CMM Fellows: What’s the Hardest Part About Being a Student Journalist These Days?

Marcelo Rochabrun, the outgoing editor-in-chief of The Daily Princetonian, recently declared in a goodbye letter to readers: “It’s hard being a student journalist at Princeton these days.”

The chief challenge that he said ‘Prince’ staffers regularly face is criticism and even threats from fellow students — not administrators, alumni, faculty or townies, but students — who are angry about a story.

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Building off Rochabrun’s rundown and the minor Internet buzz it spurred, I reached out to the spring 2015 CMM Fellows — an elite crew of top editors and reporters at student media across the U.S.

1Specifically, I asked them: From your perspective and experiences, what is the hardest part about being a student journalist these days, and why? And have you noticed like Rochabrun that student readers are especially amped up or wigging out over coverage or commentaries they don’t like?

Here is a rundown of their responses.

Liz Young, editor-in-chief, The Lantern, Ohio State University

1The hardest part about being a student journalist is getting our audience to see our work and to care. Like The Daily Princetonian, we often have students, faculty and staff who aren’t big fans of opinion pieces or other articles that we intended to be taken lightly. That often manifests itself in the form of comments and emails, some of which claim we’re out for the clicks.

To be clear: We are not out for clicks. But interestingly, it’s often the articles that cause the most outrage and the most claims about our being out to get clicks that are the articles that get the most attention. While we get positive feedback on a fairly regular basis about our serious, objective and dedicated work, that feedback often comes from alumni, faculty or staff rather than students. Again, it seems like it can be difficult to get those students to see and care about our legitimate coverage.

Jordyn Reiland, editor-in-chief, The Daily Iowan, University of Iowa

1The hardest part about being a student journalist — more so being an editor — is separating the personal from the professional. People always tell you that leading your peers is one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do, but you don’t realize how hard it’ll actually be until you have to do it.

I’ve had to make tough decisions in several different leadership roles that have temporarily damaged close friendships and relationships, while having to accept the fact that I did make the best decision for the news organization. A former Daily Iowan editor once told me that as an editor you are always the most popular person in the room, but the least liked — and I think that can be true in a lot of aspects. People often want your time and attention, but will be quick to criticize the job you are doing. It’s certainly a balance, but it’s one of the most important things to learn while working at a college newspaper.

Emma LeGault, special projects editor, The Kansan, Univ. of Kansas

1An important phrase for editors — student or professional — to understand early on: Your job is not to make everyone happy. In my experience at The Kansan, we never tire from hearing negative criticism from peers, professors, alumni and community members. However, I don’t think the feedback is the hardest part of being a student journalist. I think it’s a lack of being taken seriously.

Just last week, I heard that an administrator whom we’ve been hounding for weeks with barely any response met with one of our advisers for over an hour. A few days ago, she didn’t show up to a meeting with our editors. It’s frustrating to hear things like that, but it happens more often than you’d think.

Being a student journalist in a city with another paper is also tough. It’s tough to get administrators, city officials, professors and other superiors to consider us as professionals. Often, we work for little-to-no pay and have staff writers who are fresh and not used to the daily grind of a newspaper. I understand some sources or stories have been mistreated by student journalists, but it’s not for a lack of effort or care. We’re learning, and we make mistakes. Professional journalists make mistakes too. It happens to everyone.

However, this can be a blessing, too. When a source writes us off as inexperienced, we’re forced to work that much harder to prove we’re not the ignorant, unskilled journalists the tag “student journalist” often comes with. We’re forced to take greater care with our stories, and we’re forced to make our work stand out amongst the professional competition. Day-to-day, it’s so incredibly frustrating to be underestimated just because we’re 20 and don’t have business cards. But when we exceed our goals and make a difference with our coverage, it’s so much more rewarding.

Erica Corder, editor-in-chief, The Collegiate Times, Virginia Tech

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I know we produce accurate, fact-based work, even if our readers occasionally don’t recognize it. I’m not taking it personally. Because in reality, I know it’s not just an issue students have with The Collegiate Times, but with journalists in general.

There is the perception that journalists work with an agenda in mind. Instances like the Rolling Stone piece on rape culture at UVa — which collapsed after Sabrina Rubin Erdely failed as a reporter to do her due diligence — certainly don’t help to instill trust in the press.

Being that we are student journalists and are still learning the ins and outs of the trade, this further fuels mistrust from our fellow students. They recognize that they are still in school learning and that they couldn’t simply go out and work as a chemical engineer, a veterinarian or a teacher without having first completed their schooling. And yet, at the Collegiate Times, we work every day as journalists without having technically completed our training. We’ve jumped into a profession we’re still learning about in the classroom — something our peers may not think possible.

So when a story is published with facts that perhaps seem unfair, extreme or outlandish, yes, students are going to distrust us. It’s an unfortunate aspect of my experience at the Collegiate Times that my writers, editors and I have continued to fight with quality reporting and fact checking. In the end, it’s beneficial for us as a publication because we work to ensure our readers never have a real reason to distrust us.

Ric Sanchez, editor-in-chief, Montana Kaimin, University of Montana

1I was shocked to read Rochabrun’s farewell letter. While my paper has received pushback for stories that reflect negatively on the university, it rarely comes from fellow students. Or, at least, they’re less motivated to leave an angry voicemail with our office.

In my experience, most criticism directed at the Montana Kaimin comes from faculty and the administration. The phone calls and emails focus on everything from an honest misquote to anger that we pursued a story. The misquotes are easy to sort out, but blind negativity is hard to manage.

During my sophomore year — my first semester on staff — the Kaimin and news outlets across the state covered the high-profile rape trial of our university’s star quarterback. While it doesn’t shock me now, I was surprised to see the vitriol in the comments section beneath every report. The Missoula community, or at least those who commented, seemed outraged that “the media” (it’s always “the media,” as ambiguous collective nouns are easier to hate) was covering the case so closely.

People don’t like having their dirty laundry publicly aired, and oftentimes, for journalists, that’s a large part of the job. And, as Rochabrun noted, student journalists, more often than professionals, coexist in the same close-knit community as the subjects of their stories. That said, journalists understand that criticism from their community, and their subjects, is part of the job.

In my opinion, students journalists face much larger issues every day. Accessing officials and athletes remains a struggle for our paper. (Our university has an effective sports information office, and younger reporters are sometimes discouraged by the runaround.) Outside of the student newspaper, my colleagues have also expressed frustration with the demand (from teachers and their own work ethic) to treat each class assignment as a job they’re getting paid to do — which, in an underpopulated state like Montana, can mean driving halfway across the state to cover a multimedia assignment in the morning and speeding home to cover city council in the evening.

Nicole Brown, former editor-in-chief, Washington Square News, NYU

1A challenge student journalists face is producing content our peers cannot find on other outlets. As students, we should be able to do this best because we interact with the subjects of our stories every day. Being members of the group at the center of our coverage, however, can also be a challenge.

Rochabrun is right when he says student journalists have to reconcile with their affiliations to the paper and the student body. It can be difficult to remain objective while also trying to connect with our peers and increase our readership. We want other students to read our coverage, but we also know we cannot please all of them. It is not our job, however, to please everyone on our campus. Our job is to report the facts and start conversations, even if that includes some negative feedback.

Stephen Koenigsfeld, editor-in-chief, Iowa State Daily, Iowa State

1At Iowa State, we’re constantly surrounded by the feeling of “Iowa nice.” The classic niceness of holding doors open for people, defensive driving around town and the occasional “excuse me” when you’re bumped into in the hallways is very much still alive in Ames.

However, I felt a pretty strong connection to Rochabrun’s story. The problem we, the Iowa State Daily staffers, face each day with our audience is the understanding that we have to cover the bad news, too. We rarely, and I mean 1 out of 100 times, hear compliments from community members like “nice article” or “thanks for doing that story, I learned a lot.” On nearly every controversial piece, every piece on a problem within the community, we’re called out for “not supporting Iowa State.”

At a student newspaper, it needs to be very clear we are not out to make anyone look good or bad. We’re there to report what happens, fairly, completely and accurately. We won’t be perfect 100 percent of the time, but know we are always striving to be. When we mess up at the student journalist level, we learn not to make those mistakes when we enter a professional newsroom.

Sami Edge, editor-in-chief, The Emerald, University of Oregon

1The hardest part of being a student journalist is just that there’s very little room for the “student” in journalism. As students practicing journalism, we adamantly consider ourselves professionals and work hard to uphold that reputation.

Too often we’re dismissed as inferior members of the press because we’re “just students.” Yet, when errors occur, we’re chastised for failing to meet professional standards. That’s how student journalism has always been. How it should be. And how it will continue.

Though it’s incredibly difficult to balance full-time school and full-time journalism, I think it’s the hard work demanded by that balance that sets successful student journalists apart from our peers in the media industry. We’re the ones who have slaved all hours of the day to finish interviews, drafts and edits between classes and assignments. We’re the ones who recognize that our true education isn’t necessarily fulfilled in the classroom — it’s the one learned through fumbled interviews, misspellings and midnight breaking news shifts. We’re the ones determined to be working journalists, no matter the circumstance.

Like Rochabrun, I’m very familiar with the stinging criticism of my peers. In fact, the majority of audience feedback is overwhelmingly negative and it can take a definite toll on morale. Often the job feels like an uphill battle to educate a community that would gladly remain uninformed; a community that is quick to assign blame but slow to offer constructive feedback. Journalism is a job for the Don Quixote types who are too stubborn to be dissuaded by the nature of the industry. Ultimately, it’s the certainty that somewhere, no matter how quietly, your story helped improve the life of even one reader that makes it all worthwhile.

Natalie Daher, editor-in-chief, The Pitt News, University of Pittsburgh

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For students who don’t carry a press pass with their college ID, it can be tough to swallow controversial or negative stories in The Pitt News. As student journalists, our work both celebrates and criticizes aspects of a university we, too, love.

We’ve published pieces that painted students in an unfavorable light or expressed less popular opinions. Some of our student readers have showed some reluctance or discontent towards reading those stories. In many cases, those stories revealed that maybe campus leaders weren’t who they thought or a program wasn’t providing what it promised. A column may have challenged an attitude they’d long possessed.

Students sometimes forget about our role as a vital watchdog of student and administrative leaders and an important tool to aid our campus community in making decisions. By publishing those negative or controversial stories, we’re attempting to lay the groundwork in simply exposing, and ideally correcting, issues on campus.

In conversations with my own friends and peers, I’ve realized many — non-maliciously — don’t understand the power and value of student journalists’ work. Much of their views stem from membership within a generation often attaching newspapers to an antiquated product that nobody picks up anymore.

In response, on a much narrower scale, of course, I’ve found myself referencing the Washington Post’s investigation of Watergate when friends or peers warn me that journalism is dying. Journalism is not simply a medium, as some younger readers perceive, but a vehicle for necessary change and constructive dialogue. When I’m thinking about whether a headline is “too far” or a photo or cartoon fairly illustrates a story, I consider how I can defend it to students’ potential dismay. I also think of Orwell. “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.” Timelessly, Orwell was right.

Michelle Fredrickson, editor-in-chief, The Daily Evergreen, Wash. St.

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Rochabrun noted that it’s important to report fairly and objectively, even when this makes some people angry, and he’s absolutely right. It can certainly be difficult to do, but if we ducked important stories because some people may be upset by them, we wouldn’t be doing our job as journalists.

It’s a fact that not everyone is going to be happy with what the news is all the time, but even though we’re students, we need to fulfill our function as an outlet of information and report it anyway. It’s impossible to please everyone 100 percent of the time. If we did, we wouldn’t be a real newspaper.

The mindset we must find for ourselves is a difficult one for many of our peers to imagine — we must realize we aren’t just students. We are professionals and we need to hold ourselves to a standard that reflects that. As an editor, I don’t care for excuses. It’s part of that professional standard I want to hold myself to, and that I want my whole staff to hold themselves to. This is a challenge with college media specifically because the truth is, we are still learning. We don’t have our degrees yet. We haven’t finished our classes yet. We learn every day. And when we have the mindset of being professionals, when we have high standards for ourselves, we don’t let this excuse get in the way.

People often expect less of us because we’re students, and we can’t fall to that expectation. It’s a unique difficulty facing college media that we need to hold ourselves accountable, sometimes in spite of the expectations of others, in order to do the reporting that really matters. And yes, sometimes that means making people angry. But as I can say from three years of experience with my college newspaper, sometimes it’s the articles that cause some outrage that evoke real community conversation, and occasionally even change.

Steffi S. Lee, editor-in-chief, The Simpsonian, Simpson College

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Student journalists do not have an agenda against the administration or student life. Our job is to provide coverage of anything that happens among our campuses, and these days, it seems as if students and administrators both want a positive spin on every article — or else we’re deemed as the devil.

I think it’s tough for student readers to face reality because they want to stay inside a bubble where everything is positive. But, in reality, problems occur at every college across the nation. It’s even harder for administrators who actively want to recruit students and don’t want what they view as bad press hurting their efforts.

Before taking out your anger or negative emotions on student journalists, realize that what we cover comes from the campus itself. We’re not trying to call anyone out on any actions. We’re not insulting you through a media outlet. I often find it surprising that when a college media outlet gets criticized, most people call for shutting it down. But if “real-world journalists” get criticized for doing their job, everyone freaks out over how we need to stand firm and stick with freedom of the press. Why can’t college journalists get treated with the same respect? We’re all reporters and editors just doing our jobs.

Joey Stipek, assignment editor, OU Nightly, University of Oklahoma

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The most difficult part of being a student journalist is balancing classwork, personal interests outside the newsroom and student media work. Over the course of a semester, one of those aforementioned areas suffers due to the time commitment it takes to put together a publication or newscast.

In my opinion, student ire occurs from a lack of education by a college media outlet about its core mission, the role it plays in the community and what its core values are. In the beginning of last fall, The Oklahoma Daily EIC Blayklee Buchanan laid out the paper’s core mission and values to its readership. I feel when publications do that, they are explaining to readers why they are essential and relevant to their community. So, hypothetically, if one of your points is an increase in watchdog journalism focused on your student population, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone when the publication sheds light on administrative or student improprieties. In some instances, I believe a mission and value statement helps avert controversy before it can arise.

Riley Brands, editor-in-chief, The Daily Texan, University of Texas

1I think Rochabrun has essentially hit the nail on the head. While I don’t think anyone on our staff has experienced the social ostracism he describes, I’d easily venture that this latent hostility is one of the greatest challenges we face, if not the greatest. And I think this ultimately stems from confusion about, or a misunderstanding of, what a college newspaper should do.

Many, though certainly not all, students at UT seem to have this idea that the Texan should function more as a booster of UT events and UT pride than it is currently perceived as. And these aren’t just vague impressions, either — we’ve heard as much from students via surveys examining Texas Student Media, the conglomerate which houses the Texan.

The survey responses about the Texan weren’t entirely unexpected, but were in certain instances startling in their intensity. Among other problems, the interviewees noted a perceived liberal bias — even in the opinion section, where a slant in one direction or the other should actually be encouraged — as well as a general negativity strewn throughout our pages. I don’t recall if any specific instances were named, but some of the most common complaints I’ve heard and seen on our website in my time at the Texan have been about fraternity and student government stories. I imagine Rochabrun could identify with this.

There may be an additional challenge in all this for the Texan: As we understand it, we are the last large school in the country that elects its newspaper editor. Candidates for the job have to be certified by the TSM board and then run a campus-wide campaign, appearing on the same ballot with the student government presidential and vice-presidential candidates. This requires EIC candidates to make certain promises and concessions, which, at least from a political standpoint, their supporters rightly expect to be able to cash in on once they take office. I happen to think there’s still a lot of value in the elected editorship, but I fully recognize the challenges it presents.

All this to say that I understand Rochabrun’s frustrations completely. Student publications will have to find a better way of communicating with their readers, as there certainly seems to be a disconnect now.

Comments
One Response to “CMM Fellows: What’s the Hardest Part About Being a Student Journalist These Days?”
  1. David Palmer says:

    As EIC of the McNeese Contraband here in Southwest Louisiana, my biggest hurdle is funding. We are down to just myself and one other for paid staffers, and no one else on campus, not even the mass comm students, wants to work for a byline. We have to run a lot of PR crap to fill space, and that makes us look like crap, which means less advertisers, meaning funding problems, and the loop repeats.

    I don’t know what to do.

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