Commentary: Campus publications continue to forge paths

For college students, student-run university newspapers and other university publications serve as a constant, always readily available as a source of community information and a snapshot of the campus experience.

But student publications, small and large, provide more than just a slate of stories: They offer students a place to learn professional skills while serving a community and upholding the accountability of journalists and the university. The Daily Trojan’s 100th anniversary provides a special opportunity to understand how student publications have played an indelible role in American history and why they will continue to break important stories and produce groundbreaking journalists.

College publications have a storied history in the fabric of American discourse, beginning in 1799 with the publication of the Dartmouth Gazette (now called The Dartmouth and considered to be the first American college newspaper). Several newspapers from Rutgers, Yale, Columbia and other universities followed suit, and the world of college newspapers never looked back.

Today’s scene of multimedia-integrated, social media savvy publications might appear to be a far cry from that era, but the foundations remain unchanged. Though standards might vary from newsroom to newsroom, the nation’s top college papers adhere to strict journalistic principles, including fairness, accuracy and ethical publishing, and attempt to report on critical stories that affect the student body and the community surrounding the campus.

It’s clear how a genuine pursuit of journalistic excellence has succeeded, as college publications have often been at the forefront of some of the most important stories in history. The Daily Trojan, for one, was granted the first interview with Richard Nixon after his resignation in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. More recently, the Daily Trojan’s reporting from the heart of the 1992 L.A. riots gave the broader L.A. community critical information in a time when chaos reigned supreme.

But a student publication does more than report stories: It trains generation after generation of journalists for the realities of a professional career in the field. Some of the finest journalists in the business cut their teeth at college newspapers and numerous alumni have racked up accolades in their professional careers.

“The experience is invaluable — it is a place to learn your craft because journalism is one of those jobs that you can only learn by doing,” says Steve Padilla, former Daily Trojan editor in chief and current assistant national editor at the Los Angeles Times. “In a lot of ways, the standards of working at a student newspaper and a bigger publication are the same. The goal is always professional standards.”

But in spite of striving for professionalism, student publications often face harsh attacks and unfair assumptions regarding their merit, integrity and value. Sometimes these attacks come from the top-down, as with what happened last month at the University of Georgia’s independent student newspaper, The Red and Black.

The paper’s board of directors attempted to install an “editorial director” to check off on all published content and hired professional staffers with veto power over students’ editorial decisions. The board’s memo also attempted to influence the type of content permissible, specifically in regard to what it defined as “bad” content (“content that catches people or organizations doing bad things”).

Such blatant efforts to tailor an independent student publication to the expectations of an institution aren’t new, but college newspapers also receive attacks from other angles, often from individuals who do not understand the sheer time and effort that goes into the accurate, fair reporting and writing of stories, especially when the subject material becomes negative in nature.

“There’s a lot of forces in a university that work against candor and honest confrontation: alumni pride, people who don’t want to read about controversy, those who are more concerned about the institution’s image,” says Geneva Overholser, director of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “It’s easy for people to also dismiss student journalism as being invalid or unprofessional. But in many cases, it’s the students who know and push to tell the truth, whatever it may be.”

The doubt in student publications is a shame, considering that student-run newspapers now need more support than ever in light of challenges facing journalism programs across the country.

“Journalism classes are being crowded out by the urgency to drill students on core standardized-testing subjects,” Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, wrote in The New York Times. “And image-conscious school administrators are removing some of the profession’s best teachers in retaliation for student writing that’s considered excessively negative or controversial.”

Though USC students are lucky to have a thriving journalism school on campus, LoMonte’s points reassert that student publications stand as some of the last strongholds of journalism education. It’s clear that supporting student publications means more than just acknowledging the hard work of student journalists; it means standing up for the basic journalistic tenets of truth, fairness, accuracy and ethics in a time when much of media discourse relies on hyperbole and subjective reasoning.

No one can predict the future of media, especially considering the many transitions the world of journalism now faces. Still, one thing remains obvious: Campus publications, including the Daily Trojan, will undoubtedly continue to forge a path for journalistic excellence in the decades to come.