“The Daily Aztec isn’t dying, but it is limping,” the editorial board of San Diego State University’s student newspaper wrote. “Most of our cameras are five to six generations old. Many of our newsroom computers are almost ten years old. Most of our office chairs are broken and our carpet is stained from a decade of late-night coffee spills.” The editorial board of Kennesaw State University’s The Sentinel added, “We are the future of [news] outlets, and it is crucial that we have a stable framework to operate from. That cannot happen if we have a minimal budget.” Without the freedom that independence makes possible, the University of Arizona’s Daily Wildcat chimed in, “publications become little more than marketing tools.”
Student newspapers have faced a major funding crisis, forcing many to shutter or reaffiliate with the same universities they aim to report on. Today, a group of 129 student news organizations across the country have come together in an alliance, Save Student Newsrooms, for a national day of action aimed at spreading their message and building solidarity. From current editors posting Twitter threads of their papers’ best pieces to experienced reporters explaining how student journalism shaped who they are, thousands of former and current student journalists are using their print and online platforms to highlight the impact of student work and to stress the importance of journalistic independence.
Several newsrooms are using the day to launch fundraising campaigns on GoFundMe. Papers are publishing scathing editorials. Many are hosting “Show Us Your Newsroom” events on Facebook Live, giving readers an inside look at how student newsrooms operate. Editors are mobilizing alumni networks and chatting on social media, strategizing and sharing information. And today, The Independent Florida Alligator at the University of Florida, which launched the initiative, published a four-page special section dedicated to the movement.
The Save Student Newsrooms campaign was started by editors of the Alligator to support student news organizations fighting for independence and financial stability. The paper’s editor in chief, Melissa Gomez, and her managing editors, Jimena Tavel and Caitlin Ostroff, said they were alarmed to read that the independent student newspaper at Southern Methodist University, The Daily Campus, will reaffiliate with the university and cease print production after several years of financial stress. “There was a lot of frustration, anger, disbelief that something like this could happen to a student publication,” Gomez told me. “Part of me was like, ‘What if this happened to the Alligator?’ And another thought was, ‘This could be happening to other publications as well, and we may have not seen it or heard about it.’ ” On April 11, Alligator editors published an editorial that read, in part, “Student journalists cannot wait for another year to strategize—some can barely wait a month—we need to act now.”
Within two weeks, the Alligator’s campaign had spread across the nation, mostly through Twitter, with dozens of newspapers publishing their own editorials and scores of former and current student journalists contributing testimonials to the campaign.
As many of those supporters made clear, dependence on university funding endangers independent coverage. “All papers are there to hold their university accountable,” Liz Provencher, the editor in chief of George Washington University’s independent student newspaper, the Hatchet, told me. “You need to be independent to do that to the best of your ability.” Hostile administrations at other universities, worried about their public image, are putting pressure on increasingly embattled publications to toe the university line. Relationships like these give universities leverage to influence coverage and quash negative or critical stories that question the investment strategies of a college’s endowment or how campus police officers treat students of color. “How are they going to cover their university if they’re being told, ‘No, you can’t publish this’ or ‘We don’t like the way that this sounds, so we’re just going to take it out’?” Ostroff asked.
“These students are paying tuition and attending these classes to learn this craft, and yet administrators tell them that they can’t do it?” Gomez added. “That just doesn’t fit right.”
This month, independent of the Save Student Newsrooms initiative, editor in chief Areeba Shah of The Independent Collegian, the student newspaper of the University of Toledo, outlined the drastic cuts the paper had made, writing a front-page editorial with a frank headline: “Our Newspaper Is Dying.” Facing declining ad revenue, the paper was forced to stop paying contributors, cut print production in half, and launch a Kickstarter campaign, which has raised over $2,000, to plug the remaining gaps. “The print market is going down, and it’s just getting less and less attractive to advertisers,” Provencher, of the Hatchet, said. “It’s hard, and it’s something that newspapers across the country are facing.”
Some papers, like the Hatchet, have turned to alumni donations. But unlike ad contracts, donations are inconsistent. Paying staff and buying new equipment are expensive and require papers to accurately predict future revenues. University funding, even with all its worrying caveats, has become for many newspapers the only attractive long-term solution to an insecure financial situation. Low-income students working at papers that pay their contributors are the most severely affected by recent cuts. Tavel said she is “heartbroken” when she writes a check for $10 for a student who spent 10 hours writing an in-depth feature. Those who remain can afford the low pay for so much time spent, and a less diverse staff often means less diverse stories. “If we actually want diversity and to tell the stories that need to be told—every single story in our community—we need to have diversity of journalists. And that can’t be accomplished if we don’t have enough money to do so,” Tavel told me.
Shah told me that without a bold strategy, The Independent Collegian would have died. Its advisory board wanted to kill the print edition of the paper, but the editors were still working on a transition strategy to better embrace the digital era. “We had to take those drastic measures and write an editorial and be honest to our readers, because the number-one thing we value is transparency,” she said. “It was crazy how much support we gained from that editorial.” The outpouring of support has given Shah and her team room to strategize—to devise new ways of engaging readers online and via social media without the abrupt end of print hovering over them.
The support that the campaign has since received from professional journalists, many of whom worked on their college newspapers, has inspired students to fight even harder. The Society of Professional Journalists, the Student Press Law Center, and the Center for Public Integrity have thrown in their support as well. “That’s the best part of this campaign: It’s to unite and be together and get through the struggle together,” Shah told me.
Twitter, along with other social-media platforms, has been integral to the campaign’s success. (Provencher and Shah both discovered and became involved with the initiative through Twitter.) While the Internet has played a role in the long-term decline in advertising revenue, it has also allowed young journalists to connect and bounce ideas and strategies off of one another. Tavel said she couldn’t believe the sheer amount of online support the campaign garnered in two weeks. After she sent out an initial tweet, her “phone didn’t stop beeping until 3 a.m.,” she said. “From that day on, we realized that, because we are all young people, it was the best way to spread the message.”
Student newsrooms also often serve as the only source of local news for their communities, as local newspapers close and professional journalists are laid off. “As journalism changes across the country and local papers are dying out, it’s student newspapers like the Hatchet that are picking up the slack,” Provencher told me. Student reporters break important stories that corporate-owned media groups and the news industry neglect for lack of political will, capacity, or budget. Independent student journalists serve their communities, not their universities or interest groups, and are often the student body’s only independent voice in an era of rising tuition and overwhelming student debt. In 2016, for example, The Mountain Echo of Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland brought down university president Simon Newman after student reporters discovered that he had threatened to “put a Glock” to the heads of struggling students and dismiss them.
For Ostroff, the distinction between student and professional local journalism has blurred, and that’s why independence—and fair pay—are more important than ever. “All of the work that student journalists across the country do, it’s as intense—if not more—than a professional publication, because we’re balancing classes and part-time jobs,” she said. Students newsrooms train the journalists of tomorrow, the muckrakers who dig deep into local controversies and hold power to account. “Student newsrooms are where people cut their teeth,” Gomez added. Those newsrooms allow for a unique form of mentorship, with students learning from one another without the pressure of answering to an intimidating boss.
If the passion, perseverance, and patience of student reporters like Gomez and Shah are any indication, journalism is not a “dying industry.” Students want independent journalism on college campuses to survive through this difficult era, and Save Student Newsrooms has helped them become vocal and united.
For student journalists across the country, passion is what will continue to drive them forward. “That runs really deep in all of us,” Shah said. “What we need from everyone is support; that’s all we need. Everything else is us doing what we love: continuing to provide people with unbiased, truth-seeking journalism.” To this former student journalist, she couldn’t be more right.