Guest Post: Pros, Con of Student Press Covering Outside World

   By Marissa Medansky, Yale University

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A recent College Media Matters post asked readers to consider a somewhat meta opinion piece in the UNLV student newspaper, in which Dede Anderson lambasts The Rebel Yell for a new policy that discourages students from writing about national or international issues.

Anderson’s editors argue that the Yell is adopting a “hyperlocal” focus and want the paper’s opinion section to reflect that shift. But Anderson feels this policy amounts to censorship, and warns UNLV readers that a journalistic winter is coming:

Apparently it is not acceptable to have an opinion about anything other than the student government, organizations, classes or UNLV itself. I was recently informed of this new limitation and had an immediate reaction. … Instead of being able to read opinions on a myriad of topics that affect not only our small community, but also the nation and the world, you will now be throttled down to reading about opinions that pertain only to a tiny segment of the community.

I’ll save my thoughts on the fallacy of “hyperlocal” journalism for another time. For now, I’ll address the question posed by Dan Reimold, who wants to know what role national issues should play in a student-driven campus newspaper.

I agree with the UNLV editors that it’s important to encourage opinion writers to trawl for topics outside the pages of the EconomistHere are the two big reasons why:

  • First, it comes down to opportunity cost. Politicos interested in, say, immigration reform can visit thousands of outlets to feed their curiosity. But students interested in campus and community issues have fewer places to turn. This even holds true for student papers in big cities. Columbia’s Spectator, for example, does (from my seat) a great job covering issues that matter to Morningside Heights. Because The Yale Daily News publishes five times a week, I rarely face the kind of dilemma that pits an excellent campus or city article against an excellent column on national politics. But if I did, I’d choose the city column almost every time.
  • The second reason is more philosophical. On a normative level, college students shouldn’t be tourists in their communities. That means devoting meaningful intellectual energy to community issues.

That said, a policy that openly discourages students from tackling national topics is neither sustainable nor smart. Again, some reasons why:

  • As freshmen, most students are still learning about campus and community issues. But in my experience, the key to turning opinion writers into opinion staffers is getting them to write early and often.
  • Writers write best about what they know. As students write more and more op-eds (and become better and better writers), they’re more willing to address topics that aren’t their expertise. But a comfort zone must be established before it can be left.
  • Most importantly, as students write more columns more frequently, they’ll (and this is the kicker) naturally develop an interest in local campus and community issues. Variety is life’s proverbial spice, and a columnist can only tackle one issue so many times. When fatigue sets in, local issues are a natural (even obvious) inspiration. Opinion editors should strive to produce local content organically.

That said, it’s always interesting learning what’s going on at student papers across the country, and opinion journalism isn’t a once-size-fits-all endeavor. It’ll be interesting to see how this policy plays out in the real world. While this policy could discourage students from submitting op-ed pieces, it also has the potential to incentivize would-be writers to immerse themselves more deeply in community issues.

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Should the Student Press Have Opinions About the Outside World?

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