Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Is The Calumet Going Up In Smoke?

A detail of a recent edition of The Calumet, from a PDF posted by The Muscatine Journal.

The Calumet is the student newspaper at Muscatine Community College, and 12 of its student staff members recently filed a federal lawsuit against MCC and the Eastern Iowa Community College District, alleging a pattern of harassment against student journalists that violates the First Amendment.

I will not pretend to be a disinterested observer of The Calumet-MCC court dispute. My heart is firmly with The Calumet. For one thing, my journalism career began as a writer for The Calumet in 1978—I’m also a proud former member of the paper’s editorial staff and graduated with AA and AS degrees from MCC in 1980.

The dispute between The Calumet and MCC is complex. It involves a photograph of Dr. Richard Boyer, a professor and interim dean there—a mug shot that was published without his permission. The dispute goes beyond the photo. Read stories about it here and here. The lawsuit involves a suddenly removed advisor, the aforementioned photo, a disputed phone call about the photograph and related stories including, of all things, a controversy over “student of the month.” As the saying goes, the most intense and pitched battles in academia are sometimes over the least valuable turf.

Still, it seems to me that MCC officials have treated their own college student newspaper rather badly.

And that’s troubling, on several levels. College papers are taking it on the chin at many institutions. Many colleges and universities are cutting back on publications or moving totally away from print to online news editions. It seems quaint and old-fashioned to publish a “paper” these days when so many students can’t be bothered to read anything on dead trees. Trust me, just ask any professors anywhere how effective or widespread student reading seems these days.

I am an advisor to a university student newspaper myself. Sure, I worry about the trend away from print partly for my own job security. Newspapers are expensive to produce, and as colleges look for ways to trim costs, they’ll naturally be asking if all that ink and wood pulp is worth it to create newsprint products that seem to simply loiter on newsstands and then later fill landfills.

I would say “yes,” for several reasons.

One, although it sounds new age and cutting edge to move student journalism to online platforms, the audiences for such online sources are tiny compared to the readership of print products. I can’t help but think that one attraction of moving to an online news source for college administrators may be that it removes the irritant of the student newspaper and puts student journalism in a “public” forum where almost nobody sees it. Better to have three nerds read that embarrassing story at that dead-end URL than have hundreds of students, alumni and potential donors exposed to that rude “thing” on campus. So to me, one reason to continue the campus newspaper is that it still provides the most authentic and loudest student voice on campus. And if you like online news, the student newspaper also often provides the staff and raw material for the best online student journalism.

Another reason for continuing college newspapers is that a student newspaper captures and preserves key skills, writing and design, in a way that other media don’t. The paper has a value for portfolio-building for future communicators in any professional writing field. Granted, those “clips” are likely to be PDFs, but those PDFs are still “published” works that mean something and demonstrate basic communication skills in a way class projects and ephemeral online content don’t.

And there is also the foundational nature of the skills students learn at a campus newspaper—the ability to interview, to cover an event, to identify newsworthy ideas and effectively pursue them. There is even the leadership of planning and running a journalistic organization. Granted, students can do good writing and journalism on their own blogs, but they are far less likely to, and with less impact and less teamwork, than on a newspaper staff.

I’ve only been a college professor in this post literate century. The handwriting on the wall for the newspaper industry is old news these days. No student should enter a journalism program today thinking he or she is primarily preparing for a newspaper career.

But the web writers, PR writers, technical writers and corporate writers I’m training in my communication classes today all have to apply the same basic journalistic writing skills that a student journalist learns best at one place on campus: the student newspaper.

Kudos and shout-out to Mount Mercy University. It has maintained a generally positive attitude towards “The Times” in a private setting where student journalists have less legal power than they do at a public college like MCC. We have cut back on the number of issues we publish, but nobody has approached me and suggested we stop printing—indeed the feedback I usually get about our student journalism at MMU is positive even when the paper can make many people (me especially) uncomfortable at times.

So even though the newspaper medium itself is in steep decline in the “real world,” in academia, that old medium has a key place as a training ground and student voice. Just as TV and movies did not make live theater on campus passé, neither should the student newspaper lose its way.

Back to The Calumet. It’s sad that things went so badly for that paper in recent times that a federal lawsuit has resulted. Surely, along the road to the courthouse, there would have been better ways for the parties involved to handle the situation. Knowing student journalists as I do, I doubt all of the fault should be laid at the feet of Boyer or MCC or EICCD administrators.

Still, changing advisors, cutting funds, investigating the advisor, etc.? There seems an unwholesome pattern of pushing The Calumet around in awkward and heavy-handed ways. Instead of valuing a longstanding student paper that has trained generations of writers, the powers that be at MCC seems to have chosen a lower, more short-sighted road.

Maybe frustration with students drove them to it. But students at a community college come and go quickly, and The Calumet has been a vibrant student voice at MCC since the 1950s. If it’s lost, MCC is a poorer place.

And even if blame could be assigned to both sides of this dispute—let’s recall that students comprise one side while educated adults with advanced degrees comprise the other. The more experienced and educated of those sides should be more mature, have a deeper understanding of the place of student journalism and foster, rather than foil, The Calumet. You don’t handle a “teachable moment” very well by burning the newspaper to the ground.

Named after a Native American peace pipe, The Calumet is doing anything but bringing peace. Then again, the place of any journalist in a healthy, democratic culture is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I wish that MCC would remember and respect that.

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