Catherine Palmer was already a seasoned student journalist at The Johns Hopkins News-Letter when Freddie Gray, a Baltimore native and black man, died in police custody, provoking protests across the city that swelled into what would be called the Baltimore Uprising. Even so, she was only 19 when she found herself one of the first reporters on the ground at a pivotal moment in April 2015, thrust onto the scene to cover the peaceful protests and outpouring of emotion in the wake of Gray’s death.
By the time the national news media swooped in to sensationalize the Uprising’s rare violent moments, Palmer, now the paper’s managing editor, and her co-editors had already decided to focus on what many students and the community members valued: the peaceful protests, the prayer circles, and the burgeoning significance of the Black Lives Matter movement. As a local student with local ties, Palmer’s experience made her significantly more prepared to cover the Uprising than the national reporters sent from newsrooms states away.
The story, Palmer thought, was really the local issues Baltimore residents faced every day, struggles that were at the core of the protests: structural racism, limited access to good housing and food, and a failing school system. “That was definitely not the type of thing that ABC or CNN was going to be reporting,” she said. “All of us didn’t really know how big it was going to be at at the time…. I was already pretty invested in it when the news broke, and it got so much bigger.”
Since then, the journalists at the News-Letter, Johns Hopkins University’s independent student newspaper of which I was editor-in-chief until May, have not stopped exploring the aftermath of the Uprising and the explosion of activism at Johns Hopkins and in Baltimore. After the national outlets packed up and went home, we’ve gone on to unearth residents’ concerns over the ongoing gentrification in a neighborhood directly south of campus. Our reporters have also closely followed a recent labor dispute between Johns Hopkins University, a predominantly white and wealthy institution, and contract dining and security workers, most of whom live in the predominantly black, working-class communities most affected by structural racism.
Student journalism has gained new importance in the face of the deep decline of local news. With the collapse of print advertising in the past 20 years, hundreds of local newspapers have closed and over 20,000 journalists have lost their jobs. At the same time, student journalists at colleges around the nation have felt the pressure of tightening budgets and hostile university administrations.