The North Wind vs. Northern Michigan School Officials: ‘A Battle for the Soul of This Campus’

This is the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad irony of the student press: The better they do — and the harder they push — the less support they receive from their own schools. On spec, it’s insane. There are literally NO other academic programs, student organizations or sports teams at colleges and universities worldwide that are criticized, threatened and attacked when their quality improves. And yet, of course, viewed through a wider-angle lens, it’s also perfectly understandable. Because when student journalists do well, their school’s weaknesses, weirdness and full-on failings are often exposed.

Exhibit A for today: The North Wind at Northern Michigan University. Under a new adviser and gung-ho editorial board, the student newspaper has upped its aggressive A-game in recent months. Instead of crafting “cupcake stories,” the pub has been digging, exploring, asking tough questions and filing FOIA requests. Has the pub’s reporting been perfect? Nah. But the first draft of history never is (and newsflash, neither are faculty and administrators).

Bottom line, the North Wind’s overall mission and many of its individual stories as of late have been laudably on-point and newsworthy. And so, of course, school officials are putting up roadblocks instead of offering their full cooperation. Sigh.

1A portion of a North Wind editorial last month:

“Students have been intimidated for the stories they have pursued and told consequences would be harsh. This is a violation of the United States’ founding law. The gravity of this situation cannot be underestimated. Our job as journalists is to report on stories that are relevant to the student body, not what the administration thinks we should write. We work diligently to make sure our sources are credible and our facts are accurate. The majority of our stories reflect NMU in a positive light — on the whole, we advertise for the university’s events and pursuits. The moment a story surfaces that the administration feels negatively toward, or the moment we use very basic journalistic tools like the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), we are criticized.”

Building atop those sentiments, a new Detroit News piece lays out a rather detailed list of real and perceived school-initiated faux pas and threats undercutting the practice of journalism at NMU.

A snippet: “In December, the paper sought the emails of seven university administrators to see if there was an organized attempt to intimidate the editors. The 1,073 pages of messages don’t show collusion but reveal an increasingly contentious relationship between an upstart newspaper and a school unused to such scrutiny.”

The North Wind’s faculty adviser Cheryl Reed describes the in-fighting between North Wind editors and school leaders as nothing less than “a battle for the soul of this campus.” The paper’s editor-in-chief similarly shares: “I’m a 20-year-old student. It feels like David and Goliath.” Yowza.

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After reading and rereading the piece, I’m left with a pair of questions:

1) When a student media outlet plans to amp up its investigatory and editorial aggressiveness, along with a staff orientation, should faculty and school officials also be given a primer on what’s about to befall them and how they are legally and ethically required to respond? (Because the NMU gang appears to be in need of a crash course in media response 101.)

2) The former North Wind editor-in-chief tells the Detroit News that she moved on in part due to the stress of being a bull’s-eye for the school’s criticism of the paper. The current EIC admits she similarly thinks about how much easier her undergrad experience would be without having to run the pub. How can we do a better job within collegemediatopia at-large of protecting student journos not only legally but mentally and emotionally?

To wrap up, North Wind staffers simply want to do good journalism. By attempting to railroad them, school officials have done nothing but invite more scrutiny and bad press.

Oh, the irony.

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