This is somewhere around the 100th opinion column I have written, though it is my first for The News-Letter. And, in moving from one paper (The University of Virginia’s The Cavalier Daily) to another, I have been thinking about the importance of independent student journalism for a well-functioning student body. This sentiment, I hope, is a timely one, as new students are becoming acclimated to Hopkins. With any luck, they will also come to appreciate the benefits created by a college newspaper.
To frame the importance of student journalism, it should be noted that college newspapers — just like commercial newspapers — face uncertain horizons. Notably, papers across the country are finding it increasingly difficult to secure advertising revenue. This has convinced many papers to shift towards fewer print editions and more online content. Yet such concessions are not perfect solutions — maintaining a website, of course, still requires some money. Other papers have used their schools’ student bodies for funding through donations or fees. In some cases, papers have faced near extinction. These challenges facing student journalism bring forth two important concepts. First, it is important that students nationwide embrace their college newspapers as unique avenues for disseminating information and enacting change among their peers. Next, students should be eager to financially help their student newspapers, if necessary.
In many ways, student journalism occupies a singular place among other kinds of media. Sure, external news sources can report on campus activities, but a college’s newspaper is the expert on its own student population. After all, who better to publish articles encapsulating the ethos of student experiences than the students themselves? A newspaper that diligently and accurately covers school happenings is able to distill down its university’s culture into useful articles and exposés. A school’s students shape its paper in different ways, yielding unique content between institutions and diverse perspectives of what matters among individual students. And, importantly, these are forums where civility, truth and evidence-backed debate are still respected. This is unlike news and opinions circulated via social media, which have a proclivity to devolve into ad hominem attacks or illogical arguments. If nothing else, student body participation in college newspapers will maintain a respectable way of effectively presenting information.
Moreover, since student newspapers are able to accurately depict student life while retaining inherently personal associations with each story, each paper is a powerful tool for producing beneficial change within a student body. This can be understood by comparing a college newspaper to a national publication. We’ve all seen mainstream news reports centering on supposedly hot-button college topics like the dangers of Greek life or the perceived hookup culture among young adults. While these stories may be informative, they often fail to impact readers on any meaningful level. Students scoff at articles that come across as speculation about fads that either do not exist or are not unique to current college life. Sweeping generalities are sometimes hard to take seriously.
A college newspaper, on the other hand, discusses events that occur specifically within the confines of a community to which most of its readers are bonded — their university. As a result, there is recognizable context behind each article. Suddenly, stories involve classmates or friends. Faces are put easily to situations and students feels more attached to everything they read. To give a relevant example, student journalism has been — and will continue to be — especially potent in publicizing a subject germane to all students: sexual assault on college campuses. Although the national media has been reporting on this subject for some time, grassroots opinion columns and news pieces by student publications have been commendably working to spread awareness by forcing students to confront the issue as it presents itself on their individual campuses. Taking an overt stance against sexual assault has grown to be more commonplace as students see their peers becoming increasingly vocal. Again, newspaper articles here can have a stronger impact than informal posts or arguments.
Thus, we come to my second point, the one about financially supporting college papers. Since student journalism can function as a necessary conduit by which students can convey their thoughts and opinions, a healthy student body should have no qualms about helping its school paper raise money. Students need a university-centered forum to cover and comment on their own lives without restrictions (remember that a financially independent student paper can function unconstrained by the wills of any administrators). Otherwise, an important source of criticism, information spreading and enlightening debate may become endangered in the not-so-distant future. I’d say preventing that from happening is worth a few bucks each.