Once, I dreamed of an independent Signal.
The Signalis the student newspaper for Georgia State University, and once, I was its managing editor, facing a perplexing pickle: out yonder, in Athens, the largest university in the state had an independent student newspaper, publishing daily, while in the midst of Atlanta, the state’s second largest university trudged along with a once-a-week rag still suckling (somewhat) from the school’s tete.
We were nearly as large, faster growing, with (one would think) far more to write about than that other school based on simple geography. My office was a block from the Capitol, a few blocks from the Georgia Dome and Turner Field, and immersed in a pretty spectacular music, art and entertainment scene. Athens is alright, sure, but … come on! This is ATLANTA!
So, we did what we could. We launched a Web site. That was a start. We recruited writers (and in the process found that our J-school was evidently dearly lacking; many of these kids couldn’t write a lede or conduct and interview to save their lives and I ended up hosting what amounted to remedial journalism classes for staff in our office). I overlooked insufficiencies, sure. My office manager was running a reasonably lucrative drug dealing operation from our reception area, so what? He was punctual and always polite to visitors and callers.
I tried to make the most of what we had at our disposal. I pushed through my plan to spin off our arts and entertainment section into its own publication – the Urbanite – and later discovered that I’d actually managed to spin off one of the main reasons people even picked up the paper (besides the crime reports). Live and learn. I recruited and meticulously trained a reporter who was going to extensively cover crime on campus. She wrote an article about the prevalence of marijuana on campus and where the major supply points were. It was an incredibly popular issue, being that it featured a large image of a pot leaf on the front (free poster?) and that it amounted to a guide on where one could make his or her illicit purchases. Said well-trained crime reporter subsequently died in a car wreck, on the week of Sept. 11, 2001, which led to a great deal of confusion and rumor that we’d lost a writer to the terrorist attacks who had, in fact, actually driven into a building herself. (Still, I maintain that it would have been in poor chase to try and qualify this fact in the memorial we ran on the front of the paper. We still remember you, Tracy. Or Traci. Or Tracie…)
Yeah, OK, so I wasn’t the best of editors. But that’s kind of what I’m getting at: I was learning. I was already working in the newsroom for the Douglas County Sentinel – a daily paper – when I walked in to the Signal office for the first time. I had real-world experience, but I had a great deal to learn.
Student newspapers have dual roles. For one, they are genuine guardians of the student body. Along with all my many missteps, I still managed to be a part of stories that closed a classroom building that, it was discovered after we looked into it, might fall down in a strong wind, as well as coverage that ousted Student Government Association officials for corruption and perversion and overturned SGA elections.
OK, so I moderated a debate in which I called a state representative’s daughter a whore (from the podium) and was chased by the Secret Service after knocking down a photographer in front of Jimmy Carter and grabbing Al Gore’s leg for support. I once stepped on Shirley Franklin, who was then the mayor of Atlanta. I also stepped on the foot of Mark Taylor, who was the lieutenant governor. Mistakes were made.
That is the other role of student newspapers: they’re a laboratory to make said mistakes. They’re the place where it doesn’t hurt as bad when we fall. It’s a whole lot better to learn the skills needed to conduct an interview on the staff of a student newspaper than it is when you get your first “real world” writing gig. That’s sort of the payoff – one gets to learn, and one gets to guard.
In Athens, the esteemed Red and Black has taken a turn, and a dramatic one, from being a student-centric publication to a more professional – and, perhaps, more polished – one. Final decisions regarding content and design have been taken from students and placed in the hands of professionals. This, effectively, means it is no longer a student publication.
In response, editor in chief Polina Marinova and her staff of editors, designers, photographers and top reporters have walked out, establishing a new organization called the “Red & Dead.”
Godspeed! It’s hugely important that you stand up for your morals and take responsibility for the publication you produce. What’s the point of being an editor in chief in name only? No, with this move, the board of the Red & Black have gone from helming a student newspaper to a traditional media outlet run with cheap student labor (as opposed to the normal cheap labor that produces the rest of the nation’s newspapers).
I wish you the best, but I implore caution. You’re truly independent now. That means it’s going to hurt when you fall.
And, I’m sorry, you will fall. We all do. So, please, don’t make student journalists look any worse than I already have.