Archive for September, 2011

For enduring and ultimately prevailing in a nasty squabble with vindictive school officials, The Sun at California’s Southwestern College has earned the 2011 College Press Freedom Award.

In an anouncement earlier today, the Student Press Law Center and Associated Collegiate Press confirmed that the Sun staff and adviser “endured a pattern of escalating attacks that culminated in temporarily shutting down their paper in a naked attempt to suppress coverage of a closely contested board of trustees election.”

At the start of the previous school year, Southwestern administrators literally blocked publication of the student paper’s first issue.  They suddenly said the Sun had to follow a previously-ignored rule on the school books that required the paper “to put its printing business out to competitive bid and sign a contract with the winning bidder.”  It was nothing more than censorship, an attempt to minimize bad press about the trustees board.

This bidding war ploy was mixed with additional censorship and threats, all aimed at stopping the Sun from asking tough questions and exposing the truth: Southwestern College has been sporting some seriously corrupt and inept admins. whose stop-the-press tactics were so evil they made Scar from “Lion King” look benevolent.

As the Sun‘s adviser Max Branscomb told the SPLC, “What happened at Southwestern College last fall was the worst fear of journalists and Americans who cherish our precious free speech rights.”

Fortunately, the paper fought back, running a series of fantastic reports exposing the ridiculousness and corruptness.  SPLC director Frank LoMonte: “The administrators of Southwestern College threw everything they had at these journalists, even threatening them with a trumped-up criminal investigation, and through it all, the journalists kept on doing exactly what journalists are supposed to do: Pursue the story, wherever it led. Their reporting exposed gross mismanagement at the college, including the deliberate wasteful spending of millions of dollars to conceal how badly the school had missed its budget estimates.”

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Should our student reporters be allowed to respond to online comments about their stories?  Should the tone of our Twitter feed be uber-serious and objective or opinionated and even a bit snarky?  What should the blog affiliated with our outlet actually feature and how often should it be updated?  And should we spread our staff responsibilities over Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Google+ or focus on rousing our readers on just one?  And who should be given the power to update on one or more of those platforms?  And when?  And how often?  And with what type of oversight?

Many student press outlets are still wrestling with those questions– and with them the larger question of how exactly to approach and blend social media into their existing structures and responsibilities.

As I told Nick Dean for his piece “Living Social” that just premiered online within the latest Student Press Law Center Report, “The student press is still fully ensconced in social media 1.0, with very few exceptions.  A majority of college news outlets are simply establishing their social media presence or working on building up that presence beyond a few followers and fans and defining what they want their social media outlook to be.”   (Yes, I’m quoting myself.) :)

Amid this construction and stabs at a basic definition, actual guidelines on how social media should be used are mostly absent or have so far gone unwritten by student newspaper’s editorial boards.  For example, as Dean notes, one of the biggest social media gray areas within the campus press involves student journalists’ personal accounts on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and their outside work on their own blogs.

It is an issue Rebecca Walker, North Alabama University’s student publications coordinator, has seen firsthand, prompting her to work with the campus newspaper editor to draft a “student produced, student approved” social media policy that went into effect this fall.

In her words: “We saw that students [on the school paper] had a little bit of trouble separating their online identity from how we expect them to behave publicly.  They shared opinions on things they were covering, used [foul] language and presented themselves unprofessionally online.”

The Northern Star’s policy at Northern Illinois University asks staffers to think about their presence on the open web like their behavior in public.  Among other suggestions, staff are advised to avoid making statements of political allegiance or offering viewpoints on “polarizing issues” on web platforms that are easily viewable by tons of “followers” or “friends.”

Bottom line, as a portion of the Star policy notes, “The Northern Star cannot dictate how its employees use social media websites on their personal time.  You have a First Amendment right to free expression.  However, as an employee of a news media organization, you have some unique challenges.  Like it or not, you represent the Northern Star at all times.”

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The evermore expansive set of student press archives being placed online continues to concern those who wish their undergrad misdeeds or heated words would stay in the past, not in their Google prints.

As a new USA Today College piece by Ohio University journalism student Stephanie Stark confirms, “[C]ollege newspapers are uploading old print stories into their online archives, and letters and stories written by or about students in the ’70s and ’80s are coming up in Google searches on professionals who previously weren’t so publicly connected to their pasts.  Misdemeanors that would otherwise be expunged and wiped from record, letters-to-the-editor with regrettable stances and the unknowing mistakes of students in positions of leadership are published online and forever trapped in Google.”

The online availability and searchability of old student newspapers are especially worrisome to some alums because they are often the sole outlets running stories about their youthful indiscretions– the op-ed they wrote about legalizing all drugs ASAP or their drunken swiping of an old lady’s purse that earned them a spot in the police blotter.  For example, a one-time student government presidential candidate quoted in Stark’s piece mentions being wary of employers seeing a letter to the editor discussing the time he signed a girl’s butt cheek during a block party.

Online student press archives do at times have consequences far beyond mere butt-signing embarrassment.  During the last academic year, the editor-in-chief of The Daily Californian was forced to fight a lawsuit brought against him by the father of a former UC Berkeley student-athlete.  The suit stemmed from the paper’s refusal to erase or alter stories on its website that reported upon the student’s unruly behavior at a nightclub more than four years ago and his subsequent dismissal from the university football team.  In the end, no content was edited or deleted and the editor-in-chief won the case.

In 2009, Center for Innovation in College Media director Bryan Murley commented on the increase in alums apprehensive about their student press trails.  In his words, “If the first thing that comes up on a Google search is something they did in college because they haven’t done anything since college, then they should participate more in the online conversation.  Hopefully five or 10 years from now, people won’t be so worried about this, because everybody will have their Internet trail, and it will become more acceptable.”

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A pair of spirited editorials in the University of New Hampshire student newspaper have drummed up a debate about the impending return of a professor who was arrested in 2009 for exposing himself in public.

As The New Hampshire notes near the start of the first editorial, the tenured German professor apparently “showed his penis to a mother and teenager in the parking lot of a grocery store. He then proceeded to drive down Route 101 with his genitals hanging out of his zipper as he cruised on his motorcycle.  When police pulled him over, his genitals were still hanging out.  And, UNH students, this pervert could be your professor next fall.”

The editorial, headlined “Back in a Flash,” subsequently blasts the arbitrator who decided the incident was not enough to warrant dismissal from the university.  It criticizes the chair of the professor’s department for stating that he feels the professor “is an effective and inspiring teacher; I have no concerns about him being in the classroom.”

It then calls for a student boycott of all the professor’s classes (set to begin next fall), in part to ensure “the floodgates to more professor perversion” are not opened.

The piece earned praise in some corners for capturing “the very real concerns that students feel about the appropriateness of the professor’s return to the classroom setting.”  Other pockets of readers offered strong rebukes, including nearly three dozen UNH faculty who signed a public letter calling the editorial “incendiary and unfair.”

The professor’s wife also responded harshly.  Her words: “I was surprised that at an institution of higher education where critical thinking, inquiry, tolerance, diversity and open-mindedness are revered, this type of sensationalized journalism would exist. . . . [T]he editorial written about my husband is to me so insensitive and reprehensible that it is in and of itself more damaging than the actual act of indecent exposure it wishes to condemn.”

In a follow-up editorial last week, the New Hampshire did not budge from its initial stance.  As the paper asked, “[C]an the faculty and staff members who signed [the letter] say, with a straight face, that allowing such a man to return to the faculty of this university will not weaken the high professional standards that members of the faculty and staff on this campus are held to?  It is rather ironic that these members of the faculty and staff have turned [the professor] into a victim while disregarding the mother and daughter he victimized, seemingly alongside every member of this campus community who has ever faced sexual harassment and victimization.”

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An editorial in The Cavalier Daily apologizing for repeated plagiarism by a staff writer has angered University of Virginia’s judiciary committee.  The committee contends that the editorial breaches the confidentiality required during its investigation of the student plagiarist (for violating the school’s honor code).

As the paper shared in an unsigned editorial earlier this month, “[I]t became clear that the writer consistently copied words and phrases from other sources including prominent news outlets, Wikipedia and a press release.  The writer did not acknowledge these sources in any way, and used their words and phrases repeatedly throughout his articles.  Editors determined that the writer did this in at least four articles, three of which were published.”

Prior to the editorial, staffers did report the student to the judiciary committee, following the UVA code stating that those who keep quiet about violations they witness are just as accountable as the transgressor.  In the subsequent editorial, the paper did not name the student nor mention the plagiarized pieces to ensure their identity would be kept under wraps.

Yet, after its publication, the judiciary committee charged the five Cavalier Daily staffers on the managing board responsible for the editorial with breaking its rules requiring silence about open investigations.  The official charge, as the paper itself reported, was “intentional, reckless, or negligent conduct which obstructs the operations of the Honor or Judiciary Committee, or conduct that violates their rules of confidentiality.”

The larger question: Does the judiciary have any right to charge staffers of the school newspaper with anything?  The legal director of Virginia’s ACLU says no: “Clearly the judicial council shouldn’t be initiating proceedings against the Cavalier Daily if the judicial council’s bylaws deprive it of jurisdiction to act against student newspapers.  The fact that The Cavalier Daily could be subject to discipline for writing about a matter of great importance for the university community without divulging the name of the student in question offers great constitutional concerns.”

So to review: A student plagiarized some pieces published in the paper.  The paper reported the student to the school.  The paper told its readers about the student’s misdeeds.  The paper got in trouble for telling its readers about the student’s misdeeds.  And finally, in an even stranger twist, the paper might get in still more trouble for telling its readers about the fact that it got in trouble in the first place.

Why?  Because by publishing the story about the fact that the judiciary committee is investigating the paper’s managing board, the paper is AGAIN violating confidentiality rules.  Yet, as the sub-headline of a separate editorial explaining their decision to knowingly break the rules notes, “The Cavalier Daily is bound by its responsibility to readers, not the institutional interests of student government bodies.”

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During the last academic year, Indiana University senior journalism student Sarah Hutchins dreaded what she called The Question, capital T, capital Q.

“The conversations always start the same,” Hutchins wrote a month before commencement for The Indiana Daily Student’s quarterly magazine Inside.  “‘So, what are you doing after graduation?‘  I’ve been asked by family, friends, old high school acquaintances I mistakenly friended on Facebook and never deleted.  Even my dentist broached the subject over winter break.  As she slowly reclined my chair, and I gazed into the light, I thought about how I would answer The Question.”

She said others’ expectations centered on her having a firm plan, preferably involving an impressive starter job or grad school pursuit.  And so she sensed disappointment when she repeatedly answered The Question with a mix of “heavy sighs and visible anxiety” and the three-word fallback, “I don’t know.”

Months later, now on the other side of a degree, Hutchins is more confident that the best plan of attack is figuring out what’s right for you regardless of peer pressure and to be open to a running start that begins off the beaten career path.  In her case, the path has been an extended post-grad internship and the realization that journalism jobs still exist en masse.

In the Q&A below, Hutchins offers advice for the current crop of j-students and pokes holes in what she calls “the unemployment myth” surrounding the journalism profession.

Sarah Hutchins graduated from Indiana University in the spring. She is currently completing an extended post-grad internship at The Virginian-Pilot.

Now that you’ve graduated, has The Question you get most often changed?

The actual question varies, but the intent is the same. “So, what are you doing after graduation?” has changed to “So, what are you doing after your internship?” Sometimes people ask me if I’ve started applying for jobs, which also gets at the heart of The Question– why are you still unemployed?  The good news is that my answers have changed a little.

After I graduated, I moved to Virginia for a 12-week reporting internship at The Virginian-Pilot.  I applied and interviewed for jobs while I was interning.  I even had a few job offers.  Then the Pilot extended my internship and I temporarily stopped looking for work.  I also have a timeline for starting the job application process again. While I still don’t have a clear answer to The Question, I do have a plan.  After going through the job search process a few months ago, I have a better idea of what I’m looking for in a first job.  I also picked up on some of the sacrifices I’ll have to make to get it.

What does life and the j-profession look like on the other side of the degree?  Is there anything you would do differently if given a second go-round at senior year?

I only looked at internships when I was getting ready to graduate.  It’s a decision that makes perfect sense to me, but I’ve actually been asked to justify it in job interviews.  I’m on my fourth internship now, and this seems to baffle some employers.  Here’s what I tell them: I didn’t want to waste any time not reporting. I’ve watched friends graduate from college without a job and spend entire summers sending out job applications.  If I took a post-grad internship, I could continue to develop my skills while I apply for full-time positions.  I have also been able to fill some of the holes in my experience, making me a better job candidate.  Post-grad internship shouldn’t be considered a backup plan.  With the job market as difficult as it is, internships are a good way to gain valuable experience and contacts.  Looking back, I’m still happy with the decision I made to take an internship after graduation.

What’s your advice for this year’s graduating j-class?

Challenge yourself to produce great work before you graduate.  Take risks and push yourself.  One of my best clips came out of a project I did in college, and it’s something I wouldn’t have had a chance to do at an internship.  On a similar note, make sure you graduate with a well-rounded portfolio.  Be able to write a web brief, a succinct news story, a killer profile, and a thoughtful in-depth article.  It’s OK to specialize in one area, but make sure employers see that you can tackle anything. As newsrooms continue to cut employees, companies are asking people to do more with less.  Prove to them that you will be a valuable part of the team.

What is the unemployment myth and how should students go about dismantling it?

There are so many myths.  I can’t count the number of people I met in journalism school who told me there were no jobs in journalism.  At internships, people I worked with told me to reconsider going into this industry.  When I said I was sticking with it, they told me to use my degree for PR.  I just refuse to give up. It’s true that the industry is changing.  People are getting laid off and, as a result, everyone is asked to do more (usually for less pay).  I understand why some people would find that discouraging.  However, it’s just not true that there aren’t jobs. Take a look at journalismjobs.com and you’ll see plenty of positions for beginning reporters at small papers.  We might not all be able to start at large metro papers, but that’s OK.  If you’re in journalism for the right reasons– helping people, serving as a check on the government, telling compelling stories– than it shouldn’t really matter where you start.

Here’s the reality I see: There are less jobs in journalism than there were before, but there are still places to get your foot in the door.  Media organizations today are asking more of employees than ever before.  However, recent j-school graduates have likely been trained to handle these competing demands.  Remember why you love this business and make sure that shines through in everything you do.  And, if people tell you to go into PR, feel free to use my standard response: You can go into PR and I’ll happily take your job.

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There is a web battle royale brewing over my PBS MediaShift post published yesterday afternoon in which I critique Google+ as a social networking hub / the Internet’s next big thing.

As I mention, “Google+ is dead.  At worst, in the coming months, it will literally fade away to nothing or exist as Internet plankton.  At best, it will be to social networking what Microsoft’s Bing is to online search: perfectly adequate; fun to stumble onto once in awhile; and completely irrelevant to the mainstream web.  To be clear, I do not buy the beta argument anymore. G+ still being in beta is like Broadway’s ‘Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark’ still being in previews. It has premiered. Months have passed. Audiences have tried it. Critics have weighed in. It is a show — just not a very entertaining one.”

Hundreds in the Twitterverse have latched onto my sentiments, offering uber-agreement about the flaws and current irrelevance of + to anyone but the technorati, mediaheads, and early adopters.  On G+, as you might guess, I am being vilified as a lazy ‘hater’ (Bill Keller of the NYT called me that!) who simply doesn’t ‘get’ how to use the service and wasn’t willing to put in enough time to learn its quirks and bask in its awesomeness.  While some comments have been asinine (oh, Internet, how we love thee), many have raised interesting issues.  So is Google+ a “ghost town” (as a writer I quote calls it) or is it “the best thing since sliced bread” (as MediaShift executive editor Mark Glaser describes one digital media evangelist’s perspective on it)?

Below is a screenshot sampling of two write-ups about the debate spurred by the post:

Separately, here are a slew of tweets and a well-put G+ post agreeing with my basic sentiments.  We are not haters!  We have simply not had a + experience worth our time.

In a discussion thread on G+ earlier today, Glaser summed things up best:

Wanted to respond to the firestorm created by the article linked below on MediaShift by +Dan Reimold. There have been responses by+Robert Scoble, +Jeremiah Owyang and +Frederic Lardinois, and many more here on Google+.

First of all, Dan’s piece was his own experience, which was very different than my own experience. I’ve actually enjoyed being on G+ and it’s become my primary social network over Facebook and Twitter, not only because of the great interactions but also because of the privacy controls and Circles.

However, his main issue was that he did try the service, he did post and Circle people, and didn’t get that interaction. I doubt very seriously that he is alone in that experience, and the fact that very few of my non-work-colleague, non-media friends have come here regularly proves his point. Google+ might be a hit with the in-crowd, digerati, new media types, etc. but it has a ways to go to become a hit with the masses.

That’s not a knock on the service, in my opinion, but just a place where it lives right now. No one can say whether it will last or die, as we all know the staying power of most mass market social networks is about 3 or 4 years (if you judge by Friendster, MySpace, et al). So there’s a place for the booster like +Robert Scoble to say it’s the best thing since sliced bread (or FriendFeed) and a place for +Dan Reimold to say it’s dead to him.

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