As the new school year settles in, many youths across the country both at the high school and collegiate level are taking up the mantle of student journalists — that is, if they have the opportunity to do so. While a 2011 Kent State University Center for Scholastic Journalism study found that a strong 64 percent of high schools had student newspapers and the Pew Research Center estimated in 2013 that about 1,600 U.S. colleges and universities have newspapers, many do not, especially over a year into the coronavirus pandemic that has put many of their professional counterparts out of business.
Student newspapers at both the high school and collegiate level are important parts of the country’s overall media landscape, as they not only function as places where those wishing to pursue journalism as a profession can hone their skills, but they often break news local papers don’t or can’t, especially as the amount of news deserts (communities without a local newspaper) increase, as well as those covered by ghost newspapers, which the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism describes as such:
“As hundreds of small weeklies and dozens of dailies vanished from the U.S. news landscape in recent years, thousands of other dailies and weeklies became shells, or ‘ghosts,’ of their former selves. Many of these papers are still published — sometimes under the same name as in the past — but the quality, quantity and scope of their editorial content are significantly diminished. Routine government meetings are not covered, for example, leaving citizens with little information about proposed tax hikes, local candidates for office or important policy issues that must be decided.”
This is not to say that we should reasonably expect student newspapers to fill in the gaps left by papers on the professional level, but the overall nationwide receding of local news coverage combined with student papers’ hyper-local focus on their school communities and the places around them give them unique opportunities to provide coverage no one else is offering. During COVID-19 especially, college newspapers have provided invaluable firsthand coverage of the coronavirus pandemic on their respective campuses, as while many of these schools have had to go remote at several points during the pandemic, causing other student-run organizations to cease operations, many wonderful student publications have found ways to push forward amid the adversity of the virus.
“While the pandemic economy has devastated the local news business, there remains a cadre of small newspapers that are more energized than ever, producing essential work from the center of the nation’s newest coronavirus hot spots,” The Washington Post’s Elahe Izadi reported last year. “Those would be college newspapers, whose student journalists have been kept busy breaking news of campus outbreaks, pushing for transparency from administrators and publishing scathing editorials about controversial reopening plans. ... Student-run newspapers have been reporting about the prevalence of COVID-19 at fraternity and sorority houses, in campus residence halls and among student athletes.”
Later in the article, Izadi interviewed Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, who made an excellent point on what makes student reporting effective and valuable to their communities especially during the pandemic:
“They’re the ones who are going to get the invites to parties, and they’re the ones whose friends are going to be reporting symptoms, and they’re following all the right people on social media, so they know first when there’s an outbreak or when there are unsafe conditions.”
Student newspapers are not only important because they serve as a place to train tomorrow’s journalists, but they share the responsibility of keeping the public informed on the world around them while holding those in power accountable, which is absolutely critical to maintaining democracy.
I was lucky enough to be able to serve three and a half years on my college’s newspaper — The Beacon at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, which has managed to produce its weekly print paper during the pandemic when in-person classes were permitted. It changed the trajectory of my life, as I was exposed to a field for which I have love and passion. And through it, I’ve met many wonderful people who have either also entered the field in some way or carried with them key lessons in news production and news literacy that you can only get by participating in the newsgathering process — I have a firm belief that if every high schooler took at least one newswriting class, the epidemic of fake news online would be nowhere near severe as it is today.
Student journalism deserves our support and encouragement, especially as the pandemic provides a vital need for accurate reporting and critical thinking.