Next Tuesday is World Press Freedom Day. While everyone will rightly honor journalists struggling and dying overseas, it’s worth a couple of blog posts to advance the cause here at home – especially in college, which is often as media-oppressive as a Third World dictatorship.
Today: How college editors can outsmart their elders…
If you think your parents don’t understand you, try discussing journalism with your college administrators.
Here’s a weird fact: You know more about running a university than administrators know about running a newspaper. After all, you’ve interviewed them in their offices, covered their meetings, perused their memos, and analyzed their budgets.
What have they done? Dropped by one of your staff meetings when they were on your side of campus? I’m convinced some of them don’t even read a newspaper besides the one you publish.
I’ve advised a student newspaper for a dozen years. When many (but certainly not all) Student Affairs deans try to talk about journalism, they remind me of a dog tapping at an iPhone with his nose: The lovable mutt has no idea what he’s doing, but you end up paying the price.
Sadly, too many administrators don’t even know what they don’t know, and that can make them deadly to a free press. So it’s crucial that you understand them. You’ve got to deconstruct their psyches and wield that information in a rabid defense of the First Amendment. Besides, it’s fun to outsmart adults twice your age.
There are five reasons why your administration hates/misunderstands you, but only the first one is obvious…
1. You publish bad news.
Believe it or not, this is the least of your problems. Unless, of course, you act like a 12-year-old.
It’s rare that investigating a campus scandal will trigger next-day reprisals – that just draws more attention to whatever you uncovered. But administrators will jump down your throat when you pull stupid shit like this cover…
Perhaps you’ve heard about last month’s controversy at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, where the paper ran an otherwise tame story about oral sex causing HPV.
It quoted three campus health professionals and no students. But to jazz it up, the staff decided on a cover featuring a guy going down on a woman.
“I think this cover and this story were both informative and necessary,” the Spinnaker editor told a Jacksonville TV station.
He got it half right. The story is just fine. But the cover is offensive.
Not to students, of course. They can see more simulated sex on Comedy Central. But the UNF president declared the cover “crossed a decency line.” Why piss off the president over something like this? Save it for something hard-hitting. Award-worthy. Or at least well-designed.
LESSON: Just because you got freedom of the press doesn’t mean you should flaunt it. Pick your spots. Do you really want to cloak yourself in the First Amendment over an oral sex cover? Is that going to impress a hiring editor someday? (“So I see you were editor of your college paper – any First Amendment problems?” “Hell yeah, I took a brave stand and ran a cover photo of a dude eating out a chick…”)
2. You keep the First Amendment first.
To administrators, everything is negotiable. (Except, of course, FERPA.) So they’re going to think you’re being stubborn when you’re really being principled. An example…
A few years ago, Student Government on my campus decided to ban its candidates from speaking to the media until a date of its choosing. Of course, that’s illegal. Even in Venezuela, I think.
On my advice – and more importantly, that of the Student Press Law Center – the newspaper staff ignored SG and began interviewing candidates. SG leaders tattled to Student Affairs, and I got a call from an assistant dean.
“Let’s assemble all the interested parties and dialogue about this,” he said. “I’m sure we can reach a compromise.”
I replied that I appreciated his efforts, but we couldn’t compromise on such a basic First Amendment principle. If we allow SG to dictate when we could talk to candidates – and, just as importantly, when those candidates could talk to anyone else on or off campus – that would set a terrible precedent.
I was calm and polite (not like I am on this blog) because I knew the dean was just doing his job. And he was doing it quite well.
He’s trained to defuse emotional student confrontations by luring everyone into his office – neutral territory – and letting them talk it out. Then he splits the difference and everyone goes home feeling like they got something. Along the way, the students are supposed to learn about leadership and playing well with others.
This works because most conflicts that reach Student Affairs are really silly: “The Student Senate president is not letting Bill 109 go through the proper committee structure, and now more free food will be funneled to his political cronies, and we’re deeply offended by these heavy-handed tactics…”
Problem is, the newspaper staff can’t negotiate when SG’s proposals are unconstitutional. Can you imagine? “OK, we’ll surrender some of our First Amendment rights, but SG buys us a new 27-inch iMac and a Canon 5D. Deal?”
Of course, the dean was not swayed by my logic or America’s law. He told another dean – what is it with all these deans? – that I was being “uncooperative.”
So here’s what I did: I immediately cooperated on everything else and advised the staff to do the same. Canned food drive at the president’s mansion? We brought a case. Raising money for an official SG charity drive? We donated more than anyone else.
That’s our standard response to our Constitutionally driven crises. Administrators still refuse to see things our way, but at least they stop looking at us funny. Till the next crisis.
LESSON: Stick to your principles. Cave on everything else.
3. You’re impatient by design.
In the example above, the dean wanted to set that meeting for the following week. The conversation went something like this…
“Please ask the staff to refrain from interviewing until then.”
“Uh, I really can’t. They’re on deadline for the next issue, and that’s about SG elections.”
“Can’t they just write about something else until our meeting?”
“Not really. I mean, the elections are the big news peg. And besides, it’s not like we have completely edited and designed evergreen cover stories just lying around, although that would be nice, actually.”
“I don’t understand the urgency here. What’s so important it can’t wait?”
“Well, sir, this is news. The staff really can’t hold off on the news. That’s not how it works in the real world, and of course, that’s what we’re training the students for.”
“I just don’t understand why the staff has to be so rigid.”
And again, I wasn’t mad at the dean. In his world, nothing is truly urgent.
He regularly cancels and postpones his own staff meetings when the need arises. And no other extra-curricular activity he oversees has such tight deadlines as the newspaper. If SG leaders fail to pass a bill, they just do it next week. The Homecoming Committee has a deadline – once a year.
Even the student TV and radio stations can miss their broadcast schedules and no one will notice. But if the latest issue of the University Press isn’t on the racks by Wednesday morning, everyone complains. (Even though they also insist no one reads it.)
LESSON: Show, don’t tell. When you devise your annual deadline schedule with your printer, forward a copy to the dean. I always asked my dean to share it with “the university constituencies you interface with” – it always helps to learn adminispeak – so they could be aware of the deadlines for submitting story ideas. But really, I just wanted to show him how many moving parts the newspaper staff copes with.
4. You’re for real.
If student media runs right, it’s the most realistic extra-curricular activity on your campus.
Nothing else mimics the real world quite like student media. Think about it: Does the student body president graduate and run for political office? Does the Homecoming director graduate and organize parades?
If you’ve had one summer internship, it’s very likely you’ve spent more time in the private sector than any of your deans. On our campus, from the Student Affairs VP down to the dean and associate dean, none of them has ever earned a professional paycheck that didn’t have a school’s name on it.
That’s why, even though they’re adults twice your age, you shouldn’t expect them to grasp basic business concepts. Don’t try to teach them, either – to them, you’re just a punk-ass kid. You’ll need to do some journalism about your journalism.
If your dean attacks your newspaper or your newsroom, fight back by recruiting outside professionals. For instance, if Student Affairs insists your newspaper isn’t bringing in enough ad revenue because you’re just not trying hard enough – a common college canard – call up the ad directors at your local and state papers. Run the comments by them, then throw the quotes back at your dean.
That probably won’t win any hearts and minds in Student Affairs, but it does stop the madness for a little while.
LESSON: Administrators who have worked their entire lives in academia believe success is simply a matter of “wanting it more.” They tend to ignore things like market research and business models because they’ve simply never been exposed to them. Most universities run the same, with identical hierarchies. So innovation isn’t just frowned upon, it’s a foreign concept.
5. You’re not afraid.
Or you shouldn’t be. No college editor need ever fear administration. They’re Darth Vader and you’re Obi-Wan Kenobi: “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.”
Earlier this month, the editor at La Salle University in Philadelphia refused to cower from administrators who didn’t want him to publish a story about a professor hiring strippers for a business seminar.
Since La Salle is a private school, Vinny Vella – a perfect editor’s name, even better than Spider-Man’s Jonah Jameson – had none of the Constitutional protections his state-school compadres do. Didn’t stop him from being creative. He simply ran the top half of his front page blank. “Topless,” I believe he called it.
Vinny Vella is probably the most famous college editor in the country right now. When he graduates, I doubt he’ll have much trouble writing his first cover letter.
And I don’t doubt La Salle administrators were blindsided by Vella’s ballsy move.
Administrators are accustomed to ruling by intimidation. How many student body presidents have campaigned on standing up for students by standing up to administration? How many lived up to that promise?
Those administrators own a weapon of mass corruption: The letter of recommendation. Every SG leader craves a good one. Editors cringe at the thought. How embarrassing would that be? Can you imagine a Student Affairs dean writing, “Vinny Vella was an obedient editor who always promoted the school and never printed anything objectionable.”
LESSON: Few people grow braver as they grow older. Learn now how to stand up for what you believe in. You’ll have neither the time nor the willpower to do so after you graduate.
Next week: How to combat ninja censorship.