The Art of the Scoop: Reflections on Student Journalism

Homepage of "The Student Life" website

Given that I am at a time in my life when almost any moment could be productively spent chipping away at a tall stack of obligatory and enlightening readings, and more often than not I am sitting in a library while a staggering number of nationally- and internationally-acclaimed publications wait at my fingertips, a mere keystroke away, I was surprised to find myself spending hours reading articles with headlines like “The Great Meal Swipe Debate of 2017” from the student newspapers of colleges I do not attend.

Before the beginning of this year, I admit I was not a particularly regular reader of “The Phoenix”. I took note when the opinions section would get heated, and I was fortunate to have arrived at Swarthmore in the last year in which it was still possible to wander into a dorm room lounge and hear a stranger reading aloud, with mingled admiration and amusement, the latest intricate, verging-on-the-incomprehensible, Flaubert-and-George-Lucas-reference-riddled arts section review by Erik Myers ’15. However, I found it difficult to cultivate an interest in staying abreast of campus news when the news outside Swarthmore seemed so much bigger and more pressing.

Yet after recently signing on as a Campus Journal writer, I developed an appreciation for the work at “The Phoenix” that is carried out each week and for the craft of student journalism in general, from making connections in order to stay informed on administrative politics, to engagingly framing events that may have audience attendance in the single digits, to the basic gumption of approaching strangers for their opinions and finding the exact questions that will draw them out.

I became interested in how other publications tackled these issues and started reading around, focusing mostly on the newspapers of other small liberal arts colleges. I wanted to see how they managed to keep small-pond news feeling fresh and got strangely sucked in. Each paper had a distinct editorial voice and its own set of well-worn inside jokes, conveying a sense of the cozy insularity and sometimes comically self-perpetuating culture that gives ea small school its particular stereotype.

(By way of example, one need look no farther than the opening of our own Erik Myers’  2014 review of a performance by the Yellow Stockings theater group to get the flavor of a paradigmatic Swarthmorean: “If you look deeply enough into the rabbit hole, the stained glass windows, the use-value of Essie Mae’s, the dubious exchange-value of its meal credits, across the picturesque courtyard at the weary door of the Intercultural Center, up at the exaggerated Gothicity of its bell-tower, and finally down into the bright fluorescent-lit basement, at the Kitsch, the condoms and the candy that go for sale next to monolithic stacks of often unbearably dense and inapplicable textbooks, Swarthmore’s Clothier Hall and Shakespeare resemble something like a Church and its Pope, or a couple-centuries-old theology, a religious institution in any event suddenly reinvigorated by the always threatening, dramatic, sometimes even godless gestures of its students. Heidegger says that places teach us more about phenomena than people do.”)

However, the consistent coverage across publications of racial discrimination, sexual assault, and insufficient mental health resources, both through investigative reporting and thoughtful op-eds, reveal the ways in which campuses are as fractured as they are insular. Not all campus news is small, even if it’s playing out on a small stage.

Interested to learn more about the daily workings of student papers and the experience of those who run them, I contacted Kenyon’s “The Kenyon Collegian” and “The Student Life”, the joint newspaper of the Claremont Colleges (a five-college consortium consisting of Pomona, Claremont McKenna, Scripps, Harvey Mudd and Pitzer). The editors-in-chief of both publications responded nearly within the hour, testifying to the well-oiled professionalism of their respective journalistic machines, and agreed to speak over the phone.

“The Collegian” caught my eye with its clean format and extensive arts coverage, unsurprising given Kenyon’s reputation for creative writing. When I first encountered the paper, the front page was sporting an interview with Colm Tóibín, author of the “New York Times” bestseller “Brooklyn”. Gabrielle Healy, the editor-in-chief, said that this piece was part of a popular feature called “On the Record” in which the paper interviews speakers who come to campus, which can be more engaging than just publishing a review of the talk.

Though Healy stressed that Kenyon is a small community and Gambier, Ohio a small and isolated town (a village, in fact, with a population of 2,390), she said that the newspaper is rarely short for content, largely because of the staff’s involvement across varying aspects of campus life. One news editor is the president of a sorority and reports on Greek life, another is a member of the cross-country team, and another is – shockingly – a math major.

“Most of us are humanities majors,” Healy admits, “so he’s able to touch an area we don’t always get to.”

Healy uses her connections with professors as an important way to source stories – after signing up for a dance class for the first time, the paper’s coverage of dance events increased because she asked the professor to let her know about anything notable coming up. The editors also have a standing weekly meeting with the president of the college, which allows them to stay abreast of administrative politics, and Healy said that the paper is established enough that sources will often reach out to them when they hear something newsworthy.

“The Collegian” embraces its circumscribed range by keeping its editorial content intentionally focused on Kenyon.

“There’s a symbiotic relationship between the news and opinion sections,” said Healy, meaning that each week the staff will publish editorials on the paper’s most newsworthy items. The paper also publishes op-eds on national news but ensures that they always have relevance to local topics.

“It’s unique to Kenyon that we try to keep editorial content localized,” Healy continued.

This immersion in the local is a function of Healy’s belief that because the community is so small, the importance of “The Collegian” as a resource is particularly great.

“Our job is to inform and engage the Kenyon community, to represent its diversity, to tell stories that aren’t being told. At least in Gambier, we’re the only paper in town,” she said. “I think doing the news is a public service, I really believe that.”

She is particularly proud of publishing stories that might not have otherwise come to the campus’s attention, such as a story that they broke after a receiving a tip-off that a Kenyon alum had been named an executive at the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist think tank. It was summer and they were not publishing a print edition, but were able to get the word out online and generate attention in the alumni community.

Liam Brooks, the editor-in-chief of “The Student Life”, also believes that a primary function of his publication is its ability to provide a platform for conversations about topics that might otherwise fade from attention, often with measurable results. In the fall of 2015, a dean at Claremont McKenna suggested in an email that students of color “didn’t fit the mold” of the college, sparking large-scale protests and two hunger strikes, and resulting in the dean’s resignation. Brooks says that while events transpired so quickly that the paper wasn’t able to publish many op-eds on the subject, their news coverage made it possible for all the campuses in the consortium to be aware of what was happening at Claremont. They also leaked an internal report by administrators at Harvey Mudd about the overwhelming workload, which caused protests that ultimately led to changes in curriculum.

“We were able to give context to things that otherwise might have been dismissed,” said Brooks. “That’s probably the most powerful thing we can do, to say hey, this thing is worthy of conversation.”

“The Student Life” is the oldest student newspaper in Southern California, and is considered a fairly traditional publication among the generally far-left-leaning students of the Claremont colleges. By Brooks’ account, while it is generally respected, it is sometimes critiqued for being “bigger and older and slower” and producing “less radically progressive reporting” than other, less official publications. However, it still has a more alternative feeling than “The Collegian”, publishing headlines like “The Exploitative Politics of Thrifting,” and “Flavorful New Vape Trend Lights up 5Cs,” and it hosts one of the longest consistently-running sex columns of any newspaper in California.

Brooks says that while the paper is “pretty open to radical opinions” and is willing to publish conservative opinions “when we can find them,” generally the most controversy generated by the paper takes place not within the campuses but across right-wing media outlets, which occasionally will republish “Student Life” content as an example of excessive left-wing sensitivity. When I spoke to Brooks, this had happened several days before with an op-ed they had published about access to the outdoors being a form of white privilege.  

Though Brooks says that the paper has no political bent and always presents facts impartially, he believes that student journalism performs a political service.

“I personally have tried to push the way we’ve covered news to be a bit more adversarial than in the past,” he said. “I definitely see the role of the student paper as being inherently political in that we have to actively seek out truths and things that are not being told by administrators.”

He noted that because private colleges are inherently promotional, it is important that student papers serve as a form of independent review.

“A lot of the media that college students consume about their campuses is going to be produced by those campuses,” said Brooks.  “Magazines that get sent home to parents, posters about how great the school is – everything in your eyeline at campus has a vested interest in saying: these campuses are the best places ever, come here. That’s not to say I don’t really like these schools, but it’s pretty rare actually to get a different voice and a different narrative out there.”

Both Healy and Brooks spoke about their time working for student publications as having completely transformed their college experience, and Brooks said that he is constantly aware of his role as editor and is always on the lookout for news.

“I think about the paper every day. I’m always wondering if breaking news is going to happen right now. Whenever my phone buzzes I think, hey, is it something important?”

Perhaps it is this outlook that stuck with me most from these conversations: that to effectively participate in student journalism is to live in a state of deep engagement with all aspects of campus life – to attend events, to form relationships, to pay attention to policy changes, even if they seem mundane. It is a form of active listening and active questioning, a type of civic engagement that is vital to a community and, as these editors can attest, personally enjoyable, inside or outside the newsroom.


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