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The Campus Beat #2

Reflections on student media

As thoughts and prayers flow toward the Virginia Tech family, I wonder about the future of campus life.

In the aftermath of April 16’s massacre, threats have been sent to terrorize campuses and cause severe disruptions to many schools. The most publicized occurred in Yuba City, California. The website reports that according to Sutter County Sheriff Jim Denney, “a 28-year-old man told a pastor Wednesday night (April 18) that ‘he had some sort of explosive device and he was going to make the incident at Virginia Tech look mild by comparison.’” The suspect later surrendered. Nevertheless, many communities are still reeling, and specifically, as colleges react and identify new methods of dealing with such tragedies, their leaders must consider the roles of student media, particularly college newspapers.

College students and employees spend significant portions of their lives on campuses, and for them, the sadness at Virginia Tech strikes deeper chords. They are acutely aware of the unsettling problems and profound potential campuses harbor. They see students’ struggles and strengths daily. They suffer the consequences and celebrate the rewards from the openness college campuses offer. The ideas, dialogue, and inspiration I frequently find on campus fuel my thoughts, words, and gestures. Colleges’ dynamic activity – the plays, concerts, lectures, sporting events, fundraisers, publications, etc. – reflect a vibrant hub in any urban or suburban landscape. And there are the courses themselves, the students who enliven them, and the professors who guide them. So many complex wonders thrive on campuses it’s strange why more people don’t flock to them. Campuses offer employment, inspiration, rehabilitation, friendship, belonging, technology, camaraderie, and other vital resources. No murderer will ever tarnish all that is good about campus life.

And at that hub’s heart are college newspapers. Thinning mainstream newspaper staffs can’t always assign reporters to regularly cover campus beats; when stories emerge, assignments are received. But college newspapers and their student journalists can. As they learn the trade, they comb through these dynamic beats as the voice, spirit, and mirror of their campus, and more community leaders should be looking into that mirror. If, as Tip O’Neill astutely said, “All politics is local,” what better place exists than a college campus to learn about the cauldron of ideas nourishing and shaping a community? Young reporters on the ground floor report events before they mushroom into controversies that sometimes garner regional or national attention. The pressure on these young journalists is significant. College reporters are often the first on the scene, and through their prisms, the larger community, including the extended media community, obtains its scoops.

Produced by students, college newspapers represent the next generation of journalists, and this next generation never looked stronger. Student journalists work long hours tackling complex assignments for minimal, if any, compensation. They complete these assignments for fundamental reasons: a passion for journalism, a pursuit of the truth, and an intimate lesson from the most invaluable of all teachers: experience. They do so without a fountain of knowledge or experience, but instead, with a fledgling and maturing instinct and energy that is often more important. As conflicted as contemporary journalism is today, one beacon shines on its horizon: many of today’s student journalists will be leading tomorrow’s newsrooms. The future of journalism couldn’t be more promising.

Virginia Tech’s Collegiate Times is an excellent example why. Joe Strupp from Editor & Publisherhas written an excellent article detailing how effective this particular college newspaper has been in reporting this unprecedented tragedy. Virginia Tech’s student journalists have led the coverage of this event: many major news organizations, including CNN, The New York Times, and the Associated Press, have all attributed Collegiate Times as their source. More notably, it was the electronic delivery of Collegiate Times’s news, mainly its Website and blog offerings, that provided timely and accurate information to America and the world.

Campus beats are a potent source of community news, one that is often undervalued by major news outlets. To cultivate that beat, colleges should provide more assurances and resources to students leading their campus’s newspapers, and mainstream news organizations should assign more reporters to cover campus news. Working together, as was evident at Virginia Tech in the hours following the massacre, students can get the story right.

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