The Daily Northwestern (DN) is on fire, and under it. The Associated Collegiate Press, based in Nashville, recently awarded the daily the Pacemaker Award, an honor bestowed on the top 25 campus publications in the country by delegates from America’s major newspapers. Still, not everyone on campus is as enthused as the people in Tennessee.
A quick disclaimer: the DN is a shining example of campus journalism—I’m using it as a case study because its staff was especially willing to talk to me, and editorial rules discourage me from commenting on the trials and tribulations of the paper you’re holding in your hand right now (or reading online).
The DN has been attacked by students for questioning the logic behind the recent addition of a “global and diverse cultures” requirement for incoming entrants to Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Just like Harvard’s own Foreign Cultures Core, this new requirement is designed to give journalism students international perspective.
But when the editorial section of the DN asked what was to stop Jewish students from taking Jewish culture classes and African-Americans from studying African-American culture—much like Korean students can fulfill their FC requirement with “Korean Cultural Identities”— many students responded with angry letters.
If you read the letters to the editor section of any campus newspaper, you’re bound to find controversy over news coverage and editorial opinion—the DN is no different. In fact, it is probably often better about avoiding controversy with students and administrators than a certain Cambridge campus daily. But mining for the downsides and mistakes of campus newspapers can hide their real triumphs. At Northwestern, a seven-part series last year highlighted funding gaps in the university’s mental health system, leading administrators to add funding and employees. But though the DN’s series on mental health was certainly at the forefront of effective campus reporting, it doubtless benefited from something that many of the DN’s other stories and editorials normally don’t: time.
Many of the news stories at the DN are assigned the day before they have to be written. Though the DN’s staff editorials are carefully constructed to represent a consensus opinion, green editorialists are sometimes stuck with the responsibility of putting this consensus on paper. As Elaine Helms, the DN’s managing editor, told me, for every editorial “you have space constraints and the limitations of the people writing the editorials.” It’s true. Campus newspapers are run by students, just like you and me—students who have midterms and papers and the occasional significant other.
In the frenetic environment of campus newspapers like the DN, noble goals like impartiality, exact diction and fully nuanced editorial opinions can sometimes fall by the wayside when the writer has a ten-page paper due the next day. School commitments hurt campus reporting in other ways besides the time constraints they impose, too. Every year the most veteran reporters at every campus newspaper participate in something called “graduation.” And during the year, class takes up the morning and early afternoon of most days, so much of campus reporting is done in the late afternoon when some sources are unreachable. The next time you see a news story that doesn’t cover all the angles, it might be because one angle already left for his retreat in Lake Geneva. Campus newspapers have systems to allow reporters to work on days when class is light, but you can only do so much.
So let’s add it all up. Campus newspapers like the DN are staffed by time- and sleep-deprived rotating volunteer students who are charged with producing around ten thousand words of accurate, proofread stories and controversial editorials every day. At four in the morning, when the presses start up, the instant historical registers for campuses across America are frozen in time, errors and all.
What I’m trying to say is that while it’s always open season on criticizing the coverage and opinions of campus newspapers, there’s likely no systematic bias that rules any of them. Editorial opinions may lean one way or the other, but campus reporting is done by scores of people sharing little more than an interest in journalism and a lack of sufficient time to practice it to fully professional standards.
It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. And at Northwestern and other campuses, for all their faults, students do it pretty damn well.
Alex Slack ’06 is a history concentrator living in Leverett House. His column appears regularly.