Marcelo Rochabrun, the outgoing editor-in-chief of the Daily Princetonian at Princeton University, recently declared in a goodbye letter to readers: “It’s hard being a student journalist at Princeton these days.”
The chief challenge he said “Prince” staffers regularly face is criticism and even threats from fellow students — not administrators, alumni, faculty or nearby community members, but students — who are angry about a story.
Building off Rochabrun’s rundown and the minor Internet buzz it spurred, I reached out to 13 top editors and reporters at student media across the U.S.
I specifically 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 the responses they shared with me. (To see their longer responses, you can read the original post on College Media Matters.)
“The 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.”
“The 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.”
“An 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.”
“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.”
“I 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.”
“A 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.”
“At 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.”
“The 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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“I 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. … Student publications will have to find a better way of communicating with their readers, as there certainly seems to be a disconnect now.”
You can read the original post with longer responses on College Media Matters.
Dan Reimold, Ph.D., is a college journalism scholar who has written and presented about the student press throughout the U.S. and in Southeast Asia. He is an assistant professor of journalism at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, where he also advises The Hawk student newspaper. He is the author of the textbook Journalism of Ideas (Routledge, 2013) and maintains the student journalism industry blog College Media Matters.