A red flag raised over the demise of the college newspaper
In an article in The Atlantic, freelance writer Adam Willis has flagged a growing issue on college campuses: the decline of the student newspaper.
Quoting studies and student press advocates and watchdogs, he reports that image-obsessed administrators are hastening the demise of these once-formidable campus watchdogs.
“These once-stalwart publications have long served as consistent checks against administrative malfeasance, common forums for campus debate, and training grounds for future professional journalists.” he writes. “Today, these outlets are imperiled by the same economic forces that have
hollowed out local newspapers from coast to coast.”
Few school newspapers are financially independent from the institutions they cover, he quotes Chris Evans, president of the College Media Association, as saying.
As a result, college administrators hold powerful leverage over student journalists and their faculty advisers.
A 2016 study by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) outlined an array of tactics used by administrators to “subordinate campus journalism to public relations.” Butler University, Muscatine Community College, Wichita State University, and Mount St. Mary’s University have punished or threatened to punish student newspapers for publishing potentially unflattering material.
Even schools with lauded undergraduate journalism programs such as the University of Missouri, the University of Kansas, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were among those cited by the AAUP for encroachments on student journalism. Both the College Media Association and the Student Press Law Center have tracked administrative threats to the funding of college newspapers or to the employment of their faculty advisers as responses to critical coverage.
The AAUP report notes a “growing tendency” for administrations to conduct important business matters “behind closed doors.” Administrators slow-roll student journalists’ requests for public records. At some schools, newspaper advisers have been instructed to conduct “prior review” of student articles before publication, a precaution intended to ensure that anything that could gin up bad publicity never makes it to print.
As the Johns Hopkins University professor Benjamin Ginsberg chronicles in his 2011 book, The Fall of the Faculty, administrative bureaucracies at American universities have grown much faster than the professoriate, a trend that Ginsberg decries. “University administrators are no different than any other corporate executives or heads of government agencies,” Ginsberg said in an interview. “They’re engaged in constant spin designed to hide any shortcomings that they or their institution might have.”
And as Frank LoMonte, the former director of the Student Press Law Center, now the director of a free-speech institute at the University of Florida, points out, access to top administrators has tightened as public-relations offices have ballooned. In a bygone era, college newspaper staffers regularly worked the phones to reach their schools’ top administrators late into the evenings. Today’s student journalists are routinely told to channel their queries through the PR desk.
“The concentration of resources into university PR offices has made the job exponentially harder for campus journalists,” LoMonte says. “The PR people see their job as rationing access to newsmakers on campus, so it is harder and harder to get interviews with newsmakers.”
“Sometimes the administration wants the paper to be a PR outlet for the university,” says Evans, the president of the College Media Association. LoMonte goes further, arguing that many administrations see their campus newspapers as a liability, not an asset. “When we turned that corner culturally—when colleges became a brand and they began to embrace this idea that they were a brand—then the bottom fell out in support for independent watchdog journalism,” he says. “The endgame in many institutions is for the independent, student-run media to go out of business.”
Without student-run news organizations, LoMonte says, “you may have a powerful, well-funded government agency that’s being watched by nobody.”