A very curious college list

The 10th-best college newspaper in the country?

It had quite a year…

The adviser illegally threatened to withhold students’ paychecks. A board member wrote a memo demanding more “good” news than “bad.” The editors walked out in protest. And the publisher tackled a j-school reporter covering the controversy.

Congratulations to The Red and Black. You’ve made the Princeton Review’s 2012 list of best college newspapers.

The Princeton Review is a test-prep company best known for its annual book, The Best Colleges. From that, the company releases periodic lists of top professors, beautiful campuses, and biggest party schools.

This year’s list of best newspapers was released yesterday, without commentary or methodology. The Red and Black ranked 10th. It boasted on Twitter, “The entire staff is proud that we made the list.”

But the independent newspaper at the University of Georgia earned another distinction this year: The only college newspaper to receive a letter from SPJ’s national president expressing “considerable dismay.”

The Red and Black’s problems were well-documented by The New York Times and Fox News. And as SPJ’s national board member representing the southeast United States, I sent someone to investigate – concluding, not without controversy itself, that the students were more mature than the adults. (See: The Red and Blackout.)

So how does a student newspaper like this edge into a Top 10 list?

Princeton’s process

This morning, I called Kristen O’Toole, listed as a contact on Princeton Review press releases. When I asked her how the college newspaper list was compiled, she paused. Then she laughed. She’s obviously been asked this before.

“I can take your information and have someone get back to you,” she told me. “That might be Wednesday.”

If she reads this, it might be never.

Based on this page on The Princeton Review website, “Students submit surveys online from all schools in the book. … We also officially conduct surveys of students at each school in the book at least once every three years.”

So it’s quite possible no one knew what The Red and Black did last summer. And it’s quite likely no one knows what’s happening at The Red and Black right now.

The Red and Black’s progress

In his Aug. 22 letter to the paper’s chairman of the board, SPJ president John Ensslin concluded, “Please be advised that SPJ will continue to monitor this situation closely.” Yesterday’s dubious Princeton Review list has reminded me to do the same.

I’ve heard some disturbing reports about professional staff still interfering with student editors. If true, they violate the ethics code of the College Media Association, which represents advisers (and of which I’m a member).

After the holidays, I’ll follow up on those reports, and I’ll urge SPJ’s new president to do the same. I hope this time, The Red and Black board and management will comment beyond a couple terse official statements.

Just to be crystal clear…

I congratulate Red and Black students who win awards for their reporting, writing, photography, and design. But a “best” newspaper should be judged on everything it has done during that particular year.


Some SPJers and CMAers believe I’ve already made up my mind about The Red and Black. They’re right. I have.

Based on what I learned last summer – from receiving a copy of that damning “good news” memo to corroborating tales of censorship from multiple student editors – I felt the evidence was clear.

However, if The Red and Black has delivered on its promises – like installing students on its board, opening its meetings at least to its own staff, and no longer interfering with students in the newsroom – I’ll be the first to add it to my own list of best college newspapers.

The opinions above are not necessarily those of SPJ national, SPJ’s other board members, or the SPJ members in Region 3 who I represent. This is my blog and my opinion.

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