By Kevin Kuzma, Editor
I won’t name the institution, but I accepted an invitation recently to chair a student publications advisory board for a university located in the greater Kansas City area.
I was flattered, really, that I would be asked to fill such a role based on my work on Career College Central. Some readers might be surprised that I would accept that position given the positions we’ve often taken considering "traditional" colleges, but I accepted it due to my relationship with a faculty member who used to pitch me softballs between classes on some baseball diamonds along the Missouri River. (I doubt very seriously that my affiliation with this magazine was considered.) The swing would have to be powerful, but if you came around on pitch too late, you could foul one off into the water and send the ball downstream, entangled with broken tree branches to the Gulf of Mexico.
We don’t hit much anymore. We offer to meet each other for coffee, and never do. We exchange occasional email with links to stories we’ve written. And, we gather for these publications meetings in the same classrooms and the same desks where I sat as a student more than a decade ago. His students are there with us for these discussions, too — three editors deeply involved in the campus newspaper’s publication. They work jobs and go to school, which has been the crux of what we’ve discussed in several meetings in the last year. The students have a number of time commitments that make it tough enough to put out a print edition every two weeks. Can they handle the added burden of taking the university newspaper online?
This is a small school we’re talking about. The campus population is probably near 300, on the high side. Most students commute. They don’t have a football team or many campus-based activities, so the newspaper as it stands draws some significant attention from students and faculty, yet the curriculum hasn’t pushed the students to move their news to a more modern format.
The students don’t have time to take on any additional work. They worry that the print issue will fail. Their professor – my friend – is worried about the additional responsibility he would face in the world of immediate news. He’s concerned about proofreading articles in real time, which is a legitimate concern given his teaching schedule, and he has a real fear that some major news story that isn’t proofread gets posted online by a student without allowing him to review the piece to make sure it’s “air-tight” – ensuring that all facts are correct. Oh, and the university administration is not pushing for the news to be posted online. The administrators are quite happy with keeping the newspaper’s publication limited to the campus. I would guess they fear that someday an article might be published that criticizes their work fairly. In those cases, it would be best to keep the news as close to the vest as possible – among the student body who already realizes their shortcomings.
So it seems to me the answer is clear: don’t publish an online newspaper. And yet, we meet. We meet for more than two hours. We sit in a classroom on the second floor of the journalism building with our desks turned into a circle so we can see each other better, and we talk about what to do. Should the newspaper staff post a PDF file of the printed edition to the university website so alumni can read it or would too many outsiders have access? The school’s administration is afraid that the news about what’s happening on the small campus could somehow reach the outside world and cause some serious scrutiny from the townspeople or larger media outlets. We also debate whether or not an online edition be posted to intranet site that only students can access (or would excluding alumni readership defeat the whole purpose)?
But before we can get to the debate, we discuss the arrangement of the committee. What are the committee’s responsibilities? Who does it report to? By changing a word here or there in the bylaws, is it clear as to whom the committee should report to, how often and under what circumstances?
I sit and listen to the discussion. I am honored to be there. I am. I can also see, though, why traditional colleges and universities are struggling to be competitive with for-profit schools. They are bogged down in their own processes. They take too much time to arrange themselves, to get to the heart of the matter, and even then the solutions are fit to meet the best interests of the institution and its educators, not necessarily the students.
This is as open-and-shut as it gets. I would argue that the principles of newspaper reporting are as applicable and important in the realm of online journalism – perhaps even more so. But we sit and talk, me and these intelligent people … tenured professors who enjoy teaching young minds, who are authoring their own important books and research projects … administrators who want nothing but the best for the students who pass through the academic halls outside their open-door offices … and people like me, who know how many swings I could take in two hours out on a softball field and how many solutions could be come to in the idle chatter between pitches.