Year in Review: Most Viral Student Media of 2011, Part 2

Strippers. Shootings. The Oscars. Osama bin Laden. One-night stands. Natural disasters. Asians in the library. And skinny jeans. These are a few of the most prominent buzzwords at the center of the student news stories, columns, online creations, and video rants that went viral in a major way over the past year.

The spread of some content was linked to its quality, especially when it involved reporting on an issue or event of national importance. Other content garnered web attention for its eye-opening sexual candor or controversial views. One involved an angry A-list celebrity. And another garnered interest for a focus on journalism itself.

Below is part two of a chronological review of student media that blew up on the web in 2011.  To check out part one, click here.

Worth Keeping Alive

Near the start of this past fall semester, a student op-ed on journalism’s shortcomings earned rock-star status online and was regarded as a come-to-Jesus column by many in the field. In the piece, published in late August, Daily Californian senior staffer Mihir Zaveri at the University of California, Berkeley, seemed to tap into an I’m-mad-as-hell fervor among student and professional journalists about the current state of the news media.

Zaveri’s thesis: Forget advertising woes, Internet challenges, and economic ugliness. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. “All of that stuff is on us, the journalists,” he wrote. “It’s our fault. Our job was to report the news, and we did that. But we got complacent, and we stopped evolving, and soon the concept of a news article became far removed from what you, as a person, valued. Now we find ourselves in an awkward position where an indispensable component of democracy is slipping away, and we’re scrambling.”

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The commentary blew up on Twitter and landed on a number of blogosphere hotspots, launching Zaveri into a stratosphere of fame most student journalists never experience. It appeared Zaveri’s youth and idealism — and the back story of his column emanating from a midsummer night of drinking — were the keys to its social media virility.

In Zaveri’s words, “Journalism is in a dark time. But we can’t give up. We have to fight for relevance in your lives. We need to gain back your trust that what we’re doing is worth keeping alive.”

#FreeKernel

Along with La Salle, the most viral student press censorship of 2011 occurred in Lexington, Ky. In late August, University of Kentucky athletics officials, angry over a story published in The Kentucky Kernel, temporarily barred the campus newspaper from one-on-one interviews with the school’s basketball team.

Kernel sports writer Aaron Smith was specifically singled out for his reporting on a seemingly innocuous article about a pair of walk-ons being named to the Wildcats hoops squad. As part of his legwork, Smith called the players, using phone numbers listed under their names in the university directory.

That contact violated an unofficial UK rule that limits journalists from speaking to student athletes without the coordination of university media relations. According to the school, the rule is in place to ensure athletes are not “bombarded with interview requests constantly.”

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For failing to follow this preferred method of communication, Kernel staff were shut out of a preseason media event highlighted by brief private interviews with players. The saga spurred a national media blitzkrieg that included a spate of condemnations from major journalism figures and organizations who felt the rule and punishment were overreaching. It also prompted a spirited protest on Twitter, with related tweets employing the hashtag #FreeKernel. The most talked-about and retweeted comment came from Sports Illustrated senior writer Andy Staples. His words: “Until Kentucky agrees to #FreeKernel, I think I’ll revoke SI coverage of their mediocre football team.”

Sex, and Sex Abuse

In late October, the premiere of the first sex column in The Daily Collegian at Penn State University provoked a massive online response. In less than 24 hours and a bit more than 700 words, Kristina Helfer became a household name in Happy Valley.

In her debut column, “Mounting Nittany,” Helfer offered a simple message: Sex happens in college, and it’s OK to talk about. As she wrote, “I love sex. I love talking about it, I love having it, and I’m sure I’m not the only one, male or female, who feels the same way. Someday, all of us will be having sex — unless you’re still living in your mom’s basement — and it won’t be a big deal. Maybe you’re having sex right now, while you’re reading this column (lucky you).”

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Helfer’s words stirred a torrential rainstorm of reader reactions. By the morning after its placement online, comments numbered more than 300 — some praising the piece’s boldness and others decrying it as pointless and an embarrassment to journalism and Nittany Lions worldwide. On Twitter, the hashtag #mountingnittany gained immediate momentum with a range of tweets mixing snark and sexual innuendo. As student Davis Shaver, the founder of the PSU online outlet Onward State, tweeted in the piece’s wake: “Definitely the most viral … column launch I’ve seen in my time at #Penn State. Let’s see if they can keep it up.”

Helfer kept at it for a month, until Sandusky-gate and the fall of Joe Paterno. The Daily Collegian stopped publishing “Mounting Nittany” in the wake of the sex abuse allegations that enveloped the campus. Instead, staff provided nonstop coverage of the scandal and the deafening furor surrounding it. They garnered national attention and commendations for the breadth and depth of their reporting and commentary about the alleged acts, the related criminal investigation and legal proceedings, the apparent cover-up, the impact on PSU’s legacy, and the reactions of alumni and longtime football fans.

The paper earned especially impassioned praise for its real-time tweeting of various events, including the mid-December preliminary hearing Sandusky ultimately waived. For its efforts, BuzzFeed named @DailyCollegian as one of the top Twitter feeds of the year, noting, “Their coverage of the sex [abuse] scandal … has been illuminating.”

Gotcha Student Journalism

The Athenaeum News was perhaps the strangest — and definitely the most vengeful — student media start-up of 2011. During the fall semester, a 40-year-old sophomore journalism and electronic media major at the University of Tennessee began publishing the weekly paper to share details of an affair between his now ex-wife and a UT professor.

Apparently, Moussa’s ex-wife entered into a flirtatious relationship with a UT geography professor in 2006 while still his student. She was also still married to Moussa at the time. She has since divorced him and married the professor. UT decided not to intervene, deeming the relationship consensual. But Moussa has not let it go, writing about it explicitly and at length in his 10,000-circulation paper, stoking the curiosity of local and national press and the repugnance of some readers.

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Critics are accusing him of character assassination, press-pulpit bullying, and general creepiness. Inside Higher Ed labeled the entire enterprise “Gotcha Student Journalism.” Moussa counters that he is attempting to alert campus about a figure he feels is a danger to students and fighting a university he contends is wrong for letting him continue teaching there. As The Knoxville News Sentinel reported, “He knows most of the attention’s due to the first issue’s cover story on [the professor]. Moussa said that’s fine with him. ‘He put us on the map,’ Moussa said. ‘I have him to thank for that.’”

Regarding the Gunshots

In early December, a midday shooting and campus lockdown at Virginia Tech brought back memories of the horrific 2007 shootings that killed 33 people. During that episode, The Collegiate Times, VT’s student newspaper, provided tireless, innovative coverage unmatched by the hordes of outside media that descended upon Blacksburg, Va.

Nearly five years later, on a late semester Thursday, the CT again stepped up. As rumors and reports circulated about a fatal shooting and a gunman on the loose, staff turned to Twitter to tell the world what they were seeing and hearing and the trusted information they were receiving. They also interacted in real-time with students and other observers. As one of their early tweets asked, “Has anyone heard or seen anything regarding the gunshots? Tweet us @CollegiateTimes.”

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Similar to the Crimson White after the Tuscaloosa tornado, the CT’s Twitter followers skyrocketed — from 2,000 to 20,000 in a single afternoon. Additionally, as Media Decoder confirmed, “[J]ournalists from ABC, NPR, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and other outlets pointed readers to The Collegiate Times’ account on Twitter, helping the college newspaper gain attention.” Subsequently, the CT earned a spot alongside the Daily Collegian on BuzzFeed’s best Twitter list. The paper also published a much-lauded special print edition (a portion of the front page shown above) the day following the incident.

One-Night Stand’s Weeklong Uproar

Near fall semester’s end, an erotic essay about a one-night stand published in an Orthodox Jewish university’s student newspaper caused controversy on campus and sparked a weeklong news feeding frenzy — one that stretched from Manhattan to the Middle East.

The piece appeared in early December in The YU Beacon at New York City’s Yeshiva University. It was an anonymous first-person account of a female student’s tryst with a male classmate and the shame that accompanied it the next morning.

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As a New York Times report noted, the essay’s explicitness angered the conservative school’s “religious students who consider premarital sex — not just the act but even talking openly about it — well beyond the acceptable bounds of modesty.” Initially, talk about the piece itself was confined to the national Jewish student magazine New Voices, but was soon followed by “everyone else on the planet.”

At one point, as New Voices editor David Wilensky wrote, “[T]hings really went nuts. Once the Wall Street Journal had it, The New York Times mentioned it in a blog post, the Daily Mail had an article and then Haaretz [the leading English-language news source focused on Israel] came in, riding the Mail’s coattails.” The Jerusalem Post declared, “It’s less of a sex scandal than it is a sex shanda, an embarrassment.”

When the firestorm first sparked, there was speculation the university would sever its ties to the Beacon. Staff subsequently decided to proactively end the affiliation, losing $500 in related funding per semester. The paper’s news editor and a co-editor in chief also quit.

Trousers of the Devil?

At around the same time as the NYC sex shanda, an independent student newspaper more than 2,000 miles away ignited a national debate on, of all things, skinny jeans. In an article that has spawned more than 600 comments and 12,000 Facebook Likes, The Student Review at Brigham Young University-Provo focused on BYU-Idaho staffers acting as fashion police and banning students sporting the popular pants from taking required tests and exams.

As the buzzworthy piece began, “Trends come and go, but the skinny on BYU-Idaho’s most recent addition to the honor code shows one trend going more quickly than some students would like. Students at Brigham Young University-Idaho recently encountered a new sign in the university’s testing center that read simply, ‘No skinny jeans.’”

The sign was apparently an offshoot of the general “dress and grooming standards” suppressing “form-fitting” clothing on all BYU campuses. BYU is a Mormon school known to some informally as “The Lord’s university.” The central question related to the jeans ban, according to the Review: “[A]re skinny jeans the gateway style to more scandalous attire, or a legitimate clothing option with a bad rap?”

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Upon its publication, the short feature quickly “unleashed a torrent of Internet stories … spurring bloggers and news outlets alike to comment on the university’s honor code and unique culture.” Related “Here’s the Skinny” reports appeared everywhere and soon after prompted an official school response clarifying the ban. As a Gawker writer admitted, “The first time I read [the Review report], I thought it was parody … Skinny jeans: trousers of the devil? Don’t tell Mitt Romney.”

To see the full review, click here or on the screenshot below.

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