Archive for May, 2011

Late last month, a pair of student newspaper advisers were separately told their employment contracts were being terminated . . . for apparently no good reason at all.

Patriot Talon adviser Vanessa Curry at the University of Texas at Tyler told the Student Press Law Center she was let go due to “complaints.”  She said the nature of the complaints or the individuals making the complaints were not revealed to her.

SPLC attorney advocate Adam Goldstein: “When you fire someone because you say there’s been complaints, but you won’t say from who and you won’t say about what, it doesn’t really have the hallmark of sincerity, does it?

Curry is convinced school officials began targeting her after a Patriot Talon editorial this past semester criticized the school for its lack of communication and maddening “cyclical bureaucracy” surrounding a sudden order for the paper to abandon its newsroom for a new out-of-the-way spot.  (Screenshot of a portion of the editorial below.)

Meanwhile, Chart adviser T.R. Hanrahan at Missouri Southern State University was fired because administrators “wanted to make a change.”  Hanrahan earned the 2010 Missouri College Media Association Adviser of the Year honor.  In his words, “How did I get so bad at my job in 12 months?”  He was not given any answers.

Of course, if a College Press Freedom Index existed, MSSU would be near the bottom.  For years, the school has operated with little to no respect for its student newspaper.  Among its transgressions: Last spring, MSSU suddenly forced the Chart to gather all information on campus through one official, the director of university relations.

Hanrahan: “This school is very important to me, and I will always love this school, but the climate that they have here with regard to the First Amendment is not healthy and I hope it will change.”

Separately, in a recent AP piece, SPLC executive director Frank LoMonte offered the most powerful quote about the precariousness of student publication advisers’ positions…

“There are two occupations in America that are more dangerous the better you are at them: journalism adviser and suicide bomber.”

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The only thing lower than your GPA is your bank account balance. Mistaking Nyquil for Dayquil.  Paper-thin dorm walls.  So much homework that you don’t know where to start.  Laptop dies [so] forced to pay attention during class. Open a bag of chips in the quiet part of the library [and] receive death stares.  Two water bottles left in the fridge [and] you don’t remember which one is vodka.

The many, varied, and often hilarious difficulties associated with the undergraduate experience now have an online home: College Problems.  Its tagline: “Everyone’s got them.  Tell me yours.”

The Tumblr site collects and projects brief user-submitted complaints and confessions about the complications of collegiate life.  They typically run only a sentence or two, almost always with a set-up and a punchline and sometimes without proper capitalization and grammar.

The inventor and purveyor of CP is a female Boston University freshman majoring in marine science who chooses to remain anonymous.

The site’s user-generated success is what most intrigues me.  The key seems to be simplicity– the concept, the site design, and the submission process are all geared toward making it easy to look at, ‘get,’ and feel compelled to contribute.

The idea seems ripe for localization by student newspapers, centering the problems talk on their home campuses, possibly with an editor/approver to keep more vulgar or personal attack posts from appearing.  Is this also possibly a model for future man-on-the-street queries?  (Let’s be honest, the random mugshot/quote combo for that feature is far overdue for a makeover.)

A small sampling of students’ recent submissions:

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Former Washington Post staff writer Jackie Spinner has become a force within student journalism circles in the Middle East.  Over the past two years, she has helped launch pioneering independent student newspapers in both Iraq and Oman.

Her most recent efforts in the Oman capital city of Muscat centered on Al Mir’ah. The student news outlet recently premiered at Sultan Qaboos University, where Spinner also taught digital journalism as a Fulbright Scholar.  In the fall, she begins work as an assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago.

Jackie Spinner, teacher, adviser, Fulbright scholar and journalist extraordinaire

Below is a piece by Spinner reflecting on Al Mir’ah and the Omani media culture it operates within.  Enjoy.

By Jackie Spinner

MUSCAT, Oman— Within hours after the new student newspaper at Oman’s flagship public university went live, the new editor-in-chief frantically called me. A bus had crashed carrying students from the College of Agriculture and Marine Science. Three students and a technician from Sultan Qaboos University had been killed.

Abdulrahman Elhadi, a journalism student from Libya, wanted to break the story on the newspaper’s website but had no idea how to report or write about the crash. Would I take a look at what he had cobbled together, Elhadi wanted to know. How fast could I get edited and back to him?

A screenshot of the top portion of the Al Mir’ah homepage in late April.

I immediately logged on to my computer to read the draft. He had reached one witness, and although the story had spelling and punctuation errors and was poorly organized, the basics of a news story were there, in a run-on paragraph, asking for Allah’s blessings for the departed at the end.

His enthusiasm to break news that he had verified with reporting, with facts was exactly why I had started this student newspaper in Oman as part of my Fulbright. My students were studying journalism in a country that too often relied on rumor and second-hand information sent by text message or shared in passing.

When I had first arrived at SQU in October, students told me about another bus accident that had killed 12 girls. No, seven. Actually it was 15. No, it was 20. No, someone else insisted. Only four died. How can you not know the number, I implored my students. And then I’d go on to describe how we’d often arrive at a body count when covering a suicide bombing in Iraq, where I had been a reporter for the Washington Post in 2004 and 2005. “You check with the U.S. military because they often send soldiers to secure the scene,” I explained. “And then you call the health ministry in Baghdad because they coordinate with the hospitals. Of course you talk to witnesses, but they’re often emotional and not always objective. You can go to the hospitals yourselves, although if it’s a large bombing, you may have to go to four or five, and the streets might be barricaded. But if you really want to know, you go to the morgue and you count the bodies.”

Few reporters metaphorically count the bodies in Oman. They too often rely on press releases, official statements, anonymous sources. Witnesses, if they have them, are rarely identified, making the credibility of the report suspect. During a riot in the northern Omani port city of Sohar on Feb. 27, where I had gone to report and take pictures, I was the only reporter in the street, cowering behind a bush, choking on tear gas but trying desperately to remain an observer, a reliable source, a witness. “That how I know what happened,” I told my graduate students in class that night after I had returned to Muscat. “You have to go to the story. You have to see for yourselves. You have to count the bodies.”

SQU was the first university in Oman when it opened in 1986. Since then it has grown to a thriving institution of 12,000 students. And yet it never has had a student newspaper. When I initially asked my students to help start one, they were reluctant. They weren’t interested for many of the same reasons they aren’t eager to go into the field of journalism after they graduate.

They sense that the government will control what they write, which has been partially true. Oman’s Ministry of Information certainly influences what issues are covered in Oman, although the press has exploded with “real news” since civil unrest broke out in the sultanate this spring. It wasn’t until the students started to write about topics they chose for a newspaper that they had named, with editors whom they had selected that they realized I meant what I had promised. I was setting up a student newspaper with no prior review from the administration, with no censorship.

Although it would be officially based in the school’s mass communication department, Al Mir’ah, which means “mirror” in Arabic, would be editorially independent. As long as student followed the policies I had established for ensuring accuracy and credibility, as long as they followed a basic code of ethics and promised to be fair, they could write whatever they wanted. And they have. The lead story in the first issue, which is published weekly on-line, was about student protests at SQU.

The newspaper’s launch on April 16 was months behind schedule and yet paradoxically right on time. In the old Oman, in the Oman before Arab Spring, in the Oman before the press spoke of anything out of the ordinary because every day in Oman was supposed to be ordinary, this venture might not have succeeded. But after the people of Oman rose up to ask for jobs, for political reform, for rights denied to Omani women with children born to foreign husbands, the new Oman emerged, an Oman with a vibrant press.

In the new Oman, Al Mir’ah was able to set sail with news by students and for students at SQU, Al Mir’ah‘s motto. I had started a similar student newspaper last year at The American University of Iraq—Sulaimani. Like Al Mir’ah, the AUI-S Voice was Iraq’s first independent student newspaper. And yet the experiences in establishing the two newspapers were quite different. It was one thing to start a newspaper at a university where the concepts of an independent student press were not unique to my American administrators.

My colleagues in Oman were supportive, and no one stood in my way, but the newspaper wasn’t a priority. It was baffling to me, a product of American journalism schools, that you would teach students about journalism and not offer them a way to practice it. Most of the journalism classes at SQU are in Arabic, and students don’t get practical training, even in the classroom, until their last year in school. And yet, in the end, Al Mir’ah, which is published in both Arabic and English, came into being. The people responsible for that happening are seven students who walked into my office and accepted the challenge to be founders of a unique media project in Oman, a newspaper that aims to deliver accountability and the truth without interference from the authorities.

As Abdulrahman told me, “I think it will require a lot of work in order to get out there and earn readers and followers and actually reflect student opinions and voices. But we’re young, we’re excited and we’ve already got the ball rolling.”

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I am excited to introduce the first entry of a new column I will be writing for USA Today College.  Campus Beat aims to spotlight different facets of the university scene via its most significant primary source– the student press.  The post below outlines a possible new enrollment trend, linking to stories in The Eagle at American University, The Cornell Daily Sun, and The Oracle at the University of South Florida.

This commencement season– among the caps, gowns, diplomas, and distinguished invited speakers such as Snooki — a question looms: How many fresh graduates were on the three-year college plan?

According to a new report in American University’s Eagle, there are an “increasing number of students that graduate early from universities across the nation.”

While the super senior — an undergraduate who takes five years or more to earn a degree — has long been a part of university lore, the so-called “speedy senior” is a relatively new breed of student.

The speedy senior graduates a semester or full year early — taking advantage of AP credits, course overloads, and summer and winter break sessions. Sometimes, the speedsters are spurred by academic ambitions or a general impatience to enter the job market. But mostly, they are motivated by the opportunity to stave off debt.

As the Eagle found, “Though many students acknowledged that they would be giving up opportunities like studying abroad, interning or taking more electives by graduating early, they explained that saving money is more important.”

While it is better for students’ bank accounts, it is troublesome for schools’ bottom lines. As The Cornell Daily Sun reported in February, “The upswing in early graduations has begun to put a financial burden on the colleges, which do not receive expected tuition dollars when students graduate early.”

To read the rest of the post, check out Campus Beat.

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Connor Toohill is attempting to break the college bubble.

Last fall, with the help of friends, Toohill launched NextGen Journal, a student-run news and commentary site, writ large. Its roughly 90 contributors are currently enrolled at colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada.

In terms of sheer geography, Toohill has arguably filled college media’s biggest niche. At the moment, NextGen may be the only true national college news outlet by students for students.

It covers matters of interest and importance to students outside the bubble of their own campuses — “from dorm life to Darfur, and from climate change to Kid Cudi.” Recent topics under investigation and discussion on the NextGen home page ranged from Libya, Net neutrality, and campus break-dancing clubs to college graduation rates, the deficit, and Rebecca Black.

“Up until now, campus media, especially in the opinion sense, has just been localized,” said Toohill, 19, a rising sophomore at the University of Notre Dame. “There’s nothing from our generation that is influential in the national sphere. We wanted to do something that can have influence nationally, that can bring our generation into the conversation.”

The “Osama Circus”

Amid the conversations — and celebrations — that have erupted in the wake of Osama Bin Laden’s killing, NextGen has published more stories on more angles than any other student media outlet.

The site featured dispatches on student reactions at roughly two dozen schools — from West Point cadets running around in “crazy patriotic costumes and underwear” to Stanford University students who “roasted s’mores, drank beer (mostly the American variety), and chanted ‘U-S-A U-S-A!'”

It debated the merits of the country’s celebratory mood, including a Michigan State University student who decried the “Osama circus” atmosphere and a Tulane University student who separately described the national party as “perhaps the only time that I’ve felt proud to call myself a young college student.”

NextGen also reflected on the meaning of the terror kingpin’s death for current students who were in grade school when 9/11 occurred. It gauged the impact of the military strike on the 2012 presidential election. It ran a reminder op-ed that “terrorism does not die with Osama Bin Laden.” And it discussed the growing skepticism surrounding Pakistan’s alleged ignorance of Bin Laden’s whereabouts.

Similar stories have been run throughout the professional press — but hardly any from the student perspective.

As Toohill said, “Our best pieces, our most popular pieces — whether it’s Egypt or the State of the Union or health care reform or the Super Bowl — really look at, what is the impact here for students? What is the significance for our generation? We’ve seen there is really a demand for that. Huffington Post College is sort of established as a section to cover what’s going on at college. Basically, what we’re saying is that college students deserve their own Huffington Post.”

To Read the Rest of the Piece, Check Out PBS MediaShift

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The editor of The Daily Lobo at the University of New Mexico has apologized for the recent publication of an editorial cartoon of President Barack Obama and Osama Bin Laden criticized by some as racially insensitive.

Local television news in Albuquerque, UNM’s hometown, reported African American students were fed-up and furious about the cartoon, which depicts Obama as a monkey-like creature holding up Bin Laden’s head.  The image was intended as a satire of the famous baby-holding scenes at the beginning and end of Disney’s “The Lion King.”  It also was meant to reference Obama’s own recent use of the scene in a video he showed during the White House Correspondents’ Dinner poking fun at the birther controversy.

The image of the president with facial features resembling those of a monkey are what most infuriated students.  The Daily Lobo reported roughly 30 students met on campus last week to protest the image and the larger racial intolerance on campus they feel it represents.  One UNM senior said she felt “immediately upset and angry because of the history of these types of injuries.  President Obama is drawn as a monkey which portrays him as less than human which is how black people have been portrayed throughout history. Yet, Osama Bin Laden’s face is normal.”

Daily Lobo editor in chief Chris Quintana apologized to readers and said the staff would receive sensitivity training: “It was not published with the intent to perpetuate stereotypes, or infer African-American students are in any way inferior. . . . We saw the cartoon as an interpretation of Osama Bin Laden’s death and the American celebration along with it.  We saw the cartoon as a symbol of the twisted nature of American pride and thought it would provoke interesting, not racist, discussion.”

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The Crimson White, the University of Alabama’s daily student newspaper, is continuing its coverage of the clean-up in UA’s hometown after late April’s deadly tornado.  The paper is providing hyperlocal updates on physical and emotional recovery efforts in various Tuscaloosa neighborhoods.  It is reporting on the debate over credentialing volunteers to work in the recovery zones; the economic rebuilding already underway; and larger efforts “to restore normalcy.”   It is also presenting obituaries of students and others lost in the disaster.

Below is a photo of the tornado as it tore past the UA campus, emailed to me by Mark Mayfield, the editorial adviser to student publications at the school.  In his words, “The UA Office of Student Media is located in the building in the lower center of the photo, near Bryant-Denny Stadium and between those two columns in the foreground.  This photo was taken by former UA Student Government Association President James Fowler.”

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