Archive for September, 2010

The Orient as we know it is dying.  The Bowdoin College student newspaper is bleeding money from its coffers at a pace that will soon make printing actual copies an unaffordable luxury.

In an easy-breezy blame game, the big fat target is the college’s SAFC.  Last fall, the Student Activities Funding Committee suddenly sliced the school’s annual contribution to the Orient budget by more than 50 percent.  Its funding allotment this year is only slightly higher.  And so, unexpectedly in need of mega-amounts of cash, fast, where has the paper turned?  An independent Orient savings account.  The plot thickens.

This independent account contains revenue from the newspaper’s subscriptions and advertising sales.  It has traditionally been used by the Orient editorial board to cover a slew of costs, most prominently providing stipends for reporters, editors, and other staff.  So in sum: For years now, related school funding has gone toward Orient printing charges.  Simultaneously, the paper’s own ad/subscription revenue has gone mostly toward staff pay.

As a former editor in chief explains, “The Orient began paying weekly stipends to staffers years ago. The editors determined that doing so creates incentives to do good work and inspires a sense of obligation in a perpetually distracted staff. . . . It now appears that the funding committee is trying to strong-arm the Orient into using [the paper’s independent account] to cover the bulk of printing and distribution costs, making it untenable for the editors to continue paying their staff.”

The SAFC strong-arm tactic is certainly inelegant for its abruptness.  But its larger point of protest is at least worth exploring.  What the SAFC seems to be saying with its budget slash: The school helps pay for campus events and organizations, not the students who run them.  So while it’s nice that the paper can afford to pay its staff, it should first cover its own printing.

The Orient‘s retort: Chicken meet egg.  Without motivated student journalists, there will not be any (quality) content worth printing.  As the e-board argued in a recent editorial, “The Future of the Orient:

“The SAFC has the College’s best interests at heart. It intends to allocate its large budget as fairly as possible, and from its eyes, the Orient‘s existing savings imply that it does not require as much help from the SAFC as those non-revenue-generating clubs without independent accounts. . . . But the SAFC’s aims to level the playing field are not just.  The Orient provides an essential service to the College, and has done so since 1871. It has the right to maintain a personal account and not be at the SAFC’s mercy for every cent.  If we can count on the SAFC to cover the cost of printing, we will continue to have the incentive to produce a good newspaper that generates the revenue that takes care of everything else.”

What do you think? Should the opportunity to learn journalism firsthand, scrape together bylines, and build a resume be incentive enough for the 21st-century j-student?  Or should college media staffwork be considered something worth paying for, a necessity on par with a quality printer and an active Web presence?

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The Almagest at LSU Shreveport is back in print, sporting a “newly-designed, all-color” hard copy issue for the first time in a year.  The student newspaper had been forced to shed its ink-stained edition out of financial duress last fall.

As the paper itself reported: “Since the beginning of the current economic depression, every component of LSUS has experienced its repercussions in different ways. A lack of funds has slashed the hours of Noel Memorial Library, almost every SGA meeting has time spend working around one budget crisis or another and for the LSUS newspaper, the Almagest, it took away one of the defining aspects of a publication: a printed paper.”

After operating online-only for two semesters, the weekly paper has returned to its printed glory, interestingly, through an LSUS upper-level management student’s class project.  As the Almagest shares, “[The student’s] idea was very simple; ask The Shreveport Times [the nearby professional daily] to print the paper [for free], and in exchange, sell and print ads in it as well.”

Through the unique printing-advertising arrangement, print Almagest 2.0 is larger than its predecessor and appearing for the first time in color.  The student paper’s executive editor: “Words can’t explain how excited the staff here at the Almagest is about our new creation, but we are even more excited for what it means for the university.”

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The contractual gobbledygook that led to a recent student press-school admin. standoff at California’s Southwestern College has been settled.  But, according to the Student Press Law Center, tensions remain.

The gist, as I previously outlined: The semester starts.  Southwestern College officials suddenly block publication of the student paper’s first issue.  They say The Sun must follow a previously-ignored rule on the school books.  The rule requires the paper “to put its printing business out to competitive bid and sign a contract with the winning bidder.”

The paper’s faculty adviser and student editors cry foul over the timing of administrators’ must-bid requirement.  They say it may be an attempt to stop publication of some highly-charged local election stories the staff are putting to bed. Administrators deny the censorship charge, confirming the paper is still free to publish online.  Cue SPLC involvement and related media coverage.

Now, the bid process is apparently over.  So the Sun is free to print once again.  Its editors, though, are saying it is one issue too late.  They canceled the printing of the first issue of the semester due to the out-of-the-blue blockage.

Some stories ran online.  Yet, most were held for what will now be issue-two-turned-into-one, in hopes they will still resonate.  The Sun adviser: “[Staffers] are kind of keeping their cards close to their chests, they want to put it out in print first. There’s symbolic reasons now for doing all of this.”  (For those keeping score, that’s one more vote for the staying power of print.)

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In a new piece for The Washington Post, higher ed. reporter extraordinaire Jenna Johnson identifies a growing trend at colleges nationwide: faculty, staff, and their spouses and kids living among students in the dorms.

In my stint overseas, I saw faculty and family regularly provided with on-campus housing, although in separate buildings.  By comparison, here in the states, the tenured and untenured alike are occasionally residing directly down the hall from the student contingent- acting as counselors and companions in part so schools can “create a more personal, small-campus feel.”

According to Johnson, “In exchange for free rent, these professors agree to live among the masses, answer questions, attend floor meetings, endure odd noises at late hours and host small gatherings in their quarters, which typically are larger than the dorm rooms shared by students. Some students never stop by, and others form lifelong friendships with their older neighbors.”

It is an interesting trend, one worth localizing.  Does your school have any on-campus non-student housing options?  And if so, how do they work?  Would profs. and other staff consider a campus domicile?  What would university employees need or want as extras to a typical dorm?  And of course, what do students think- the RAs, the honors elite, and the oft-inebriated?

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In the past two years, The Torch newsroom at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth has suffered a pair of break-ins resulting in stolen tech equipment totaling more than $13,000.  In March 2009, thieves made off with a range of items from the student paper’s HQ, including the then-EIC’s personal laptop.  The most recent break-in occurred late last weekend- an iMac is missing and the newsroom was trashed.

As the lead story of the current Torch issue recounts, “The office was in disarray.  In addition to the small trash bin being knocked over, the cabinet doors and desk drawers were open, desks were moved and the couch was tipped over.”

The current EIC’s reaction, outlined in an e-mail to staff: “I find this act to be not only a violation of our privacy but also extremely disrespectful.  I have no idea as to why anyone would do this.”  It is an interesting question.  Obviously, a basic desire for wrongdoing and free new media seems most obvious.  Or might it be someone (or a few someones) attempting to simultaneously get the paper’s attention?  Regardless of the motive, the paper rightfully placed coverage of the act on its front page, linking it to a larger slew of vandalism and thefts on campus.

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A cartoon published in last Friday’s Exponent, Purdue University’s student newspaper, has spurred criticisms and an online protest for its depiction of what some perceived as non-consensual sexual activity.  The paper’s editor in chief has apologized for the cartoon, part of a regular Exponent series, “Sex Position of the Week.”

In the controversial three-panel strip, a pair of men are shown furtively attempting to have sex with the same unsuspecting woman, switching spots in the middle with a high-five.  As a related guide explains, “The partner standing behind the other trades with a friend who has been hiding in the closet.  The receiving partner must not realize a change has been made.”

According to a New York Daily News report, the cartoon “drew outrage on the West Lafayette, Ind., campus, flooding the newspaper e-mail inbox with angry responses.  To many readers, the cartoon in question looked a lot less like boyish hijinks and a lot more like rape.”

As one criticism noted: “The Exponent is creating an unsafe environment for its female students, as well as depicting females as sexual objects, whose victimization is viewed as a source of entertainment.”  A separate Facebook group, started by a Purdue alum and sporting roughly 200 members, spells out its message in its title: “Tell Purdue Exponent Advocating Rape is NOT OKAY.”

Exponent editor in chief Zoe Hayes penned an extremely respectful, heartfelt apology for the cartoon’s printing:

First things first: We made a mistake in printing Friday’s sex position of the week, and I, the editorial board, and the Exponent are extremely sorry.  Our apologies extend to the entire campus, both men and women; to alumni, parents, and current and former faculty and staff; and to anyone who saw the graphic and was offended or triggered by what was depicted. We’ve heard from many of you and understand your concerns. . . . On Friday and over the weekend, we received a flood of e-mails and phone calls telling us that this sort of graphic is unacceptable. And as soon as we received the first one and looked at it again- really looked at it- we agreed. If someone engages in any sexual act with anyone without his or her explicit consent, it’s rape. The comic can easily be interpreted that way.

My take: Mistakes happen.  The criticisms are valid.  Hayes admirably owned up. The Exponent is an excellent, award-winning paper.  There was obviously no ill intent.  The lesson has been learned.

In a larger sense, to j-students everywhere, take note: Sexual content has more potential to explode in controversy than almost anything else within the student press.  The solution of course is not to avoid covering or satirizing sexual issues.  Just give related stories and art extra vetting.  And read my book on how college media over the past decade have handled sex in print, rightly and wrongly. :-)

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According to Amanda Podgorny, The Northern Star at Northern Illinois University sports a handful of student journalists known simply as “the muckrakers.” “During any given school year, you will see the Star break anywhere from two to five in-depth investigative stories that the local papers seem to be lacking,” said Podgorny.  “These people take their roles as watchdogs very seriously, and continue to file FOIA after FOIA to get all the facts.”

Podgorny is a star muckraker for the Star.  One of her highest-profile investigations launched last fall- sparked by a single concerned citizen and centered on a DeKalb, Ill., alderman and a possibly shady series of business contracts with the city which he serves.  For her FOIAwesomeness (yes, I went there) and general journalistic passion, Podgorny rightfully earns a place in the CMM Student Journalist Spotlight.

Below, she recalls the camp that sparked her j-love and the alderman contracts story that tested her reporting mettle and document digging and requesting skills.

How did you become interested in journalism?

My initial reaction to this question: I suck at math and science. :-)  In all seriousness, I attended a journalism camp the summer before my senior year of high school.  The only reason I applied for the camp was because I wanted to be the editor in chief of my high school newspaper and this would help my chances.

Journalism had never even crossed my mind as a career option, mostly because I did not realize there were people actually getting paid to write the articles I saw in the newspaper and online.  I was accepted into the camp, and it was free for me thanks to the Illinois Press Foundation and the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund.  I spent two weeks of my summer learning journalism.  In the second week of camp, we went to different newspapers and shadowed real journalists.

During the camp, we put out a total of three newspapers to show that we actually learned something.  I went back to my high school, landed the EIC position, and  was miserable.  While I had spent the summer learning everything our newspaper was doing wrong (the whole paper was an editorial), the rest of the staff could not wait to write about their favorite memories or favorite songs of the summer.  I could not get anyone to follow AP Style, or even comprehend what it was, so I just laid low for awhile.  Needless to say, I have no clips from The Devil’s Advocate in my portfolio. I started college in August 2007, and landed an interview at the Northern Star during the second week of classes.  I have been running with the big dogs of journalism ever since.

Why does the Northern Star rock?

We have an entire staff of awesome, passionate journalists working to put out a paper every day, striving to make it better than the last.  Our adviser, Jim, is always there to offer suggestions and guidance on any topic- whether it be design advice, a roadblock with a source or where we should go for lunch.  Students are taking anywhere from six to 20 credit hours and still managing to put out one of the top college newspapers in the country.  Another thing that really makes the Northern Star staff stand out is our involvement within the city of DeKalb.  Yes, we are a campus newspaper, but it’s not our only focus.  We are in direct competition with the local newspaper to see who can put out the news first, and see who does it better.  To sum it all up, we are full-time working journalists who just happen to still be in school.  We do it all, and we do it damn well.

How did you first become curious about the alderman contracts story?

The story came my way via a concerned citizen.  My city council reporter received a phone call one night around 5:30 p.m., right when I was coming out of budget.  He was talking to the citizen, when suddenly I heard the words that mean you are about to hear something really good or get yelled at: “Umm, let me get you my editor.”  I took the call, and that’s when the concerned citizen gave me the run-through.  We met at the Founders Memorial Library on campus about an hour after she called me so I could meet with her in person and talk to her about the situation and her concerns.  Basically, one of her rituals was to look through the city’s check register and look up who the city had been writing checks to.  She just happened to find that the city was writing checks to a company owned by an alderman.  She did not know where to go next, so she turned to us.

My job was then to get all the documents I could to prove this claim to be true. Once I gathered all the documents I requested, I was able to see the story clearly. The basics: a company owned by an alderman was receiving contracts to do masonry work downtown.  At the time, there were no city ordinances banning this, or really saying anything about it, other than if there is a conflict of interest, they must abstain from a vote.  The city attorney apparently told the alderman and city manager that she did not see any conflict of interest, so he was awarded the contracts.

No one knew about the alderman doing the work in the city except for him- and the city- even though he was being paid with TIF (tax increment funding) money, which comes from DeKalb taxpayers.  Also, Illinois state law says that if a project is under $20,000, it can be approved by the city manager without being presented to the city council.  All the alderman’s projects totaled around $50,000, but no single project was more than $20,000, so it never went to council (although there is speculation that the city did this intentionally).

Obviously as a college journalist I was excited to work on a story that would potentially make a real impact.  I was used to covering meetings and writing features, but this- this was big, and I knew it.  One thing that really got me working extra fast was the citizen’s words to me: “I told the other local paper about this, and they didn’t seem very interested, so I came to you.”  This was a chance to prove that the Northern Star is the real deal.  The next day I filed my Freedom of Information Act requests, and waited.

What was the key to breaking the story, and did you run into any roadblocks along the way?

The city pulled a fast one on me, and I can’t say that I was happy about it. The city decided to put out a press release saying that it would be talking about its policy on awarding alderman city contracts (I wonder where that idea came from?) on the same day I received my last FOIA back.  I had a leg up on the local paper because I had all the documents I needed in order to add some background to the story, but I was still a little bummed.  I was able to catch the city manager before he left the office, and after I had asked him all the interview questions, I asked why the city decided to put out this press release about a topic that would look totally random to the community.  His response?  “Your requests.  How did you find out about this?” When I told him that someone had come to me with a concern, and wouldn’t give him a name, he hung up on me.

What’s your advice for j-students who want to similarly do some digging and be an investigative reporter extraordinaire?

My advice to other j-students is to listen to people within the community.  Try and see what their concerns and thoughts are on issues within the area.  Most of the time it will just be people blowing off steam, but every once in awhile you will find a diamond in the rough.  Once you have that lead on a story, you have to know how to clean it up and make it something great.

Do not be afraid to stir something up.  As journalists, it is our job to make sure the people in charge know that we are watching their every move.  I think that sometimes, because we are still in school, people in positions of power discount our ability and will give us the run-around.  So make sure you know what you are looking for.  It also helps to know the laws (FOIA and OMA), so when they say you can’t have a document because it would take too much time to copy, or that it will cost you $500 to get the copy, you can recite the law and catch them in not only a lie, but a violation of the law.

Also, student journalists need to take advantage of their school newspapers.  The newspaper industry is not dying, but it sure is changing.  When j-students graduate, they are expected to have several skills.  I am graduating in December and I am trying to learn all aspects of the newsroom before then.  I am learning design, how to post things online, and how to edit and shoot video, on top of the skills I already have.  Take advantage of the opportunities to learn these skills while you still can because once you get into the working world, they will expect you to do it all, and might not be so friendly if you mess something up.

You wake up in ten years.  Where are you and what are you doing?

I hope to be a successful journalist at a fairly large daily newspaper.  I am not aiming for the New York Times in ten years, but  something like the Chicago Tribune would be nice.  Honestly, I will be happy wherever I am, as long as I am able to put out news that people care about.  In ten years, I want to be the journalist who has 1,000 comments on every story she writes.  That way, I know people are reading my work and that I am indirectly making a difference in the community, wherever that may be.

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