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Wither student media?

Is this drought a Suffolk-specific problem or a much larger crisis? And if the answer is the latter, what is holding an increasing amount of students back from being passionate about — and getting involved with — established college media?

 “Are Fewer Students Passionate About College Media?” Dan Reimold, College Media Matters

When I worked in student journalism I saw a drought in college media. Fewer students came in and many were badly informed about being a journalist post-1990.

Participation in campus media outlets is dropping for more than one reason.

In a sense Lauren Rabaino was right about when she talked about professors being behind the times. It is a big issue, but not the only one in the classroom. The problem isn’t just out-of-touch professors, even those professors who were more on top of things found that the structure of higher ed (textbook selections, syllabus approval, chair politics, and so much more) was highly resistant to building an educational program that changed as fast as the field.

University politics are antithetical to teaching fast-changing professions.

When I was a student media professional I saw the college media office unable to work with particular subsets of the journalism program because… ‘politics’. In the end, the entire electronic journalism academic program basically got downsized around the time I left Mason. It’s clear that even if professors figure out what being a modern journalist means, universities don’t get it.

It is incredibly easy and often more effective to do it yourself.

The other big problem is many people have taken on Lauren’s advice. With college journalism orgs suffering dropping ad dollars and funding, the students who do devote their time to college media find themselves underpaid, with huge workloads, and dependent on their flakier peers, often taking up the slack. It’s not a healthy proposition.

With the web, anyone who is truly passionate about journalism can roll their own outlet, promote it and run it for four years with not that much effort. Even better, if they enjoy it, or create something worthwhile, they can take it with them.

At George Mason University we launched a WordPress Multisite portal to try to capture and support that behavior with Student Media’s resources. We saw and helped a lot of young journalists self-start. We were able to leverage the platform to promote student content and find additional contributors. Even then we found ourselves competing with students who wanted to go it alone. Not to mention losing potential contributors who were willing to write for free or less on a larger scale outlet like Patch, College Candy or Huffington Post.

What we did with and Connect2Mason was only possible with an abnormally high level of tech knowledge in the student media space at GMU (not just myself, we had a dedicated hardware/servers person and a number of really amazing technically adept students). Even the expertise we had isn’t really enough to take the scale of operations college newspapers enjoyed 15 years ago and move it to the internet. Most universities don’t have that much tech in their student media units and either can’t afford it or are unwilling to pay for it.

Other units have more money and fewer students can afford to work for free.

On the flip side, the growing student life professional sphere usually does have those tech people. Those offices are also more willing to let students have an impact in operations. Folks working in student support units almost always have larger pools of money to pull from and (thanks to content marketing) have many slots to support journalism-like behavior. Because of that, many of these students may have gone in with the full intent of becoming journalists, but been lured away by the promise of something that can actually keep them out of debt.

Which brings forward another component: the rising cost of higher education. Increasing student debt means students worry more about making money and look for higher paying opportunities from day one on campus. Usually college media isn’t even funded to pay competitively against other on-campus jobs . As far as I know, the funding continues to dry up. It isn’t a lack of passion, but an increase in practicality for many students. Especially when student journalists don’t see ‘making the newspaper profitable’ as part of their job.

Peter Kaplan

Was Peter Kaplan the last ‘editor-as-hero’? Is that a journalism role model anymore?

I’m my own example. I was pretty decently paid as a student in college media. If I hadn’t been, I could never have afforded to be involved. I am endlessly grateful that I had an amazing group of college media professionals who valued paying for student work. If I hadn’t been involved in student media, I’d probably never have done anything journalistic. I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens that way on many other campuses.

In the end, the model for what makes a successful journalist is changing pretty radically. Columnists aren’t really heroes anymore. No one can point to an op-ed page they respect. Students want to, like Rabaino, run their own journalism start-up. They want to blog so well they get hired by The New York Times, like Brian Stelter. They want to build something so useful it ends up on their favorite websites.

Oh, and they want to graduate without insomnia-inducing levels of debt.

Is college media the place for those people? On most campuses, the answer is no.

It can be, but that would mean college media becoming less of an outlet and more a loosely-attached confederation of students passionate about journalism, whatever form it takes.

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