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The health of college journalism: student journalists under fire

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Photo: Rolvaag Memorial Library, where The Olaf Messenger resides. Megan Lu/The Olaf Messenger 

 

Harvard President Claudine Gay resigns after Congressional hearing. Barnard suspends and evicts at least 53 students due to pro-Palestine demonstration. Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) reaches the seventh day of “Gaza Solidarity Encampment.” 

 

These are just a few of the stories covered by student journalists within this academic year. But college journalism and the students that produce it are coming under increasing pressure. According to The Messenger’s interviews with five college newspapers and professionals in Minnesota, Ohio, and Michigan, there has been a recent increase in reporting challenges posed by university administrations. 

 

The unique position of student journalists 

 

Student journalists are the lifeblood of a college or university, often the first to cover important events, breaking news, and important developments on campuses. 

 

“College newspapers should be holding the College accountable,” Seth Richardson, University of Minnesota Twin-Cities lecturer at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said in an interview with The Olaf Messenger. 

 

Gayle Golden, University of Minnesota Twin-Cities Charmley professor, echoed this view in an interview with The Olaf Messenger: “A campus is a community and a campus needs information to make it a vibrant community.” 

 

Student journalists hold a unique position within their campus community, often working to uplift the voices and concerns of their peers. Sharing living spaces, classes, and meals with peers, college reporters owe the community truth and effort in their coverage. However, that leads to contentious interactions with administrators. 

 

“Sometimes we’re treated like an enemy of the College, but in reality, we’re here to support students,” Emma Salomon, a student at Macalester College and Mac Weekly editor-in-chief, said in an interview. “We’re the only ones who can really hold the administration accountable.” 

 

Student reporters have a nuanced perspective on the decisions being made and work being done by administrators as they have insider knowledge and platforms to speak out as students. College newspapers are not an extension of the university’s public relations (PR) office. Instead, with accurate reporting, they are an example of what a hyperlocal newspaper can be. 

 

Accountability within journalism 

 

Deeply ingrained into the campus community, student journalists are often the first to break important college news. 

 

In November 2017, The Olaf Messenger covered stories which detailed sexual misconduct by former professors. 

 

In December 2023, Harvard Crimson and The Daily Pennsylvanian were the first to cover the resignation of their respective university presidents and continued to provide live coverage of the events that followed. 

 

This kind of accountability-focused reporting can pose a challenge to college administrations who may be fearful that it will harm their institution’s public image. 

 

“University administrations have never been fond of aggressive student reporting,” Golden said. “To varying degrees they tolerate it, but some better than others.”

 

Many college newspapers nationwide have reported an increase in contentious interactions with university administration or marketing and communications departments in the 2023-2024 academic year. These difficulties have ranged from reporters only being allowed to conduct interviews with college staff via email to being barred from attending public events. The underlying theme in all of these events is an 

aversion to news articles that hold college administrators accountable.  

 

To illustrate the widespread nature of this problem, here is a list of some of the college newspapers whose staff have spoken out recently about the struggles they have faced with their universities to uphold journalistic integrity.

 

On Feb. 6, 2024, The State News announced that they were suing Michigan State University, allegint that the college was barring student reporters from accessing public information. 

 

In August 2023, Ted Daniels, the advisor of Ashland University’s student newspaper, The Collegian, was fired. According to the administration, this decision was due to The Collegian “doing too much investigative journalism.”

 

In July of 2023, Mac Weekly discovered that an important line protecting the right of student media against censorship from Macalester College’s handbook had been removed. Macalester’s administration provided the newspaper with no warning before or after they made the change. 

 

In the fall of 2023, The College of Wooster’s student newspaper, The Wooster Voice, was told to suspend and not publish an article on a past controversy over hiring a female president. The Wooster Voice reported continuing challenges with their college’s PR team. 

 

The aforementioned reports show that university administration has been a thorn in the side of each of these publications, with varying degrees of severity when it comes to the free publication of factual news. 

 

“I think especially when students are dealing with admin, they treat us like kids who don’t know what to do and adults often feel like they have to assume a position of responsibility,” Mac Weekly Editor-in-Chief Maddie Heinz said. 

 

College journalists may be viewed as a step below professional journalists, and yet at the same time, they are expected to report news for an entire campus population. 

 

Not every college newspaper faces these struggles. The Minnesota Daily, the University of Minnesota college newspaper, has been given a large degree of autonomy, members of its staff said. 

 

Speaking of the relationship between the newspaper and the college PR team, The Minnesota Daily Executive Editor Alex Stiel said, “There is some gatekeeping but it’s gatekeeping that makes sense within the constraints of both the college and college journalism.” 

 

The Minnesota Daily created its own policy on how to handle PR interactions that the university and the journalists continue to follow. 

 

Not every PR team works to undermine college media intentionally. However, many PR departments do prioritize their college’s public narrative over journalists’ desire to gather facts. 

 

Director of Public Relations at St. Olaf College Kat Dodge said in an email interview that “Student journalists serve a valuable role in covering campus happenings, people, and trends. More importantly, campus newspapers are community newspapers that play a vital role for individuals who want to become informed about and active in their community.” 

 

While this sentiment is important, Dodge’s statement also came after several instances of conflict between The Olaf Messenger and The Marketing and Communications (MarCom) department at St. Olaf, instances which are detailed in Supervising Editor Charlotte Smith ’24’s Letter From the Editor. The College has not been immune to this trend, and student press freedom at St. Olaf is at constant risk of falling out of balance with delicate MarCom practices that interact with a pursuit of truth and hard news coverage. 

 

The future of college journalism 

 

Overall, there is a sense of fear among college journalists that the tide may be shifting. 

 

Although not every college news staff is struggling, many cases indicate a pattern that seems especially evident among small private colleges and universities. Ashland, Wooster, and Macalester all exemplify the struggles that come with writing for a private college that does not adhere to the rules of public universities. 

 

College journalists have always acted as a check on administrations, and with that check comes a need for balancing powers. These challenges are not new, nor impossible to overcome. Mac Weekly was able to get its anti-censorship line back into the student handbooks after receiving large faculty support. The Minnesota Daily has created “an appropriate relationship with the college.” 

 

“It is good to have [a relationship] so if something goes wrong you already have a relationship,” Stiel said. 

 

Relationships with the PR team are one step towards journalists working within the space they are entitled to, not in a box that excludes important coverage. Another may be creating a support system between college newspapers nationwide. 

 

The Wooster Voice created a Slack messaging board that encourages open communication with executives from other college newspapers. This Slack is just one way schools have started sharing stories and tips for how to create a better atmosphere for journalism on their campuses. 

 

“The general consensus is to be a little worried, but I’m hopeful that there are people passionate about what they do at their school and tell their stories because, at the end of the day, people are going to be using their papers as primary sources on their college’s history, ” Julia Garrison, news editor of The Wooster Voice, said. 

 

Despite some steps forward, the relationship between universities and their student newspapers still needs to improve. As the eyes and ears of their institutions, college journalists help serve as an archive of student perspectives throughout time and act as accountability checkers for their universities. It is important that their work can be seen and done without impediment. 

hering2@stolaf.edu

nguyen86@stolaf.edu 

 

Corrected on May 2, 2024: An earlier version of this story incorrectly swapped Maddie Heinz and Emma Solomon’s quotes. Their attribution has been corrected.