Home » News analysis » Student Press Freedom Day: Supporting young  journalists is a smart investment

By Ken Paulson, published on February 22, 2024

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A new study finds that a majority of student news media on college campuses rely on support from their respective universities and are “not truly independent of university control.”

It’s a valid observation in a new report from the University of Florida’s Brechner Freedom of Information Project. The report calls for campus news organizations receiving funding from a university administration to reveal that publicly. Indeed, transparency is a good thing.

Despite that concern about potential conflicts of interest, there  is actually a silver lining to the funding of student media by their home universities. At a time when a sound business model is eluding most newspapers in this country, campus news organizations have long had a buffer protecting them from the most dire economic challenges. In fact, there’s been a decades-long tradition of universities funding campus newspapers to help train young journalists and to keep students informed.

Today marks Student Press Freedom Day, a day of advocacy for the First Amendment rights of student journalists. That’s important. We’ve seen a wave of suppression, censorship and book-banning across America in recent years and we need to ensure the First Amendment rights of student journalists, particularly in  America’s public high schools. Those young journalists have less protection from high school administrators inclined to censorship because of a misguided U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, a ruling that permits suppression of content in the name of “education.”

That censorship pressure is not so pronounced on college campuses, though. Instead, the greatest threat to student press freedom is economic.

The new Brechner study provides an important public service by identifying 512 student media outlets across the country, giving us a census that we have not had for many years. It’s gratifying that there are still hundreds of campuses where student journalism still plays a role.

Without financial support from university administrations, college student journalism would be in a very dark place, largely for the same reasons that professional journalism is struggling.

There’s a younger generation with different tastes in  news and virtually no interest in print.  Beyond that, though, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of interest in campus news at most universities. On many – though not all –  campuses, print editions go largely untouched and unread. Young  news consumers want their information fast and entertaining, something that student papers  websites are hard pressed to match.

If there are fewer readers at the college or professional levels, there are fewer advertisers, which in turns means leaner budgets and a decline in newsgathering. At the college level, a decline in the status of campus papers also means a sharp decline in the number of young people signing up to join a news staff.

Add all of that together and university administrators are increasingly tempted to slash student newsroom budgets. For the sake of society, we can only hope they won’t. We’ve already lost too many college news outlets for exactly the reasons outlined here.

Yes, college administrations need to maintain an arm’s length distance and protect press freedom even as they write checks to support those outlets. Support for student newspapers and websites, whether by universities, advertisers or generous alumni, is an investment in democracy.

I can testify firsthand to the value of learning journalistic responsibilities in a college newsroom, which I did at both the University of Missouri and University of Illinois. Student journalists are paid little, if anything, hone their skills in public and on deadline, and are answerable to a campus full of their peers. Many of the best journalists in this country have had exactly that foundation.

It’s also healthy for a university to have fresh eyes on campus, with young reporters asking questions and publishing what they find. Universities can’t address issues they can’t see.

In addition to turning out graduates with marketable skills and a well-rounded education, universities are also responsible for developing engaged, responsible citizens. If students are oblivious to campus developments because there are no news outlets covering it, they’re well on the path to disengaging from substantive news about their communities and the world beyond.

In 2024, staying informed is an acquired skill.

Ken Paulson is the director of the Free Speech Center and a professor at Middle Tennessee State University.


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