College Newspaper in Crisis: Alligator Staffers “Afraid for Our Futures”

As of late last week, no students had submitted an application to be the next editor-in-chief of The Independent Florida Alligator, a top-notch newspaper with a rich history. An Alligator article addressing the problem cited student concerns about long hours, low pay, overloaded responsibilities, outdated equipment in the newsroom, and a news media-wide “dip in morale” as factors. As of Monday, according to current Alligator EIC Jessica DaSilva, one undergrad had applied for the EIC spot, but the larger issue about the Alligator‘s burdens and future uncertainties remain.

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In an impassioned open letter that DaSilva wrote and placed on the Alligator alumni Facebook group and her own blog, DaSilva points out a number of problems inherent in modern student newspaper work. I’ve included most of it below because I think her words are worth sharing and because upon reading them my eyes honestly widened (bolding added by me in places where she sums up her main arguments):

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Let me say this once: This staff is not working here for the money. We didn’t start at this newspaper for the money, and we’re not going into journalism for the money. We’re not afraid of long hours and hard work. What we’re afraid for is our futures.

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We are not getting the experience that we need for internships and jobs that are out there. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard, “You worked at the Alligator? That’s great. What else have you done?” The truth of the matter is that the Alligator is NOT getting us internships and jobs anymore. . . .

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The problem? We’re not a place for innovative journalism anymore. Today, journalism is not just copy and headlines. We’re being expected to (at the very least) know (X)HMTL, CSS, how to gather/edit audio (and sometimes video), build Soundslides and more. We put out what little we can, but that’s just it; it’s not enough. We don’t have equipment or staff to do what’s necessary to uphold our reputation. . . .

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As it stands now, we have three writers on the university desk and two on metro. That makes up our entire staff of writers. The rest are freelancers. We have five writers. Five. Those five writers are covering ALL of our important news. They typically write three stories a day. How are they supposed to gather and edit the audio for those stories and build a Soundslides when they have to write those stories? They can’t learn those new, vital technology skills when they’re making up for a non-existent beat partner. . . .

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And so it becomes a vicious cycle. We can’t attract students because we don’t have the technology or manpower to spearhead the online movement, so the current staff suffers. They get burned out because they’re doing more than just working hard, they are doing the work of several reporters and editors.

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Many of you cited that despite the workload, you had fun. I can say that’s how I felt when I started here, but after being part of a staff that has been recycled over and over again, I can tell that no one is having fun anymore. We’re in the same position that all of you who are in newspapers now are in. The only difference is that working at the Alligator is optional, so people are finally choosing to leave, and they’re leaving heartbroken. They work their fingers to the bone every day only to get Dear John letters back from internships. So once again, thank you [Alligator alumni] for your encouraging words and testimonials, but for the Alligator to remain the place you remember it to be, it’s going to require much more.

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An Orlando Sentinel reporter added in her own somewhat depressing blog post on the issue that, like it or not, things are not much different in the professional media: “[W]hat do they [j-students] think is going to happen in the real world? I’ve been at the Sentinel for almost four years, and for the first few, I had to use my own cell phone for work. When we finally got them from the company, it was because we could take pictures with them- more work for reporters to do. And my computer still crashes when I upload video- another new job duty.”

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Are things really this bleak in collegemediatopia? Are the Alligator‘s woes an abberation or reflective of the industry?

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