What’s black and white and white all over?
Answer: Most college newsrooms.
Here’s how some silly censors accidentally raised a serious issue…
Wesleyan University is a private liberal arts school in central Connecticut, located about halfway between Hartford and New Haven. Its 3,300 students seldom make national headlines, but that changed last month.
Some or many students (it’s hard to tell) were furious when the campus newspaper printed an opinion column criticizing Black Lives Matter. The story spread when those students demanded the school defund the paper.
Instead, I offered to help those students launch their own newspaper if they’d stop attacking the one that’s been on campus for nearly 150 years. Alas, I never heard back.
Because Wesleyan activists are calling for censorship – and getting hammered for it even in liberally leaning media – they’ve already lost a much more subtle yet powerful argument…
College media suffers from diversity adversity.
I’ve advised a student newspaper for 16 years and visited more than a dozen others, some for a day and others for a week. Here are four big reasons – there are many smaller ones – why Wesleyan protesters are wrong about the solution but right about the problem…
No other extra-curricular activity pays less per hour than the campus newspaper.
You work long and late hours on stressful deadlines – even longer and later if there’s breaking news. So it’s common for college journalists to lie on their time sheets, because most schools now cap student work hours to save money.
Meanwhile, tuition is skyrocketing. So the first diversity casualty is the least obvious to the untrained eye: class.
I’ve watched many talented writers, designers, and photographers reluctantly leave the newsroom so they can work in malls and restaurants. Those who stay rely on their well-off families to chip in more, or they simply decide to go deeper into debt.
Either way, you’ve instantly lost diversity.
Diversity in college media sucks, and it’s pro media’s fault.
Why burn all those hours and cash in a college newsroom when the likelihood of working in a professional newsroom dims by the day?
Legacy media are still laying off employees right now. Even if you land an entry-level journalism job, the salary will likely rival what you made working retail in college.
So it’s hard enough recruiting anyone to work at your campus newspaper, much less a representative sample of your student body.
Deadlines are the enemy of diversity.
College newspaper staffs not only have to publish a print edition, they also have to feed a website with fresh content. Ask student editors why they aren’t visiting classes or recruiting from campus organizations, and they usually answer, “When do I have time for that?”
College newspapers today are fretting about tactics and forgetting about strategy.
College journalists don’t write what they want to read.
When I critique campus newspapers, as I will next month at a college media convention in Austin, I ask the staffs if they enjoy and understand their own stories. Mostly, they say no – they’re bored with their own work.
So why do they cover boring Student Senate meetings with boring writing and boring photos? “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” they tell me. “That’s what we’re taught.”
When I suggest they skip a meeting to tackle big topics like race, they say they don’t want to sacrifice their incremental coverage. But if you want to recruit a diverse staff, you have to cover diverse topics.
But I have two simple suggestions for college newspaper staffs.
First, fearlessly report on race and class.
I live in South Florida, where middle-class white people don’t dominate like in other places. Yet our student newspaper rarely delves into these topics. On our campus, Haitian students often complain that African-American students disrespect them, while Puerto Rican students say the same about Cuban students (and even professors). Why? It’s a fascinating story that’s never been written.
I’ve visited private universities with a mix of wealthy and impoverished students – and sometimes they end up dating. Those relationships seldom last. Why? Another fascinating tale to tell.
If you peer into the sociology of your peers, you’ll signal to your readers that you see more than yourselves in your stories.
These aren’t multi-cultural puff pieces, either. So you might screw up the reporting. If so, you’ll publish all the critical letters to the editor and meet with all the pissed-off readers – because that’s what the best pro media outlets do.
“That sounds dangerous,” a college journalist once told me. I replied: It certainly is. But it’s safer than ignoring those topics. When your coverage of race and class consists of nothing but hastily written op-ed pieces, well, that’s a perilous way to live.
And that leads to this…
Second, make journalism fun again.
SPJ’s most diverse training program over the past decade isn’t a diversity program at all.
It’s called Will Write For Food. We recruit college journalists from around the country to visit a Florida homeless shelter that runs the nation’s second-largest shelter newspaper. Over Labor Day weekend, those 20-25 students take it over, working nonstop to publish a paper that’s sold on street corners around the state.
Because it’s stressful and chaotic, sturdy students apply from as far away as Alaska. We never know their race, sexual orientation, or economic status. Yet historically, straight white men represent only 2-5 members of each class.
Here’s an example from 2013: Out of 21 students, three were African American, three were Hispanic, two were Asian American, and two were white guys.
Why? Because as a boring white guy myself, I don’t choose the staff. The alumni from previous classes do. And since Will Write For Food is enticing to edgy students, they choose successors with the same values they possess. They seldom know anything about the applicants’ personal traits (although some mention wisps of it in their cover letters).
College editors don’t need to send their staffs into homeless shelters, they just need to make their papers a little more challenging. If they do that, they might attract more challenging staffers.
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