if colleges do not want a real newspaper on campus, I urge them to drop the pretense of teaching journalism and shut down the student newspaper altogether. I just hope it never comes to that at Northwest.
Ron Feemster is a visiting professor at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India.
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