2015 was a rollercoaster year for college media, with some significant threats to students’ press freedom, several tragedies and some uplifting victories. It was a time for resilience and resourcefulness and students and their advisers used the courts, legislative remedies and the power of the press to address the some of the challenges they faced.
MOURNING TWO LEADERS
The college media community was rocked by the unexpected deaths of two leaders in the field. On Aug. 21, Dan Reimold, widely regarded as the pre-eminent scholar and commentator on college media, died of a seizure disorder at the age of 34.
An assistant professor of journalism at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Reimold had rock star status in the college media world and he brought news of student media to the larger journalism community through his College Media Matters website and in dispatches for Poynter, MediaShift, USA TODAY College, College Media Review, The Huffington Post and other publications. He was the author of two books, “Sex and the University: Celebrity, Controversy, and a Student Journalism Revolution” (Rutgers University Press) and “Journalism of Ideas: Brainstorming, Developing, and Selling Stories in the Digital Age” (Taylor & Francis). Reimold advised the student newspaper The Hawk at St. Joseph’s and was seen as a mentor, visionary and friend by college media students and advisers around the country.
“A few months out since his passing we’re still realizing just how much he did to advocate for student media, for the student press, and how he managed to do it so optimistically,” said
Kelley Lash, president of College Media Association. “We miss that voice, not just because we miss him, but because we miss someone talking about our issues and getting people excited about digital media and what students are doing with it.”
The college media community also lost Bonnie Thrasher, vice president of College Media Association, who died unexpectedly on March 31 at the age of 53. Thrasher was a well-loved journalism professor at Arkansas State University and adviser to the student newspaper, The Herald, which put out a special edition tribute honoring her life and legacy.
FREE SPEECH VS. FREE PRESS
Student protesters usually see the media as a way to publicize their cause and spread their message far and wide, but this year an odd trend emerged: Demonstrators began to shut reporters out.
It started at the University of Missouri where months of student and faculty protests over racial tensions and other issues forced President Timothy M. Wolfe to resign and R. Bowen Loftin, the chancellor of the flagship campus in Missouri, to step down to a less prominent position.
On Nov. 9, Tim Tai, a University of Missouri student on assignment from ESPN, went to photograph the demonstrators celebrating their victory at the tent city they had set up in a public area of the Columbia campus. But activists from Concerned Student 1950, the student and faculty group that organized the protests, threatened and forcibly blocked Tai and student videographer Mark Schierbecker from shooting photos and video. “Hey hey, ho ho, reporters have got to go,” several protesters shouted. Schierbecker’s video of the altercation went viral, prompting debate in classrooms and newsrooms around the nation about the clash between two freedoms – speech and press — protected by the First Amendment.
Some of the most vociferous comments caught in the video came from Melissa Click, an assistant professor of mass media at the university’s School of Communications. “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here?” Click shouted to fellow protesters. “I need some muscle over here.” Click later apologized to the campus community and to “journalists at large” for blocking Tai and a cameraman who were trying to document the protest. She resigned her courtesy appointment at the university’s School of Journalism, but she remains a professor in the School of Communications.
Statement by Melissa Click, Assistant Professor of the Department of Communication, Regarding Carnahan Quad Protests pic.twitter.com/FJPUJUL5b3
— MU College of A&S (@MUCollegeofAS) November 10, 2015
“I have reviewed and reflected upon the video of me that is circulating, and have written this statement to offer both apology and context for my actions,” Click wrote in a statement. “…I regret the language and strategies I used, and sincerely apologize to the MU campus community, and journalists at large, for my behavior, and also for the way my actions have shifted attention away from the students’ campaign for justice.”
Earlier this month Tai was named the first recipient of the First Amendment Defender Award, sponsored by the Radio Television Digital News Foundation.
Apparently inspired by the Missouri protesters, student and faculty activists at Smith College barred media from attending a Nov. 18 sit-in to protest racial discrimination on campus. The Smith activists said media were not allowed into the event unless they expressed explicit solidarity with the protest movement, according to MassLive, a local news and information site serving Western Massachusetts.
“We are asking that any journalists or press that cover our story participate and articulate their solidarity with black students and students of color,” a student organizer named Alyssa Mata-Flores told the publication. “By taking a neutral stance, journalists and media are being complacent in our fight.”
ADVISERS UNDER FIRE
In other attacks on student press freedom, several college newspaper advisers this year were fired or removed from their positions. Cheryl Reed of Northern Michigan University, James Compton of Muscatine Community College in Iowa, Michael Kelley of Fairmont State University in West Virginia and Loni McKown of Butler University in Indiana all lost their advising jobs this year and several of them claimed their firings came in retaliation for students publishing unflattering news reports about their universities. In November 2014, Patricia Roberts of Delta State University in Mississippi, also lost her job and in April 2015 the state’s higher education governing board voted to eliminate the salary for the program’s sole professor and cease university funding to print the 83-year-old student newspaper, The Delta Statement, according to the Student Press Law Center.
“It was an unusually bad year to be a journalism adviser,” said Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte. “I can’t remember when we have had as many as half a dozen advisers pushed out of their jobs in what seems to be censorship. All of our information is anecdotal but it certainly seems like colleges are quicker to pull the trigger on removing advisers and they are more blatant and unapologetic about doing it.”
In the case of Muscatine Community College, current and former members of the student newspaper The Calumet filed a First Amendment lawsuit against several of the school’s top administrators, alleging that officials had allowed faculty and staff members to intimidate and harass student journalists. A federal district court ruled against the plaintiffs in September, but students and recent graduates had already decided to launch a new publication.
Originally, the students hoped to raise $500 to put out one issue but in three days more than 200 people donated $5,000 on the group’s GoFundMe site. The staff, made up of previous Calumet staffers, launched The Spotlight over the summer.
In response to the actions against student newspapers and their advisers, several national journalism organizations came together in August to announce a new program aimed at supporting college journalists who come under fire. “The J-Team” draws on the combined resources of the Student Press Law Center, Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters & Editors to provide hands-on investigative reporting training and ongoing mentoring and guidance to college journalists whose institutions have used their authority to shut down independent watchdog news coverage, according to a news release issued by the SPLC.
“Universities and high schools throughout the nation have aggressively muzzled students with the aim of creating a generation of sheep,” David Cuillier, Freedom of Information Committee chair for SPJ, said in the press release. “We cannot sit back. These students are the future of American journalism, and the J-Team has their backs. I pity the fools who mock the First Amendment.”
In a victory for the student press, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple in April signed The John Wall New Voices Act, which ensures the free-speech rights of journalism students in North Dakota public schools and colleges. The law passed unanimously in the state legislature and went into effect in August.
The law protects the rights of journalists in public colleges and high schools from censorship, reversing the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. With passage of the law North Dakota became the eighth state to enact legislation protecting high school journalists, and the third state to protect college journalists, according to Steven Listopad, an assistant professor and student media director at Valley City State University who helped write the legislation.
Supporters of the John Wall New Voices Act are already planning to reintroduce protections for private college journalists in the next session in 2017.
And now efforts are afoot to introduce similar legislation in other states.
“There are now 20 states in some stage of putting together a grassroots organization to pass student press rights legislation,” said LoMonte, who shares news of legislative progress on the New Voices USA website. “New Jersey, Maryland, Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota seem to be the furthest along.”
LoMonte said it’s been difficult to get legislation like this off the ground for several years because so much attention has focused on cyberbullying and sexting. “There was this sense that kids were vicious, untrustworthy predators. It was hard to have a conversation about first amendment rights in schools.”
With the unanimous and relatively easy passage of the North Dakota law, LoMonte thinks the time is right for a nationwide student press freedom movement.
“If we can knock down the dominoes in New York, Michigan and Illinois, the rest of the dominoes will fall,” he said.
CUTTING BACK ON PRINT
Continuing a trend from the last few years, a number of student publications in 2015 reduced frequency of print newspapers, ditched print altogether or came up with a new hybrid format that included power-charged websites, mobile products and news magazines.
In August The Daily Wildcat at the University of Arizona cut back print publication from daily to three times a week, redesigned the newspaper to a tabloid format and relaunched its website, moving to a more responsive design that plays well on mobile devices. Jessie Webster, the editor-in-chief, shared her vision for the publication in an audio interview with Dan Reimold last summer.
The University Daily Kansan at the University of Kansas also cut back this fall, from four days to two. Facing heavy debt, the Montana Kaimin at the University of Montana also stopped printing four days a week in April, moving to a once-a-week printing schedule. In the fall The Round Up at New Mexico State University ended its weekly print student newspaper and launched Oncore, a monthly magazine. A group of student reporters went around campus to get student reaction to the new publication.
“This was a student-driven initiative, but one endorsed by the professional staff of OU Student Media and by (university) President (David) Boren,” Nick Jungman, director of OU Student Media, wrote in an announcement on Facebook.
“The students are excited to remake the increasingly anemic print edition into something that is more substantial — and something that is much different from what they do online. We remain committed to a print edition, but we want and need a print edition that is more than a dump of the stories we broke online in the past 24 hours. Our students are eager to build that.”
In an effort to combat some of the doom and gloom that college media advisers faced this year, Nicki Boudreaux, director of student publications Nicholls State University, launched the #WhyIAdvise Movement in early November.
“With advisers under fire, the media landscape changing, the bureaucratic red tape of higher education, and the general challenges of being a student media adviser, we sometimes forget WHY we chose this career,” she wrote in an announcement to members of College Media Association. “With the support of new CMA President Kelley Lash, I am collecting adviser success stories and starting a movement of positivity that will, hopefully, give us all a little recharge when we need it most.”
— Nicki Boudreaux (@NickiBoudreaux) December 12, 2015
In the first month after the movement launched, advisers shared photos, jokes and anecdotes about why they love their jobs.
Lash said the #WhyIAdvise initiative helps her appreciate the good days and lifts her spirit on bad days.
“My students are fabulous but this reminds me to celebrate them more publicly than I usually do. It’s a way to focus on the good stuff.”
Rachele Kanigel is an associate professor of journalism at San Francisco State University, where she advises Golden Gate Xpress, the student newspaper, and teaches reporting, writing and online journalism classes. She was a daily newspaper reporter for 15 years and has freelanced for magazines and websites, including U.S. News and World Report, TIME and Prevention. She has directed summer study-abroad programs for ieiMedia, the Institute for Education in International Media, and is the author of The Student Newspaper Survival Guide. Follow her at @jourprof.