College Media Year in Review, 2011-2012: Censorship, a Streaking, a Shooting, Some Finances & (April) Fools

The year began with a bombshell.  On the first day of school last August, The Red & Black, one of the largest and most-feted college newspapers in the country, announced it was switching from a daily to a weekly print edition.

The University of Georgia student paper simultaneously rolled out a digital-first workflow and publishing philosophy that made redandblack.com the “main arm for delivering the news of UGA to the masses.”  In an announcement message on a popular college media advisers’ list-serv, Red & Black editorial adviser Ed Morales dubbed the whole shebang Red & Black 2.0.

As staffers explained to readers on the front page of a special wraparound section, “Forget everything you’ve ever thought about newspapers, because we’re redefining how it works.  Think a breaking news operation, run by the generation which grew up with computers, cell phones, and iPods.”  Or as they told readers more simply online: “Welcome to a media revolution.”

The words proved prescient for 2011-2012.  Over the past academic year, college media enjoyed and endured numerous revolutions, large and small, satirical and censorious, economic and interactive.

This is a glimpse at a few especially memorable and impacting highlights and lowlights, including those involving a streaking, a shooting, a sexual abuse scandal, hazing, and some bed bugs.

A Kernel of Censorship
In late August 2011, 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.

Officials specifically singled out Kernel sports writer Aaron Smith for his reporting on a seemingly innocuous article about a pair of walk-ons 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 school rule that limits journalists from speaking to student-athletes without the coordination of university media relations.  The rule is apparently in place to ensure athletes are not “bombarded with interview requests constantly.”

For failing to follow this preferred method of communication, Kernel staffers were shut out of a preseason media event highlighted by brief private interviews with players.  The saga spurred a national media blitzkrieg, including 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.”

The Front-Page Streaker

Along with the Kernel, controversy ensnared The East Carolinian.  In January, East Carolina University officials fired Paul Isom, the school’s student media director, without warning or much explanation.  The sudden termination prompted speculation among the media and free speech advocacy organizations that it was in retaliation for controversial photos published by ECU’s student newspaper.

Last November, the East Carolinian published a series of front-page pictures of a streaker racing across the field at halftime of a university football game.  At least one of the shots featured easily-discernible full-frontal nudity.  At the time, editor-in-chief Caitlin Hale explained that editors “felt that our audience, which is primarily the ECU student body, should have access to unedited and factual photos of the streaking incident [something many on campus were apparently talking about].”

The images rocketed the paper into the spotlight, on ECU’s campus and online.  At least 600 copies of the issue carrying the photos were stolen or trashed.  Detractors felt the images were overly sensationalist and too graphic for a mainstream news outlet, student or professional.  As an ECU senior journalism student told a local television news station, “I understand . . . you want to do big stories and you want to make things that are controversial and I guess make a name for yourself, I suppose, but they didn’t do it the right way.”

School officials also publicly expressed their displeasure in November, promising follow-up conversations with student staff about balancing press freedom with responsible editorial decision-making.  Yet, as 2012 dawned, they traded words for action, targeting Isom as a scapegoat– even though he did not exert prior review of East Carolinian content.

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