Across the country, newsrooms of all shapes and sizes are struggling to survive. The rise of digital media, and its financial model, or lack thereof, combined with an unprecedented assault on the industry from numerous forces, have left journalism in a precarious position.
And it’s not only professional outlets that are feeling the pinch. At universities and community colleges from Florida to California, student journalists and their advisers are finding their publications under threat.
In response, The Independent Florida Alligator began the #SaveStudentNewsrooms movement to highlight the critical need for media outlets at all levels to not only remain operational, but to do so without sacrificing editorial integrity.
The Daily Wildcat is joining this call for many reasons. We have seen the impact of a shrinking news industry firsthand, and we understand the vital role our industry plays in keeping a well-informed society.
Many publications have already been forced to cut back on print days, or go online only; some have been closed down completely.
This not only has a chilling effect on the spreading of useful information to the public, but also allows greater opportunity for corruption or incompetence to proliferate unchecked.
Like many other organizations nationwide, we have made changes as well. For decades, The Wildcat has worked tirelessly to stay financially self-sufficient. That’s become increasingly more difficult with significant decreases in incoming revenue — both from local business and university-related advertising.
This influenced our decision to reduce the print product from five times per week just a few years ago, to only once per week today. Additionally, the budget to pay our student staff has been slashed by thousands of dollars annually, and the full-time professional staff who support hundreds of students working at The Wildcat, and our student media counterparts at KAMP Student Radio and UATV-3, has been reduced.
Other student media organizations have been hit even harder. Papers have been shut down, or been forced to abandon their print offerings in order to save money.
Some believe the solution is to fold student media in with existing journalism programs, in order to place the full weight of the school or college behind the struggling publications and stations.
Southern Methodist University recently folded its independent student newspaper, The Daily Campus, under its journalism school. Its last print issue will run in May, and its editorial board has expressed fears their publishing freedom may be compromised.
What these student media outlets might gain in stability from being brought under an official university program, they could lose in editorial independence.
The importance of a media organization, whether it’s professional or student run, to not be under anyone’s thumb cannot be overstated. Without this freedom to criticize or praise those who deserve it, or highlight important stories which could negatively impact audiences, publications become little more than marketing tools.
While journalism schools and programs clearly understand the value of editorial independence, it can’t be assumed that administrators or professors wouldn’t feel pressed or compelled to run or kill stories based on fear or favor. This simply can’t be allowed to happen.
Even if students are able to maintain their publishing liberty while operating under the auspices of an official journalism program, the perception for control still exists. Outside audiences will assume, rightfully so, that content is being manipulated in some way by a higher power.
The Society of Professional Journalism Code of Ethics reminds us that news organizations and employees “should avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.”
Therefore, whether or not a student media organization’s editorial independence is violated is irrelevant; what matters is the perception of a possible conflict is created when outside interests are given control.
Furthermore, student media outlets offer an opportunity to work in the field, getting hands-on experience that is available nowhere else. We decide what will run in our paper, what stories our audiences need to know about and what they want to see as well.
When independent student journalists succeed, they own those triumphs. When we make mistakes, we learn and grow from those experiences and become even better reporters, designers, editors, producers and photographers as a result.
Anyone who has spent time in student media will tell you there is nothing else like it; the highs and lows of a grueling production, the pride of seeing your work in the public sphere for all to see, the camaraderie and lifelong relationships forged in the trials of creating something together.
All these moments are part of the development of our professional careers and unreplicable in any other environment.
But more important than what the closing or castrating of independent student media means for those in the industry is what it means for audiences and the public at large.
Without these organizations, there will be fewer platforms for people to tell their stories, fewer voices being amplified and less representation of what campuses and communities truly are.
A reduction in journalists equates to a reduction of accountability for those in power, a loss of watchdogs whose sole responsibility is to find injustices and expose them for the whole world to see.
Regardless of one’s opinion of a particular news organization or journalist, the need for independent media to exist is undeniable. Information created by a paid interest for the purpose of changing or forming an opinion isn’t news — it’s propaganda.
The movement to #SaveStudentNewsrooms can’t stop with those of us in the industry; it must be continued by everyone who understands the vitality of a free press.
We are grateful for the opportunity to inform and entertain our audiences, as our student staffs have done for more than 100 years. All we want is the chance to continue doing so for many years to come, without looking over our shoulders or at our ledgers.
The Daily Wildcat asks everyone to support this cause. Our newsroom will continue to serve as a voice for students, employees and the community who need us. But now we need you to fight for us.
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