Former Adviser Recalls “Making of Real Student Newspaper”

One of my favorite quotes about college journalism comes from New York University professor Jonathan Zimmerman, circa 2003: “The administrators must be annoyed at the student newspaper, or else something is terribly wrong.”

The idea behind the utterance is not that campus media’s direct aim should be to anger admins.  Instead, Zimmerman is simply identifying the ultimate student press paradox- quality student journalism often involves uncovering info that make university higher-ups more pissed than full of praise.

Or as Ron Feemster says, “It is unlikely that there is an easy, comfortable place on campus for an empowered student press. Good student journalists, like the ones I advised, will uncover facts that make a college administration squirm. But if a strong press is sometimes a nuisance for administrators, a timid, self-censoring student paper is an educational fraud.”

Feemster should know.  He spent two years in the uneasy, uncomfortable (but highly rewarding) spot of faculty adviser, overseeing a journalistic call-to-arms at the Northwest Trail, the weekly student newspaper at Wyoming’s Northwest College.  He assisted students on major stories, including a report on seemingly unfair salary increases for certain school employees and the college president’s questionable religious recruiting.  And he saw the dark side of an administration who brought him in to jumpstart student journalism but recoiled at being the focus of some of the students’ work.

The front page of a January 2010 issue of Northwest Trail announcing the firing of Feemster and the school's student activities director.

As he recalled in a recent Inside Higher Ed commentary, NWC administrators criticized the paper publicly and via campus whisper campaigns for reporting worthwhile truth.  They hid behind the “convenient smokescreen” of FERPA even when such hiding did not make sense.  They carried out other acts of stonewalling and intimidation when students sought them out for information.  They attacked Feemster and his student team for the smattering of errors that pop up in all student press outlets, attempting to discredit their larger work by highlighting only their infrequent screw-ups.  And they followed a tact I consider to be the most evil in college media circles- equating critical news coverage with disloyalty.

The cardinal sin of the Northwest Trail as a student paper was not the fact that it broke big stories,” Feemster wrote.  “It was the paper’s failure to be ‘positive’ and to ‘support the college.’  I heard this criticism from faculty members, vice presidents, administrative staff and the men’s basketball coach. . . . At Northwest, a critical story was a disloyal story.”

A Sunday New York Times article reflects on the changing state of journalism, sharing that Web tracking data now allows news outlets to know more specifically than ever what their readers most (and least) enjoy reading.  The new level of insight of course comes with an ethical conundrum: how much influence should reader considerations have over content decisions, compared to outlets’ editorial judgment?

Under Feemster, the Northwest Trail faced that question at the extremes.  Staffers’ judgments about what to print often made their desired readership seemingly loathe the paper’s very existence.  Feemster’s advice to one editor concerned about this irony: “Our job is to report the best stories we can find as well and fairly as we can. The public’s opinion of the Trail is none of our business.

NWC ultimately fired Feemster, but cannot stop him from sharing the truth about “the hide-our-flaws management style so prevalent inside and outside the academy.”

And his impassioned advising continues to be recognized in many ways.  Most recently, the Associated Collegiate Press named a Northwest Trail staffer a finalist for its Reporter of the Year award, honoring the student’s work over the past two semesters, when Feemster still served as Trail adviser.  Unsurprisingly, the news is not featured alongside similar updates on the NWC homepage.

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