Weekend News Editor and Columnist

Mitchell Chapman is The Eagle’s weekend news editor, as well as a columnist. Mitchell Chapman has been with The Eagle since 2016. He is a former editor of The MCLA Beacon and was a Berkshires Week intern in 2017.

6thgradersGotoMCLA

Middle-school students visit the newsroom of The Beacon, the student newspaper of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, during a 2017 tour of the college.

One year ago, I wrote a column urging people to support student newspapers and the student journalists that staff them, noting their critical on-campus reporting of the COVID-19 pandemic and how they often provide unique reporting no one else is offering, especially in “news desserts” (places without a local newspaper).

With a new school year just underway in which students across the country are contemplating joining a student newspaper, I’d like to renew that call for support.

“Nationwide, school newspapers have weighed in on local conflicts like classroom mask mandates and school-board wars; reported on hot-button issues for students like the redesign of the SAT; and even investigated allegations of sexual misconduct by teachers,” Andrea Gabor wrote for Bloomberg earlier this year.

She notes that the nationwide conflict of what can be taught in public schools has made student newspapers particularly prevalent: “While principals and teachers find themselves in the crosshairs of the culture wars, and parents battle over what should be taught in the schools, the young people who are most affected by these debates have the best chance of cutting through the acrimony and having their voices heard,” she writes, while also acknowledging the fact that high school newspapers are often at a greater risk of being censored thanks to a 1988 Supreme Court decision that gave schools discretion to censor student speech “for legitimate pedagogical concerns.” Some states passed laws pushing back against this, Massachusetts being one of them.

Student newspapers are also an excellent way for students to learn news literacy in practice by getting an inside look of how the news is reported on, edited and packaged for readers. It’s also a great outlet for self-expression and critical thinking.

“Student journalists practice formulating arguments and expressing them in written language,” Margaret Renki wrote in a recent and excellent guest opinion piece in The New York Times on the censorship of a student newspaper in Northwest High School in Grand Island, Neb. “They are obliged to recognize that different people hold different opinions, and they practice listening closely, word for word, to what other people say. They learn how essential it is for every word they write to be true. And they do it all in a real-world context that no ordinary class assignment can approximate.”

Changing times

The biggest challenge facing student newspapers, like their professional counterparts, is changing times. In particular, student publications and the curriculum that often supplements them must make tough calls on how much time in the classroom and in the field to dedicate to the traditional print format and multimedia digital formats, though it is important to note that the fundamentals of journalism and good reporting remains unchanged.

Taylor Blatchford, who writes The Lead, Poynter’s newsletter that gives advice for student journalists, has some keen insights on how student newspapers have moved away from print, citing the fact that the Pew Research Center in 2021 found that only three percent of U.S. adults ages 18 to 29 prefer to get their news from print publications; the majority of people in that age group prefer to get their news from digital outlets.

“Your core audience is probably on Instagram and TikTok and Twitter. They’re probably not on Facebook. And as painful as it might be to admit, they’re probably not picking up many of the print papers you distribute around campus. ... Think about that number again — 3 percent. This means that if you’re focusing most of your time and energy on your print publication, you’re ignoring the preferences of nearly all of your student audience. No matter how often you publish in print, your student publication needs to have a workable website and a presence on the major social media platforms.”

Print, however, still has its place in a changing digital world, as is evident by the continued presence of roughly 6,000 American newspapers nationwide.

“The country had 6,377 newspapers at the end of May, down from 8,891 in 2005,” The Associated Press’ David Bauder reported in July, citing a study from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications. “While the pandemic didn’t quite cause the reckoning that some in the industry feared, 360 newspapers have shut down since the end of 2019, all but 24 of them weeklies serving small communities.”

Because of this, student journalists must learn to become adaptable to changing news consumption habits and the shifts in the industry they cause.

This is something my journalism professors at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts stressed. One conversation I had with Professor Joseph Ebiware as an underclassman comes to mind.

“This is not sacred,” he said, motioning to a print newspaper in his hand.

He was correct. That soundbite has followed me throughout my career, and that notion deeply informed my learning experience at MCLA.

I wasn’t sure what opportunities would open up for me or where the journalism field would be in the near future, so I geared my studies toward getting experience in as many parts of the field as possible, which paid off.

If you are a current student, I couldn’t recommend more joining your student newspaper for at least one semester. You might find a career, but at the very least you will gain an invaluable insider perspective on how the news is reported. It’s the best crash course in news literacy I can imagine.

Mitchell Chapman is The Eagle’s weekend news editor, as well as a columnist.