If you're a college student, chances are there is a student newspaper available to you at least once a week. And chances are it is paid for from your student fees.
Student newspapers and periodicals can be found all across the country. The Yale Daily News has been around since 1878. The Lantern at Ohio State University and the State Press at Arizona State University both serve student bodies of over fifty thousand. The City on a Hill Press is UC Santa Cruz's student-run press, though I am a tad curious as to why they neglected to include their renowned mascot -- the Banana Slug -- in their publication's name. And my school, the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, has the Trail.
Student newspapers are almost universally present on college campuses across the country because they provide valuable services to the student body. Almost every paper provides a variety of student leadership positions and writing opportunities to numerous students, from editor-in-chief positions to copy editing to marketing/publicity roles. Most papers focus on their own campus confines, delivering coverage to different aspects of campus. Along with immediate services, paper archives allow for an institutional memory of the university from the student-perspective.
Yet as the outgoing student body president at the University of Puget Sound, I think that I have a different perspective on student-run college newspapers. Before explicating my view, I want to clearly state that I am not advocating for their removal from college campuses, because I recognize the many positives the Trail has brought to my campus experience. Rather, I am trying to provide an alternative view of them from my student government role.
Our student newspaper, the Trail, received $37,702 for the 2011-2012 year, which comes out to 7.39 percent of our budget or $15.53 from each student fee. The editor-in-chief was hired by our administration, and receives a stipend salary each semester and virtual control over the publication.
Publishing approximately twenty issues a year, the Trail normally includes an opinion section, a satire section, two sex columns with pseudonym writers, anonymous one-liners from the student body, as well as your normal stock sections (features, sports, news, etc.). It's more popular sections tend to be its most provocative, from masturbation tips from "Suzy Spongeworthy" to anonymous one-liners that poke fun at specific groups on campus ranging from Greeks to hipsters to our student body government.
Having entertaining, satirical pieces to complement the standard news is a relatively benign strategy that I do not believe compromises the Trail's journalistic integrity. As student body president, though, I have also experienced the negative situations that a student-run, autonomous publication can create.
Numerous times I have seen misquotes or misattributions in articles, including one last spring that accomplished both and unfairly painted a student as intolerant in his views towards the LGBTQ community. The retraction for this mistake was hidden in the bottom right corner of the next issue.
I have also seen the Trail publish a negative opinion article, despite being based off erroneous research, of a large donor on the day a building was being dedicated to him. Students visiting campus have admitted that their decision not to attend Puget Sound was influenced by the unaccommodating liberalism exhibited by our paper.
And recently, in the midst of a highly-contested campaign for student body president and vice president for the 2012-13 school year, the Trail published an endorsement of candidates. Despite the fact that multiple candidates work for the Trail, and despite the fact that whichever two candidates win will be major factors in the budget process for the next year, our student newspaper deemed itself objective and knowledgeable to render a verdict on the most qualified candidates.
Here are the questions I pose, ones that I don't want to speculatively answer from the isolated, Puget Sound viewpoint:
1. Is it appropriate for a student newspaper to endorse candidates for positions that are in charge of hiring the publication's next editor-in-chief and deciding its next budget?
2. How absolute is a student newspaper's freedom of speech at a private university, and how much control should a student body government exert over its media's content?
3. Student newspapers can, at times, create controversial situations for student governments and universities. Is there a way to restructure the relationships in order to alleviate the tensions?
I believe a genuine discussion about the role of the student newspaper on college campuses is needed, and that potentially there could be a system that allows all involved parties, and students in general, to enjoy a more objective, more successful publication on the college campus. My hope with this post is to begin a productive conversation, one that includes numerous viewpoints and experiences, in order to facilitate a better understanding of the college student newspaper.